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BPS initiative aimed at boosting graduation rates

District considers changes to assignment system, funding

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
BPS initiative aimed at boosting graduation rates
BPS officials are considering changing the system’s enrollment and funding procedures to allocate resources more equitably to students who are not likely to complete high school in four years. Banner Photo

The Boston Public Schools has boosted its students’ four-year graduation rate from 58 percent in 2007 to 73 percent in 2017, but the number of students in the system deemed “off-track to graduate” has only dropped from 20 percent to 18 percent in the same time period.

Those students, most of whom are lacking sufficient credits at their grade level, are the focus of a new report commissioned by the district that proposes fundamentally altering the system by which students are assigned to high schools and the way schools are funded.

The report, titled “Excellence and Equity for All: Unlocking Opportunities for Off-track Youth in Boston Public Schools,” was due to be released to the public Wednesday.

In a briefing with reporters Monday, School Superintendent Tommy Chang and Deputy Superintendent of Strategy Donna Muncey outlined proposed changes, including eliminating the practice of administratively assigning students who don’t choose high schools, adjusting funding formulas to channel more funds to struggling students, realigning existing alternative education schools to fit particular student populations, and assigning teachers and school staff to serve as individual mentors guiding off-track students toward graduation.

Off-track

Of the 18 percent of BPS students who not on track to graduate in four years, 48 percent are in special education programs and are English language learners and only 36 percent will graduate within six years. More than 40 percent showed signs they would struggle to graduate when they were still in middle school, such as suspensions, a high absence rate and core course failures. But more than 30 percent did not show such signs while in middle schools. Twenty percent did not attend BPS schools prior to enrolling in high school.

Most off-track students are administratively assigned to open-enrollment schools — schools that do not require entrance exams, applications with essays or other admissions criteria used by pilot schools. Those open-enrollment schools are the focus of the report’s most ambitious recommendations.

Assignment policy

Chang said the overarching goal of changes to the district’s assignment policies would be to increase the number of students in high-performing schools.

He acknowledged that eliminating administrative assignments could harm under-selected schools. Those schools would stand to lose some funding, which the district allocates on a per-pupil basis. Schools such as the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, which has one of the lowest shares of students selecting it as a first choice and one of the highest shares of students assigned there because they did not choose another school, could lose the majority of its students under such a scenario.

Chang wouldn’t say whether such a scenario would see schools such as the Burke shutting their doors for good.

“That’s a broader conversation that we need to have with the community, with the school committee about what we do when schools are under-chosen,” he said. “That’s a policy decision which requires further conversation.”

Muncey noted that school closures aren’t always inevitable.

“In  a full-choice system it may take a while for that to happen, or it could happen quite rapidly, but what you do see is there are some places where students and families are not choosing to go to school, and … that’s enough to prompt reflection on the part of faculty and the leaders at that school to think and to change course,” she said. “So it doesn’t always lead to closures, but it can.”

Muncey and Chang said BPS may consider adding more weight to students who have higher needs in the student-weighted funding formula during the next budget cycle.

“I think what the report surfaces is the need to be more nuanced in the way we fund schools,” Chang said. “For example, if you are a child that has not performed well on English Language Arts, that has lower attendance and have been suspended more than once – you have those three early warning indicators — there may need to be resources and supports the second you come into high school to make sure you stay on track.”

Alternative education

Muncey said some alternative education schools would be specialized to serve students at specific age groups and levels of advancement, “moving from that mixed model that most of our schools have right now where they’re trying to serve all different types of students to basically specializing and beginning to be adept at serving the needs of a small, more well-defined group of students.”

For example, students who are “young and near” may be only lacking several course credits they would need to be on-track to graduate in four years. Students who are “old and far” would be older, yet lacking a larger number of course credits needed to graduate.

She said Greater Egleston, the Jamaica Plain school that saw BPS officials fire its headmaster and re-assign more than half its teachers earlier this year, will serve younger students who lack a larger number of credits.

“They’ll begin to specialize increasingly in serving students who are ‘young and far,’ essentially coming in off track from 8th grade,” she said.

Muncey said the reorganization of alternative schools is part of a broader rethinking of how schools in the city will work, with an eye toward increasing differentiation in the system.

“We’re in the middle of a reorganization, and one of the goals of this reorganization is to be able to deploy more supports to our students who are more in need, differentiating support more fully — starting at the school level, but then also at the student level. We are in the middle of examining every one of our schools — our elementary, middle and high schools — to see how we might do that.”

‘Primary person’

The report also advises encouraging schools to assign a “primary person” to each student to support them towards graduating. Such a role would be different from that played by schools’ guidance counselors, Muncey said.

“It’s not like an advisory period where they’re going to be asked to teach an additional curriculum. It’s more about building a relationship with a student in your class,” she said.

When asked whether it would place additional burdens on teachers and other school staff, Chang suggested that the work ought to be happening at high-performing schools.

“You could see it as actual work, but primarily it’s about a relationship-building that should be happening anyway,” he said. “When you have a school that has a great culture, every single student can identify at least one adult that they can go to for anything that they need.”

The report

The report was funded by the Barr Foundation. Chang said the report is supporting the district’s efforts to revamp its high schools, a project piloted by Mayor Martin Walsh’s chief of education, Turahn Dorsey, a former employee at Barr.

“This report, I think, underscores some important work we are already doing to reinvent high schools,” Chang said.

The study written up in the report was undertaken by the auditing firm Ernst & Young Parthenon, the same group that authored the 2007 study the district relied on before instituting changes widely credited with reducing the city’s dropout rates.

One of the authors, Chris Librizzi, managing director of Ernst & Young LLP, spoke with reporters about the report, but requested that he not be quoted. The report itself was embargoed until Wednesday, after the Banner’s press time. The Banner, therefore, was not able to interview school committee members, parents or city councilors on the report or its findings for this article.