Sixty-four freshmen started the Amistad charter high school four years ago. On Wednesday, 25 of them prepared to get high school diplomas and head to college along with five other new classmates.
It was a day of inspiration, celebration—and reflection on what it means to measure the success of a public school.
The event took place at Yale’s Woolsey Hall, where students from the Achievement First network of charter schools gathered for a fourth annual “senior signing day,” where seniors at Achievement First Amistad High School announced their college choices before their families and younger peers. The day came with dramatic stories of overcoming death in the family, gangs and gun violence.
For the fourth year in a row, the high school, which serves 316 kids from Bridgeport and New Haven, announced a “100 percent college acceptance rate.” This year, that means all 30 seniors are headed to college, to schools ranging from Gateway Community College to the Ivy League.
The “100 percent” figure does not give the full picture for the whole group of kids who entered Amistad four years ago. Data show that for nearly one of them who walked across the stage Wednesday, another was “lost” along the way. Students “lost” to Amistad include one senior who withdrew in March to attend adult education.
New Haven Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries applauded Achievement First for the nuanced way it is examining the problem, with careful attention to the reason for each transfer.
Harries said the data highlight a challenge for the charter network: “Given the place that Achievement First operates in the portfolio as a hardcore college prep program that is extremely rigorous, both by academic and personal development standards, what are they doing to react to and think about that level of loss from their class and their cohort?”
The figures reflect a larger debate about how to measure the success of a school, and Amistad’s role in serving a portion of the city’s 20,000 public school kids. The debate has taken place with ferocity in New Haven ever since Achievement First opened its first school, Amistad Academy, in 1999. Achievement First now runs 22 charter schools in the region, including five in New Haven; students are admitted through a public lottery. In the past decade and a half, Achievement First schools have gained national attention for helping low-income minorities succeed at higher rates than traditional public schools. Critics argue that because of the academic rigor, approach to discipline, and highly regimented school culture, Amistad’s model works only for certain kids. Wednesday’s event begged the question: Does Amistad produce college-goers, or screen for them by shedding kids who are not on the college track?
Who Made It
In speeches before hundreds at Yale’s elegant Woolsey Hall, students shed some light on that question in personal narratives. Far from being heirs to the Ivy League, they described confronting many of the same personal and academic challenges that other low-income kids face across the city. The stories came from 30 seniors, five of whom have been in high school for more than four years.
Fabian Talton (at left in photo) said he came close to quitting Amistad his junior year, when his father died. He fell into a slump. “In class, I would barely take the time to read the words on the paper,” he recalled.
“I thought Amistad was too much for me, and I wanted to leave,” he said. “But his death, and my mom’s encouragement, kept me motivated.”
Orane Fraser (at left in photo), 19, described being stabbed at age 14 because he was a member of the Crips gang.
“At times I felt like there was no hope,” he said. He was “ready to quit” during freshman and sophomore years, he later elaborated. After “watching my homeboys die,” he said, “I came to the realization that I had to change my life.”
“I grew up in a place where drugs and gun violence were the norm,” said Markese Wright. “I watched other teens, and some very close friends, friends I call family, victimized by violence.” Markese proudly announced he is headed to Franklin & Marshall College.
What happened to the kids who didn’t walk across the stage Wednesday?
Of the 64 students who entered Amistad High in 2009 as freshmen, plus two who joined the group after freshman year, 25 are graduating this year and heading to college; seven were retained and plan to graduate high school next year; and 34 withdrew from the school along the way, according to Achievement First spokeswoman Amanda Pinto.
Of the 34 kids who withdrew, 11 transferred for reasons Amistad considered “acceptable,” such as moving out of state or to a competitive private school. Another 23 were considered a “loss,” meaning they transferred out for reasons the school deemed unacceptable, such as behavior problems or trouble adjusting to school culture, Pinto said.
Who Didn’t Make It
Why did they leave?
An internal report Amistad released at a board meeting Wednesday gives some insight. The report doesn’t account for all 34 kids, but it gives a sense of why kids across all grades left the school this academic year.
So far this year, 15 of 331 students have transferred out, mostly from the 9th grade, a 3 percent attrition rate, according to the report. Six left for reasons the school deemed “acceptable”; nine left for reasons the school deemed unacceptable, such as transferring to a district public school, which counts towards the school’s internal attrition rate.
Amistad High School [AHS] lost two seniors this year, according to the report.
One student with special needs left the school in December. “Student has been at AHS for 7 years,” the report reads. “She has repeated multiple times. She had an IEP [an individual education plan for special education] and was provided with numerous interventions and accommodations. She is 19,” and is moving out of New Haven.
Another student left on March 20. “Despite school efforts, [student] was still struggling to pass his courses. [He] will transfer to adult education to complete the two remaining credits he needs there,” the report reads.
The first student’s departure was considered “acceptable”; the second was not.
Amistad High keeps detailed records of why they left the school, but not what happened to them after that (whether they ended up graduating or going to college), according to Principal Chris Bostock (at right in photo).
Bostock said some students transferred out along the way because of the school’s academic “rigor.”
