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NYC Schools Labeled as Dropout Factories Fight to Raise Graduation Rates

August 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
As some New York City high schools dubbed "dropout factories" face closure, they are fighting to increase their graduation rate. This report was produced in partnership with People's Production House after-school journalism program and the NewsHour's educational division. It was researched and reported by 10 New York students.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, a student perspective on one effort to improve the quality of New York City high schools.

This report is the product of a unique partnership involving the NewsHour’s educational division and an after-school journalism program run by WNYC Radio in New York.

Ten students from around the city worked on researching and producing this. It is narrated by Siobhan Sen, a freshman at Hunter College in Manhattan.

SIOBHAN SEN, Hunter College: In the United States, 1.3 million students from the class of 2010 didn’t graduate from high school. Nearly 73,000 of these students were from New York City alone.

Fazya Bacchus was dangerously close to becoming one of the 7,000 students that drop out of school every day.

FAZYA BACCHUS, Flushing High School: Before, I was involved with drugs, and going out to parties, and fights, and stuff like that. And now it’s going to school and getting my credits and graduating.

SIOBHAN SEN: Fortunately, she had a friend who helped her get back on track.

FAZYA BACCHUS: My best friend, she just told me: Go to school. We will graduate together. We will go to college together. You know, we just want to do everything together.


SIOBHAN SEN: However, many of Fazya’s classmates fall victim to the numerous difficulties facing Flushing High School, which is located in Queens, N.Y.

FAZYA BACCHUS: They have drug-selling in the school, and there’s gang fights. There’s just a lot of stuff going on.

SIOBHAN SEN: Flushing High has been labeled a “dropout factory” by some educators. The term was coined by Dr. Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University.

He characterizes a “dropout factory” as a school from which fewer than 60 percent of the students graduate in four years. New York City’s Department of Education has closed many such schools and targeted others, like Flushing High, for closure.

Robeson High School in Brooklyn is also on the shutdown list. However, teachers and students at that school think their school’s characterization as a dropout factory is unfair.

LIZABETH COOPER, Paul Robeson High School: In every high school, you always have one or two students that drop out. But, in Robeson, I see a lot of people graduating. And the fact that they may not graduate in four years, but they will graduate in that fifth or sixth year. So, I despise the fact that many people believe that Robeson is a dropout high school.

SIOBHAN SEN: Stefanie Siegel is a longtime teacher at Robeson High.

STEFANIE SIEGEL, Paul Robeson High School: One of the things that we have always been proud of is that, even though we have young people who come with lots of challenges, we’re able to keep them here.

They won’t graduate in four years, for a variety of reasons: learning disabilities, or such challenges in their home life, it’s just hard for them to have a good attendance, so that it ends up taking them longer for those reasons. But they stay.

SIOBHAN SEN: Robeson is not the only school dealing with low graduation rates. The International High School at Prospect Heights, where Rosie Frascella teaches, is experiencing similar issues.

ROSIE FRASCELLA, International High School at Prospect Heights: You know, my school is special because they are all English-language learners.

SIOBHAN SEN: In fact, students who speak English as a second language have a four-year graduation rate of less than 40 percent. Teachers at Prospect also disagree with the label “dropout factory.”

ROSIE FRASCELLA: It’s another cliché name. You know, I know what I do. I know about my job. I know, when I go home, I dream about my kids. I know I think about them. I know I spend at least 10 hours of my day working. I know we are doing whatever we can with the resources we have, and I have full confidence in my school.

SIOBHAN SEN: When it is overwhelmingly young people of color who attend the schools targeted for closure, some believe this is a civil rights issue.

Anurima Bhargava is the section chief of civil rights education in the Justice Department.

ANURIMA BHARGAVA, U.S. Department of justice: It is a civil right issue because it is about fairness. It is about making sure that someone has a chance and that the doors are open to them.

But it’s also about making sure that we are actually preparing students to be able to work and live and survive in the American economy today, which is very different than it used to be.

SIOBHAN SEN: Advocates like Bhargava point to research that suggests that one of the most important factors to graduating is simply keeping the kids engaged and providing them with support.

ANURIMA BHARGAVA: So the question is, how do we actually think about education as — not as a factory and not as a place that — where kids drop out, but as a place where we’re actually figuring out what are their needs and how do we keep them there, all right? And that’s going to be a very different model than what we have today in schools.

ROSIE FRASCELLA: Computers and spending a billion dollars on technology and infrastructure is not going to stop kids from dropping out. Human beings stop kids from dropping out, calling their parents, having that human conversation, that interaction.

SIOBHAN SEN: Fazya couldn’t agree more. She thinks having an adult who listens would help kids in school.

FAZYA BACCHUS: And when I talk to somebody, it helps me. I feel better, and I go to my classes. I do what I have to do.

SIOBHAN SEN: Paul Robeson High School increased its four-year graduation rate from 40.4 percent last year to 50 percent this year. However, the school remains slated for closure.