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This story is part of a Hechinger reporting series about how “last chance” high schools are pioneering some of the latest trends in high school reform.
NEW YORK — In July, Sheryl Javier stood before a room full of her peers and the entire staff of Bronx Arena High School to present her senior project. “School is so important,” she wrote in a short story she circulated, “and giving up leaves you in a place where you’re stuck forever.”
Javier must feel its importance keenly. She is 21, and spent eight years earning her diploma.
“Every kid who graduates here would not have graduated otherwise,” said co-principal and founder Ty Cesene.
He means that literally: The students at Bronx Arena are here because they dropped out of their regular high schools, and would otherwise be among the 6.5 percent of students — roughly 2.5 million — between the ages of 16 and 24 who have left school without receiving a diploma or its equivalent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It’s a decision, studies show, that carries long-term negative consequences, such as a high likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system and a lifetime of lower earnings.
While other schools adopt different strategies to keep students in class, Bronx Arena, in the Bronx borough of New York City, is betting on close relationships and a personalized academic program to get the job done. This model demands more resources than those available to a traditional high school, but given that the typical high school dropout costs the state an estimated $300,000 over their lifetime, Cesene argues that the math is elementary.
In the 1990s, Cesene was a teacher in Los Angeles, California, teaching students English. “But pretty soon,” he said, “my specialty became the four kids in the back who were defiant, maybe in gangs. I gravitated toward them.” He realized that some students don’t succeed on the conventional academic path, and ran a school for dropouts on Arena Boulevard. He reused the name when he started Bronx Arena in 2011.
Located in the low-income Soundview section of the borough — where drop-out rates hover at around 20 percent — Bronx Arena enrolls roughly 200 students between the ages of 16 and 21 (the legal age of majority at which states withdraw financial support) who have failed out of their regular high schools, or left for other reasons.
Students are admitted if the administration deems that they can complete the 44 credits and pass the five Regents exams that are the minimum requirements to get a high school diploma in New York State before aging out the system. Since credits are accumulated at a rate of 10 to 14 per year, it’s unlikely that a 20-year-old starting out with 20 credits will be able to make it in the one year he or she has left.
Bronx Arena is one of 48 transfer schools in New York City (there are about 10,000 nationally), and one of just three that partner with a social services agency known as “SCO Family of Services.” SCO provides for the emotional, social and even material well-being of the students, including purchasing clothes for students, helping them navigate the criminal justice system and getting involved in family disputes.
The overwhelming majority of students here come from low-income families. Some have been in foster care or the criminal justice system; others have dealt with drug addiction, or are the heads of their households, taking on adult responsibilities at a young age.
The state Department of Education (DOE) and SCO provide Bronx Arena’s funding. According to the latest figures, New York State spends in excess of $20,000 per pupil, which includes administration costs. The school also receives supplementary funds thanks to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which aids schools with large low-income populations and overage, under-credited students. The SCO covers the costs of counselors and other social services, according to Anne Zincke, the SCO program director at the school.
“Nobody wants to drop out,” Cesene said. “But students may not have the skills, tools or proper supports to keep going.” When they arrive at Bronx Arena, many need help before being able to re-engage with learning. This is where the social services help. “I’m not sure there’s much of a difference between education and the emotional process,” said Zincke, who is a licensed psychoanalyst and social worker. So the school’s first step often is to “stabilize the students,” she added. “Very quickly, the counselor becomes a serious confidante.”
Javier’s counselor is Bianca Massi, who works with 25 to 27 students at any one time. She meets with the students on a weekly basis, but is in touch with them every day: “Every morning when I get to school at 7:45 a.m., I call or text each one to make sure they’re getting to school. If they’re not there by the morning, I’ll check in again in the afternoon. If they don’t show, we call the parents. If truancy is protracted, we make house calls.”
Attendance was a burning issue for Javier, who arrived in November 2012 after failing out of Kappa International High school in another part of the Bronx. Even as she stood presenting her senior project, she said, she remembered how hard it was on some days to show up for school at Kappa. “There was drama,” Javier recalled. She had a fight with her boyfriend, and she began to skip classes because, she said, “the teacher was really boring.”
“Part of it is my fault, too,” she admitted. “I always have something to say.” But she puts some of the blame on the administrators there who “would tell me one thing and my mother another.”
Once she got to Bronx Arena, things got better. “I was going to school and studying,” said Javier, but then she fell into her old habits and started cutting school. Massi, who picked up Javier’s case in 2014, said she helped her deal with tough problems at home. Javier lives with her mother, younger brother and stepfather, with whom she fought. She didn’t like it when he asked her to do chores; hours later, they remained undone. “I know I put my mother in a bind,” Javier said. She didn’t feel motivated at school, cutting class to meet with her boyfriend, usually to smoke pot.
Numerous meetings with the family about Javier’s protracted truancy did not help, said Massi, so she asked her to see a therapist, accompanied her on the first visit and helped her fill out the insurance paperwork.
“I was feeling inadequate,” Javier said. “My mother had me at 16 and she still finished high school. I kept abusing my brain, saying, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do it?’ ” Javier saw the therapist twice weekly for three months, which helped her confront her depression and find coping strategies.
It also helped her see that even though she was still in high school, it “didn’t mean that I am still a child. I’m an adult.”