“It’s just hard,” he said. “We’re asking them to get up earlier, stay at school later, do more homework,” and meet high standards on their work.
Here is a sample of reasons students in grade 9 to 11 left Amistad High within the past year:
• Moved to Hamden (and therefore lives outside the school’s attendance zone).
• “Mother concerned about bus stop (drop-off) and her not being able to keep an eye on her daughter in an unsafe neighborhood.”
• “Student had significant behavioral struggles in and out of school. AHS facilitated many meetings, interventions and supports. Mother agrees that her daughter was given multiple opportunities but prefers to seek a therapeutic setting through NH courts.”
• “Student has several mental health issues that must be addressed at another location.”
• “Mother wanted to withdraw [student] due to restrictive school culture.”
• Mother wanted to keep daughters in the same high school.
• Mother “unhappy with AF middle-school experience and unwilling to keep her at AHS.” The student transferred to Metropolitan Business Academy, a city magnet school.
• Student “was seeking more AP and early college courses even though he had access to them here. After a visit to Hillhouse [High School], he decided to withdraw” from Amistad High.
• Student “was expelled earlier in the year for distributing alcohol in school. Mother loves AHS, but feels the need to be closer to her daughter” for her daughter’s health.
• Parents “stated that the great amount of homework interfered with their ability to have meaningful family time.”
• “Parent felt that school was not challenging her daughter and was bringing out the negativity in her.”
Principal Bostock said Amistad is closely tracking the school’s attrition rate, with a goal of keeping it under 5 percent per year. “We go to great lengths around that,” he said. He said the school is doing better to meet the needs of kids in special education.
“Ultimately, a school that has high levels of achievement,” but also high levels of attrition, he said, “is not a good school.”
“Unless 100 percent of our kids are walking across the stage the first time through”—in other words, graduating from high school in four years—“we’re not satisfied.”
Rebecca Good, principal at Elm City College Prep Middle School, said one common reason for losing kids is that they don’t want to be held back in school. Her school lost 10 percent of kids last year, in large part for that reason, she said. Families find out that if they withdraw from Elm City, “they’re able to get into their ‘right grade,’” instead of being held back, she said. “We can’t compete with that.”
The same dilemma faces any school that raises expectations for promotion, such as High School in the Community, where a mom recently threatened to withdraw her child if the school didn’t move her daughter from freshman to sophomore year.
It’s hard to compare one small high school to New Haven’s 20,000-student school district, where kids who leave one school of choice get absorbed elsewhere in the system.
The most even comparison between the two systems is the graduation rate.
Amistad High had a 75 percent four-year cohort graduation rate last year. A state report card shows Amistad High with a 58.6 percent four-year cohort graduation rate in 2011, the most recent year available. Achievement First spokeswoman Amanda Pinto said the rate rose to 75 percent last year, which would put it just above the New Haven public schools rate of 71 percent..
New Haven has made strides towards a more honest way of counting of dropouts and graduates than the way it used in the past. Ahead of the state, New Haven began three years ago to revamp its graduation rate to reflect which kids transfer in and out of the school, instead of just looking at the freshman class. Students in adult education are considered dropouts. As part of this process, the district tracks whether departing students are continuing education.
But unlike Amistad, the district does not place a value judgment on the reason for their transfer—i.e., whether New Haven should have hung onto that kid—according to Harries.
He said Amistad’s method of doing so is an “impressive” first step to addressing the problem.
Amistad senior Shehu Muhammad (at left in photo) said he found inspiration to stick with school from his mother. Every time he thought he had a lot of work, he looked at his mother, he said. His mom, Khadijah Muhammad, went back to college at age 40, while working several jobs and caring for four kids. She just earned her associate’s degree from Gateway last week.
Muhammad, president of the parent leadership council at Amistad, said she has put all her four kids through Achievement First schools. At a certain point, she said, her kids protested, “I don’t want to go back! It’s too hard!” But she made them stick with it.
She reasoned that some parents may withdraw their kids from Amistad because their kids protest, and “they don’t want to fight their child.” Other parents have not “bought in” to the Amistad model, she said. Muhammad swears by the model, in part because it resulted in her son heading to college in the fall. Muhammad was one of many beaming parents and relatives at Wednesday’s ceremony.
City cop and community activist Shafiq Abdussabur (pictured, with his daughter, Salwa) cheered on his son, Ismail ...
... who is heading to Central Connecticut State University to study engineering.
Winfred Rembert, the renowned leather carver from Newhallville, showed up to support his grandson, Winfred Rembert III, who will be heading to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.
Winfred is one of four students who will be attending Ivy League schools; others are headed to Brown and Princeton.
Amistad High has hired two full-time “alumni counselors” to work with Amistad alums as they go through college, according to Principal Bostock. The school provides them a book scholarship and in return, retains the right to track their college transcripts. The first graduating class from Amistad High, the Class of 2010, is set to graduate from college next year.
Wednesday’s ceremony won’t mean anything if kids don’t stick with college, he said.
“Our number one goal is that every kid who starts with us finishes with a college degree.”