Student-Adult Ratio Is Crucial to Getting H.S. Kids Caught Up

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Student-Adult Ratio Is Crucial to Getting H.S. Kids Caught Up

By Lisa Cowan, Programming Consultant to the Education Working Group, Philanthropy New York

Even as graduation rates have risen over the last few years, both locally and nationally, more than a quarter of NYC students do not leave high school with a diploma, even after 6 years. That troubling number is worse for students who are Black, Latino, economically disadvantaged, disabled, or English Language Learners.

This month, Philanthropy New York’s Education Working Group hosted “Catching Up: What High Schools Are Doing to Move Kids from Elementary Knowledge to College Ready,” an important conversation about how our schools and CBOs are supporting students who enter high school with low academic skills in basic reading, writing, and math. The panel was moderated by Shawn Morehead, of the New York Community Trust, and introduced by Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children.  Three practitioners formed the panel, bringing funders into the classrooms and hallways of some of the schools that are successfully supporting these students.

Dierdre DeAngelis, the Principal of New Dorp Academy on Staten Island, described the turnaround process her large school has gone through over the years. Their creation of smaller, themed learning communities within the building, and adoption of specialized curriculum to teach basic skills has changed the culture of the school and helped students to succeed.   Dierdre helped the audience understand the need for attention to detail and structured lesson plans that move students, as well as modeling the dynamic leadership it takes to bring about that kind of transformation.

Seth Schoenfeld, the CEO of ROADS Charter Schools, described his charter school network’s approach to serving their students, many of who have been involved with the criminal justice system and the foster care system.  Both Seth and the third panelist, Dan Diaz, Associate Director of East Side House, which runs both transfer schools and HSE (High School Equivalency) programs, stressed the absolute importance of students having a relationship with a primary person – an adult in the school who can advocate for them, work with their family, and connect them to a range of supports—both academic and social.

Unfortunately, the kind of adult-student ratio that is critical to helping underprepared students achieve is almost impossible to fund on a DOE budget, and both ROADS and East Side House bring in extra funding to make it possible.

The conversation ranged from the classroom level – descriptions of how schools teach basic skills to older students – to the school level – what kind of professional development opportunities support them – to the system level - how do we attract and retain great teachers and principals, and how do we scaffold the optimal adult-student ratio that makes these small learning communities work. There are opportunities for Philanthropy to support the work each of these levels.

The panelists all stressed that both flexibility and high standards are needed, if we are to help this vital group of New York’s young people to catch up – and that it is critical to a thriving and equitable city to do so. These schools are demonstrating that kids starting high school with deep deficiencies in skills and knowledge can catch up, but having the right strategies and resources in place is a big challenge. 

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