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Alternative high schools often get a bad rap. Test scores, graduation rates and attendance records can make them look like failure factories. 

In New York City, only 54 percent of students graduated from high school within six years at the city’s 50 transfer schools, which is the name the city uses because students who fall behind “transfer” from traditional high schools, where 83 percent of students managed to graduate within six years. (Most finish far sooner.) New York’s transfer schools are frequently featured on the city’s lists of schools that need improvement and are threatened with closure.

But an April 2022 report by Eskolta School Research and Design, a nonprofit consultancy that provides training and services to alternative schools in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., argues that New York’s transfer schools are doing a much better job at educating struggling students than traditional schools. Eskolta analyzed data for New York City students who should have graduated in 2015, but didn’t because they didn’t pass enough classes and earn enough credits. The data showed that 51 percent of these students subsequently succeeded in graduating over the next four years if they attended a transfer school. That’s double the rate at traditional high schools, where only 25 percent of this population of older students without enough credits succeeded in graduating. For younger students who were sophomores at age 17 — two years older than their peers —  the graduation rate at a transfer school was almost three times that of a traditional high school, 56 percent versus 20 percent.

“They are graduating underserved students at much higher rates,” said Ali Holstein, co-author of the Eskolta study on transfer schools. “Twenty percent of transfer schools in New York State were labeled as needing comprehensive support and improvement. They’re looking at test scores and graduation rates. And we don’t think that captures a lot of the growth that we’re seeing.”

The report, How They Thrive: Lessons from New York City Alternative School Alumni, was also written by Anelfi Maria and Alicia Wolcott. One of the authors, Maria, ended up at a transfer school after struggling with dyslexia, family responsibilities and changing high schools three times. She is now a graduate student in biostatistics at New York University. (Eskolta’s report was partly financed by the Gates Foundation, which is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

Normally, I would read a self-serving report by a consulting group and file it away. But I decided to write about this one because so many students have failed classes during the pandemic and may never earn their high school diplomas. I was curious to learn what advocates of alternative schools say we should do to help them.

Even before the pandemic, during the 2018-19 school year, nearly 100,000 New York City high schoolers — almost a third of the city’s 350,000 high school students — had fallen significantly behind in their course credits and were two or more years older than their grade-level peers. But only 13,000 students found their way to the city’s 50 transfer schools. According to Eskolta, most are coping with some combination of poverty, disabilities, mental illness, homelessness, domestic violence, bullying, being a new immigrant and learning English, taking care of siblings or parenting their own children.

Transfer schools are much smaller, intimate schools. Classes tend to be smaller too, about 13 students for each teacher. They also hire more counselors, 2.6 counselors per 100 students, plus additional social workers from community organizations, such as drug rehabilitation clinics. That compares with fewer than one counselor for every 100 students at traditional high schools.

Eskolta conducted in-depth interviews with 19 alumni of transfer schools. Not everyone graduated, but the alumni interviewed all talked about the importance of forming close relationships with teachers who cared. Some said that the counseling they received at a transfer school motivated them to continue to address their mental health needs.

Relationships with teachers endured after graduation. One student who was stuck in remedial math classes in college returned to her high school math teacher for tutoring. During the pandemic, teachers attended funerals of their former students’ relatives. One sent origami kits to students who were taking care of children at home.

Students said they had no support in their former schools when they fell behind. At transfer schools, teachers allowed students to make up missed assignments and catch up.

Teachers tended to be more flexible and lenient, according to students. One recounted how he was able to eat in class, something that was forbidden in his former school. And his transfer school provided substantial meals of chicken and steak, instead of pizza and fries. “When I’m hungry, I can’t focus,” he said. “They let you eat.”

Students described an atmosphere of school police, metal detectors and strict discipline at their former traditional schools. One student recounted getting into trouble for having a cell phone at school. A third of students in transfer schools had been suspended at their previous school, Eskolta found. 

By contrast, students described feeling far safer in their transfer schools and less bullied. Some transfer schools have an informal reputation for being safe places for LGBTQ students. 

For one student who didn’t graduate, a transfer-school internship led to a full-time job at a nonprofit that serves queer Black youth in the Bronx. Another transfer school dropout described becoming a manager at a retail store. Both former students felt proud to be employed and independent, but they would be considered failures in the education data.

Life was not always easy after transfer school. Students said it was difficult to find a good job without a college degree. Only 28 percent of transfer students enrolled in a college within six months compared to 64 percent at a traditional high school.  Many of those who did enroll expressed frustrations in college because they were stuck in remedial classes and listening to lectures, something they didn’t like in their traditional high schools.

Because of missing data, Eskolta researchers were unable to prove that attendance rates or course grades were better at transfer schools. Assertions that social-emotional well-being is better at transfer schools are anecdotal and not based on quantitative measures. 

And even Eskolta’s data indicate that one group of overage students – 16-year-old ninth graders – might not be served well at transfer schools. Their four-year graduation rates were higher at traditional high schools. However, once these older ninth graders spent six years in high school, the transfer school students were more likely to graduate. Some ultimately fare better in traditional high schools and some don’t.*

After reading the report, I felt persuaded that these smaller, nurturing transfer schools are clearly superior for many students who aren’t self-motivated or don’t have supportive parents and siblings at home. But they are also enormously expensive to operate. Eskolta was unable to provide an estimate of how much it costs to educate students at these schools because a lot of the funding and personnel flow through external community organizations. I’d like to see a good analysis to learn if these schools are ultimately cost effective in reducing future burdens on social services. 

My big takeaway from this report is that struggling students need caring adults to help them find a path forward when they’re falling behind.  Effective transfer schools could show one way to help create that path.

*Clarification: This paragraph was changed from an earlier version to clarify that short-term and long-term outcomes for older ninth graders diverged. An earlier version highlighted only four-year graduation rates. 

This story about transfer schools was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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