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A PM school for students stuck in between

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By TAYLOR BROWN

Bronx Aerospace Academy High School has been showcased by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein over the years as an example of a small school that works. High on his list has been the school’s impressive graduation rates, especially compared to the failing high school it replaced — Evander Childs High in the North Bronx.

Opened eight years ago as one of the first of now 200 new small schools created by Klein since he took office in 2002, Aerospace graduated 95 percent of its students in 2008, 94 percent in 2009.

Behind those numbers are a set of strategies aimed at making sure nearly every student graduates in four years. The system includes a PM school for those most behind, a series of six documented interventions required before teachers may fail a student, and flexible make-up schedules so students can pass courses they failed in the past.

Bronx Aerospace Academy High School has one of the highest graduation rates in New York City (Photo: Taylor Brown)

Aerospace is so set on maintaining its high rates, that it also concentrates on moving out students who are clearly not on a four-year graduation path. This year, assistant principal for special education Zulma Rivera says 15 students transferred out–one to District 75, for special education, and the rest to alternative transfer high schools.

“If you get seriously behind, like failing English 1, 2 and 3,” said principal Barbara Kirkweg, “at some point people have to say, you just can’t keep continuing with this cohort, so let’s look at some alternatives.”

Some teachers at Aerospace, who spoke only on the condition that their names would not be used, worried that academic content has taken a backseat to maintaining high graduation rates. They were concerned that the school’s primary concern was not to educate students, but to graduate students.

But the principal argued that those students who come to the school with serious learning issues need the extra boost. “We have strategies we’ve had to develop out of necessity to get the kids to graduate in four years.”

One strategy created by the principal includes PM School, which runs from 1:30 to 7 p.m., designed for students who may not necessarily qualify for special education, but who have learning styles that require more personal attention. Kirkweg said Aerospace, and the PM school in particular, has a large number of students who “have so much baggage in their lives”. At this Williamsbridge area high school, nearly 20 percent of 403 students qualify for English as a second language services; 77 percent live in poverty.

Students qualify for PM school if they have a “systemic problem” with showing up to class, according to Kirkweg. In this way, the night school bridges a gap between severely undercredited students and their next step, which could either be graduation or transferring out. Many transfer schools in the Bronx only enroll students who are at least 16 years old and have about a year’s worth of credit.

This semester, fewer than 10 students have made up credit by shifting their school time to the PM school. Kirkweg hopes to increase that number next year.

The spring semester’s English class in PM school met Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Two seniors were enrolled because of behavioral issues, not to make up credits. They took PM class in place of a regular schedule. A third student, a young woman, made up an English credit and struggled with a writing assignment and backlog of work.

Shirley Jefferson, the teacher, said she was originally supposed to have 12 students, but only four attend regularly. PM classes are usually an hour and half each, and cover English, science, history and math curriculums.

However, most students attend during regular school hours, where teachers and guidance counselors put special emphasis on making sure students come to class. Aerospace, originally sponsored by the Air Force as a full-time junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, tries to capture students before they fail classes, through a series of interventions. Teachers must document at least six interventions in a semester before they may fail a student. Accepted strategies are calling home, visiting home, or in the most severe cases, using something the administration calls “redlining” students–which means refusing to allow the student back in the building until a parent conference takes place.

Students also have ample opportunity to hand in make-up work. Expectations for the work and satisfactory completion depend on the teacher. Most expect students to make up the content areas they missed during regular class time.

Dr. Olga Glenn, a global studies teacher for ELL students, said last marking period she gave six students a packet of 25 short answer and essay questions that covered the sections of her class. The response makes her believe that students will respond to the opportunity, even if they had attendance or work problems during the rest of the semester. “I was very surprised to see that some kids went to the computers, they did internet research,” she said.

In some cases, students’ failing grades are moved to a passing one if they hand in their make up work after the semester is finished.

“The teacher can change the grade because the student’s actually done the project, “ Kirkweg said, citing making up work would be accepted as long as students met the standards of the course.

Although in the last school year more Aerospace students earned the less rigorous local diplomas than Regents diplomas, Kirkweg said she isn’t worried about the end of local diplomas in two years. Instead, she wants to extend what is already happening with PM school.

“Everybody is going to have to step up their game now if they’re going to get a Regents diploma,” said Kirkweg. She suggested creating a program that would increase the number of students in PM school and add another shift of classes, effectively making a staggered school from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Students would take as many classes as necessary to keep the rate of Regents graduation as high as possible. Whether or not this is allowable by the current contract for teachers is unclear, even if they were working only one of the three shifts.

To Aerospace’s administration, teacher flexibility is crucial to getting diplomas in the students’ hands. ”There are some people here, who are willing to have their success tied to the success of the children,” said Kirkweg, referring to the Deparment of Education’s plans to tie student achievement to teacher evaluations.

“You have to move to meet whatever students’ needs are,” she said, “These are the clients you have, so you just can’t say, well this is the box and you don’t fit in it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story switched the names of Dr. Glenn and Ms. Rivera.

About Taylor:
Taylor Kate Brown is a M.S. candidate in Digital Media at Columbia. Last semester, she covered the lovely corner of Brooklyn known as Bay Ridge. She'll be reporting on LGBT students, as well spending time at Manhattan International High School.
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