First Person

It takes a village to raise a charter school

My journey to create a school for pregnant and parenting teens began in early 2012 with two questions.

First, was there a need in northwest Aurora for a school tailored to the unique needs of young parents as anecdotal evidence suggested?

Second, could a small alternative charter school for students with complex needs be financially viable?

The first question was easily answered with a resounding yes. The enthusiasm and encouragement I received from people working with teen parents in the community and others in the field propelled me down the path I’ve been on for the past three years. The data backed up what I heard and learned anecdotally. Despite the overall drop in teen birth rates over the past 20 years, the teen birth rate in Denver and Adams Counties was still 50 percent higher than the state and national average. Hundreds of teens in the Aurora community are dropping out of school each year due to parenting obligations.

The second question was more difficult to answer. Having started another charter school, I knew the challenges of the charter financial model for small alternative high schools. We knew from our research that the charter schools that served this population best were small and that they provided a variety of academic and non-academic supports. The resources needed to effectively serve the students and their families exceeds per pupil revenue (PPR) and fundraising would always be a necessity.

While it still felt like a leap of faith, I came to believe that the school could be viable — through partnerships.

New Legacy Charter High School would not be opening this fall were it not for a number of key community partners and supporters.

Finding a suitable facility proved to be perhaps the greatest challenge. After looking at a number of buildings in original Aurora that needed significant work and wringing our hands and hearts trying to figure out how we as a brand new school might finance the needed improvements, we were fortunate to connect with the Urban Land Conservancy (ULC).

ULC is a Colorado non-profit committed to preserving urban land for community benefit. ULC has done a ton of great work in Denver and had been looking for an opportunity to work in Aurora. With any partnership, there must be alignment of mission, purpose, and a value proposition for both parties. We found both with the ULC.

Although building schools is not something ULC had done before (and it typically does construction through development partners instead of directly as it has done with New Legacy), this partnership seemed to be a special circumstance and all the pieces fell together. The school’s building – designed to house a high school and early learning center – is currently under construction at 2091 North Dayton Street in northwest Aurora and is scheduled for completion in early August 2015, just in time for the start of the school year.

Our partnership with ULC will continue for many years as ULC will be the school’s landlord through a long-term lease.

I would never have imagined a small alternative school like ours could open in a new building, but the reality is that we could not otherwise find a suitable space in northwest Aurora that could be retrofitted. The ULC has positioned us to serve our students well and to be a part of the northwest Aurora community – we are beyond grateful for their support. The building is being designed with a community room that will be available for use by community groups in the evenings and on the weekends.

Our work with ULC is one example of a partnership that helped answer Question #2, but there are many other partnerships at play.

During this journey, I have been continually honored by the community of people who share my belief in the potential of teen parents and support the school’s vision by volunteering their time, connecting us with potential students, offering financial support, and sharing their skills on our board, advisory council, and committees. I have found that when there is an identified need and a clearly articulated plan to address that need, people come alongside you to support it.

The highs and lows of the last three years have been many, but what makes this work possible and energizing for me is the students. They first inspired me when I visited a small school in Montrose called Passage Charter School in the early 2000s. And now as I get to know the students who have applied to attend New Legacy and who have been participating in our Youth Leadership Council, I continue to be inspired.

They are resilient, they respond well to feedback and support, and they are motivated to create a great legacy for their child. They remind me that I need to continue digging into my own “grittiness” to overcome challenges. On those days when the journey is difficult and anxiety-ridden (and there are many), I think of our future students – their strength and potential keeps me going.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.