After the therapy — which inspired the creative writing senior project — Javier felt she could tackle the last of the credits she needed for graduation.
A similar personalized approach is adopted in the school’s academics. Doing away with the traditional classroom setting, students work online during their classes, either in groups or independently. Cesene said that because students enter Bronx Arena at different points in their academic careers, it is impossible to get all 200 on the same schedule. To deal with this “asynchronicity,” the school created a digital platform to host all the classes.
At first they used content that was developed elsewhere, but Cesene said he soon realized that “the same curriculum might not work for a kid in Nebraska as a kid in the Bronx.”
Cesene collaborated with Eskolta, an educational nonprofit that helps schools create curricula tailored to their students. This involved making sure the material was suitable for the Regents examinations and at the right academic level. Michael Rothman, director of Eskolta, said that it was “unusual for a principal to design a whole platform for the school.”
Cesene and Bronx Arena teachers created a digital platform with more than 20 classes. It’s a one-stop shop — students watch videos or read online content, do homework, submit assignments and receive feedback all on the same site.
One English class is based on the award-winning television show “The Wire,” a police drama set in inner-city Baltimore that has been much lauded for its complex depiction of morality and character. According to Cesene, the students respond to this class because they identify with the characters and situations. In addition to assessing the show’s characters and literary arc, they must “get beyond the good guy/bad guy paradigm and understand that things are not so cut and dried.” Even though they may have poor reading skills, he added, students’ “higher-order thinking” allows them to take a difficult idea, analyze it and organize their thoughts into an essay.
Meanwhile, the personalized instruction comes through in other ways, too. As students work on their laptops in the common area, teachers come around to work one-on-one with them. Counselors check in with the students, and other teachers stop by to provide specialized help.
The check-in part of the teaching is made infinitely easier at Bronx Arena thanks to a digital tool called the “tracker” that shows a student’s entire history — their current classes, number of credits and how many assignments or tasks they’ve completed — at a glance. Students are responsible for completing a minimum of five tasks a day, and the tracker shows if a student is on track or falling behind. If it is the latter, teachers contact the student’s parents (although Massi is clear that counselors check in with parents regularly to report good news too).
Cesene jokes that the tracker was developed so that students “can’t hide.” If they hand in a poor-quality assignment, the teacher sends it back for revision — and the tracker catches that, too. Cesene hopes the platform helps instill in students a sense of ownership for their work. That’s obvious among those who are racing against the clock to finish their credits before turning 22. Another student at the school, Justin Vasquez, is 21, like Javier; as of July, he was five credits short of graduating. Thanks to the digital tracker interface, he knew it, as did his teacher, Andrew Wiza.
Vasquez, however, said he felt squeezed between school and work. He lives a lengthy bus ride away from the school, in the Grand Concourse neighborhood, with his mother and sister. “My mother expects me to be my own person,” Vasquez said. That includes contributing to household expenses such as rent and food.
Vasquez does his best to chip in, he said. He has worked at an Applebee’s and in construction with an uncle who’s a contractor. He said that leaves him less time available for studies. On a recent July afternoon in school, Wiza reminded Vasquez that getting his senior portfolio done would earn him two credits, but the senior had to leave for a job interview. Wiza, seemingly unruffled, suggested they try again the next week. Vasquez agreed. He is committed to finishing school because, he said, “kids from my neighborhood are in gangs, and I don’t sanction that.”
Many school officials make themselves available to students long after they’ve graduated. Two college counselors on staff talk to the students about the importance of going to college. One of them, Lauren Wittman, meets regularly with students, accompanying them to Bronx Community College to sign up for classes and fill out their financial aid forms. “I have a student who graduated two years ago and recently I got an email from her with the single line, ‘I am ready,’ ” said Wittman, “so we made a date for her to come and talk college.” (Both Wittman and Massi have since left Bronx Arena.)
The school also tries to give students a taste of different professions by arranging internships. A recent graduate, Olivia Lopez, 20, who is starting her second year at Bronx Community College this fall, said her interest in pursuing a career in the field of medicine was fired up after the school helped get her an internship at a local kennel.
According to the Department of Education, for the purposes of school and principal evaluations, a student is counted as a high school graduate only if he or she completes high school within six years of starting. Under that parameter, Bronx Arena students graduate at a 37 percent rate. However, Cesene disputes this standard because his school might not even get a transfer student until they’ve already been “in” high school for five years, making it hard to make the six-year cutoff. Besides, Cesene finds being a long-term resource for students most gratifying, though it goes against the kind of scorecard accountability that’s popular today.
Cesene said he also found that if the school doesn’t rush students to graduation, and is able to hold on to them longer, they have a better chance of staying in college once they get there. In a recent report the school submitted to a funder, the Robin Hood Foundation, Cesene said that 80 percent of the students who graduated in 2014 were now going on to their second year of college.
Numbers like that have elicited notice from educators in other states, who have come to observe Bronx Arena and see how they can adapt its approach for their districts. One such system is in Philadelphia, where the drop-out rate has been rising. And Cesene hopes that Arena’s combination of close relationships and personalized learning can be useful to other schools having difficulty retaining students.
For students like Justin Vasquez and Sheryl Javier, the utility of graduating is obvious. Being out in the world without a degree is tough, Javier said: “There’s no job that will pay me $9 an hour if I don’t have a high school diploma.”