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Second Chance High

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Harlem Renaissance High School lives by its motto: "Rebuild, Renew, Restore" (Photo by Rachael Horowitz)

By SARAH BUTRYMOWICZ and RACHAEL HOROWITZ

This story is about two schools that combine make up work with Regents test prep, rigorous content with extra classwork, in an attempt to rescue kids who might otherwise dropout, without sacrificing learning.

Does it work? More or less.

Patrick Duhaney earned only four credits after spending three years at the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. By then, the Bedford-Stuyvesant student was 16-years old. That was three years ago, when Duhaney decided to change schools, to get a fresh start. But, he said, the only school that would accept him was Harlem Renaissance High School, a 6-year-old transfer school dedicated to offering city teens a second chance.

Students like Duhaney arrive at Harlem Renaissance older than their peers, but well behind credit-wise, making it critical that they have opportunities to make up work sooner than later. “They give us a lot of chances to do right and get out,” Duhaney said. The result is a school for students who are overage and at risk of dropping out, where teachers try to ensure that credit recovery classes have high academic standards.

According to the school’s principal, Mary Rice Boothe, credit recovery isn’t a shortcut, but a “different opportunity to engage with the content.”

But the jury is still out on how successful this approach has been. The 6-year graduation rate at Renaissance last year was among the lowest in its peer group at only 23 percent.

However it’s calculated, the quest for a diploma, by whatever means, is urgent, if you consider what it means in the marketplace. In 2005, high school dropouts earned an average of $17,299 a year, compared to the $26,933 brought in by those with a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. High school dropouts are also more likely to need government assistance and to become part of the prison system.

At their most basic, credit recovery programs are designed to offer students a second chance at graduation and – for some – to keep them on the path to a higher degree.

At Hostos-Lincoln Academy, which has an 88 percent four-year graduation rate for its 550 students, the focus in all programs—credit recovery and regular studies—is not only on getting a high school diploma but on preparing for college. About two-thirds of the junior class is enrolled in college classes through the Early College Initiative, which offers two years of transferable college credit or an associate’s degree while students are still in high school.

For those who are still struggling with high school work, though, credit recovery and Regents review are lumped into one course held during the summer, during regular school hours, or in afterschool hours.

Nearly every student in Vincent Marano’s third-period Global History class had taken the course before, but either failed the class or failed the Regents exam in the subject. None can graduate without correcting the mistake.  The importance doesn’t necessarily translate into the classroom though; it looks like a normal class, with some students actively engaged, the majority taking dutiful notes, and a handful not touching a pen the entire 45-minute period.

As the class was wrapping up, Marano, the assistant principal at the school, asked the 30 students for examples of how Enlightenment ideas influenced how people viewed religion. One girl launched into an explanation about how a new consciousness of man’s abilities made some people question the existence of God. Some students listened to her explanation and scribbled a few notes. Two rows over, a boy sat with his red backpack on his lap, his hands folded over it.

For a few, knowing this option exists at all gives them an added excuse to slack off. But for most students at Hostos-Lincoln, these classes are taken more seriously than they were the first time around – if for no other reason than the students don’t want to have to keep going over the same material year in and year out.

“At the end of the day it’s not about credits,” he said. “What’s important is, are they learning?”

- Daniel Jackson

“It’s cool that we get more chances,” said junior Miranda Rosa. “But after a while it’s, like, annoying.” She’s studying more this time around so she doesn’t have to repeat the course for a third time and relearn the same curriculum.

At Harlem Renaissance High School, students also value credit recovery, according to Boothe. “They appreciate that opportunity,” Boothe said. “Credit recovery lends itself to different types of learners.”

This year, students could use a computerized independent program in the subject they failed. In order to be eligible for credit recovery, students must have earned between a 55 and a 64 for a particular course – a requirement that ensures the legitimacy of the recovery process. Only students who met the 54-hour seat time requirement for a course are allowed to participate in the program.

Duhaney failed U.S. History in the first trimester, and had to participate in credit recovery if he wanted a chance to earn credit. He wasn’t enthusiastic about it, and he said he didn’t put in the effort or the time. Instead of earning back the credit, he ended up having to retake the class.

“I’d rather have the hands-on teaching,” he said. “It makes you want to get your credit during regular time so you don’t have to do it.” Still, Duhaney found himself back in credit recovery after the second trimester, this time for science. But that time was different. “I was like, I need to get out of school,” he said. “The first time I was being lazy.”

At Hostos-Lincoln, depending on how students do in their original courses, students might attend credit recovery classes every day or may only have to go two or three days a week. The state regulated seat time requirement for credit recovery classes is a little fuzzy, said Hostos-Lincoln guidance counselor Daniel Jackson. The school focuses instead on mastery of the subject – that’s what the faculty could be held accountable for, Jackson said.

Students from the 2010 graduating class at Hostos-Lincoln created a mural in their honor. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

On the days he has full classes, Marano teaches new material. On the days when he works with a smaller group, he reviews and goes over specific enrichment concepts that students are having difficulty with.

Many of the students are enrolled in the class after genuinely struggling with the material for a year prior, said Jackson. In fact, many students enrolled in the class now didn’t realize it was an option if they failed.

Still, the option of a do-over for failure can be enticing to some who know about it. In the third period Global History class, there are a handful of ninth graders who now know that failure isn’t necessarily a dead end. “Some are like, ‘Oh, we can take it again,” junior Kristal Santos said, noting that a few people slack off in the course.

Jackson acknowledged the problem can exist even among those taking the class to recover credit. “There is room for people screwing around in them,” he said.

He’s wary of credit recovery as a model in general, noting he doesn’t always feel comfortable about the power the practice gives the faculty, allowing them to restore up to two credits for as little as a few weeks’ work.

But while the option and the resources exist, Hostos-Lincoln will continue to take advantage of them. It’s trying to do what’s best for the student, Jackson said. “At the end of the day it’s not about credits,” he said. “What’s important is, are they learning?”

About Rachael:
Rachael is an M.S. student and former public school teacher covering sex ed and mental health for School Stories.
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