An update on ‘off-track’ students for councillors, educators, students

A city council hearing at Burke High on October 1 included testimony from three students, right: Mia Warren, Cardia Barnosa and Joshua Ramsey. Madeleine D'Angelo photo

Boston city councillors huddled with students, school officials, and educators on Monday afternoon (Oct. 1) at Dorchester’s Jeremiah E. Burke High School to discuss a new report about so-called “off-track” students in the BPS system. The afternoon hearing by the council’s Education Committee included testimony from three high school students and the interim BPS Superintendent Laura Perille.

The report, commissioned by BPS and the Barr Foundation and prepared by the Parthenon Group, focuses on high school graduation rates and concludes that “BPS high schools have an urgent need for improvement.”

The authors, Kasia Lundy and Chris Labrizzi, were on hand to explain their findings, a follow-up to a 2007 study that addressed similar issues. Since 2007, they reported, the annual dropout rate in the BPS system has fallen from 7.9 percent to 3.9 percent and the annual graduation rate has risen to 72.7 percent. But despite these improvements, certain groups of students have been left behind, the authors noted in estimating that about 3,000 students— out of the 16,000-plus high school students in the system— can be characterized as “off-track” to graduate.

The hearing was chaired by Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George, a Dorchester mother of four and former BPS high school teacher. She reminded attendees that this hearing was about more than responding to a student’s immediate academic needs during their time in the BPS system. It was about the fight to “get students back on track, maintain their track, and excel.”

“We need to pay attention to our kids and realize that it’s more than just improving or providing a re-engagement center; it is also about the basics,” she said. “A school nurse, a school psychologist, guidance counselors, and other specialists who can focus on the needs of our young people so that we can respond to not just their academic needs, but also their emotional, mental, and physical well-being. It is also about how we can improve all of our high schools and support not just our exam schools with resources. It’s about fixing our student assignment plan and creating interventions at an early age.”

City Council President Andrea Campbell and District 7 Councillor Kim Janey also attended the hearing. Campbell noted the importance of holding the hearing within a BPS school instead of City Hall because it allowed more young people to attend. She also emphasized her familiarity with the BPS school system, which she attended throughout her childhood. She talked positively about her experience in the system, but acknowledged how dramatically different the experience could be for students.

“I’m not naïve, and I wasn’t naïve back then that there are folks in the system who have different opportunities, and some are better than others,” she said. “So, the question is—I mean the question continues to be—equity and how do we ensure that every family and student has access to a school that is excellent. … How do we ensure from the school’s perspective that they have the resources and everything they need to be successful in delivering a great education to their families. So, I think we have a lot of work to do and I think this report demonstrates that.”

The issue of off-track students remains disproportionately problematic in “open enrollment schools,” where 37 percent of students fall off track during some point in their high school career. Open enrollment schools have seen sharp declines in enrollment, in some cases down between 30 and 50 percent, and higher concentrations of students with special needs over the past few years—meaning that the families whose children end up in these schools often times did not choose to have them there. Instead, 50 to 80 percent of the school’s seats are filled because of BPS policy decisions.

The report found that these schools often fail to meet the needs of their special education students. As a result, 22 percent of off-track students exhibited no early warning indicator. This failing partly stems from funding that open enrollment schools receive, according to the report, in which the authors conclude that “while differentiated on the basis of Special Education and English Learner status, it does not fully reflect the broader diversity and intensity of need across schools.”

These off-track students often transfer between schools within BPS, generally experiencing poor outcomes with each transfer. There also remains a strong divide in the race and ethnicity of off-track students: 55 percent of off-track students are Latino/a or black, while only 22 percent identified as either white or Asian.

“These things really matter, and they matter because when a student goes into one environment or another, it changes the odds of success for that individual student—just the environment that they’re in,” Labrizzi said.

The councillors posed questions to the authors, asking about early warning indicators that the study might have missed, the diversity of teachers within the system, and the relationship between a student’s moving to different school and falling off-track.

Three high school students—Mia Warren, a senior at Madison Park, Cardia Barnosa a sophomore at Burke High School, and Joshua Ramsey, a sophomore at Burke High—took the floor to talk about their experiences in the system and the programs in place that positively impacted their experience. They highlighted the community created in their respective schools by teachers who care about their emotional well-being and provide them with support and care.

“It changes the reason why you go to school,” Warren said.

Supt. Perille assured the audience that BPS is working toward a formulated plan for action in the high schools. She emphasized the desire to “organize or reorganize our specific student programming for special educations students.”

Manny Allen, the manager of BPS re-engagement, agreed with Perille as he emphasized the need for programs catering to all aspects of the students’ lives. “Yes, it’s about schools,” he said, “but it’s also about what happens outside of school.”