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Reducing Dropouts: New York City Educator Shares Approach with Massachusetts Educators

JoEllen Lynch

SHREWSBURY, MA: Stories from New York City's dropout prevention and recovery struggle were the focus of the second conference of the Massachusetts Dropout Prevention and Recovery Work Group, a subset of the state's Urban Superintendents' Network. More than 100 people from 16 urban districts and charter schools attended in teams to work on district plans and hear JoEllen Lynch, former CEO of the Partnership Support Organization of the New York City Department of Education, describe the impact of a comprehensive study of dropouts in that city.

The study, underwritten by the Gates Foundation, identified all students who entered New York City high schools in 2000 and followed their progress for the next four years. Some 138,000 students between the ages of 16 and 21 had dropped out of school or were more than two years behind in credits, the study found. It also found that most of the existing network of support—alternative schools and GED and other dropout programs—was inadequate to the needs of students whom Lynch characterized as "over-age and under-credited" and unlikely ever to graduate from high school.

The study led to the design and establishment of small, academically rigorous and personalized "transfer schools" for students who are at least two years behind or had previously dropped out. After only a few years in operation, transfer schools boasted a graduation rate of 56%, compared with a 19% graduation rate for large comprehensive high schools. Dismantling the existing network of alternative schools and dropout programs, the New York City Department of Education has established a set of "pathways" by which students could, in Lynch's words, exercise their "recuperative power." They include increased numbers of transfer schools, many with "Learning to Work" programs, Young Adult Borough Centers which add career and college counseling to the high school curriculum, and blended ("Learning to Work" plus high school curriculum) GED courses. Since the 2002–2003 school year, the city has added 20 new transfer schools, 10 new GED programs, 21 Young Adult Borough Centers, and 47 Learning to Work programs.

Two sets of concurrent panel discussions followed the keynote address. In the first, representatives of districts that were developing or had established dropout prevention and recovery strategies discussed "Early Warning Indicators" and "Multiple Pathways" and explored the "unanticipated consequences" of education policies in "Reducing Risk Factors/ Posing Provocative Questions." Following work sessions for district teams, a second round of concurrent panel discussions addressed "Student Supports," "Multiple Pathways," and "Reducing Risk Factors/ Posing Provocative Questions."

Goals of the meeting were to develop a shared understanding of what a comprehensive dropout and recovery effort looks like; examine the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to sustain effective approaches to dropout prevention and recovery; learn how New York City examined data on dropout programs and revised its approach; and learn how other urban districts in Massachusetts are addressing issues for students at risk of dropping out.

Each member district participating in the Massachusetts Dropout Prevention and Recovery Work Group is developing a District Dropout Prevention and Recovery Action Plan and will continue to share their successes and challenges through cross-district communication and collaboration.

The Work Group's January conference featured Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester and Chicago-based education researcher John Easton and Paige Ponder of Chicago Public Schools. Read an account of the January conference and hear presentations on the archived event page "Massachusetts Dropout Prevention and Recovery Initiative Highlights Key Importance of Ninth Grade."

June 2009