And Still They Rise: Lessons from Students in NYC’s Alternative Transfer High Schools

In this report we present the stories and the statistics of the 842 students in New York City’s transfer high schools who participated in a broad-based participatory survey of their educational experiences. This survey was implemented in 2018 as transfer schools in New York City were confronted with a policy paradox triggered by the require­ments laid out in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). These requirements established that all schools had to meet a 67 percent graduation rate. Given that many of these schools do not admit students until they are sixteen or seventeen years old, and many of the students they enroll are well below the 44 required credits to graduate and without the necessary passing grades on New York State’s five Regent exams, a 67 percent graduation rate is a nearly impossible goal, destining these schools to be labeled failures, to live with the threat of closure, and to anticipate misdirected intervention and oversight.

Transfer schools are specifically designed with alterna­tive models to traditional schools, often welcoming students who have fallen behind in credits, many of whom have “stopped out” in a linear high school trajectory. They offer students individualized, academically rigorous curriculum, as well as supportive services, oppor­tunities to pursue internships, and college and career preparation programs. They open arms to youth who seek to be educated, even as they carry the fallout of structural, familial, educational, and personal struggles. These schools, as you will read, deliver respect and relationships, academic content and emotional support, a second chance, and a bit of love. They have evolved an ethic of educational accountability—measured not by arbitrary cutoffs in graduation rates or test scores, but by keeping the light always on and the door always unlocked for their students. They seek and deserve an accountability structure that takes a holistic and individuated approach to these schools and students, careful to not overburden them with misdirected state inter­vention or to stifle the very successes they were designed to cultivate.

Transfer schools provide a safe haven for students who were left behind by traditional schools, meaning we fell through the cracks because we didn’t fit the traditional template. We are, like many students, unique and transfer schools nourish our uniqueness to make us set and excel our expectations.

— Cristal Cruz, Human Rights Activist and Alum of Brooklyn Frontiers High School

Students describe a variety of reasons for disengagement from school, from lack of interest or excitement with curriculum, to struggles with depression, to family concerns and caretaking responsibilities, to structural chal­lenges, such as housing precarity and financial instability. We hear echoes of what schooling is like in one of the most segregated and unequal cities and school systems in the nation, under conditions of structural and psychic precarity. And, yet, as you will read in their narratives and the quantitative evidence, there is another story to be told about, and by, students in New York City’s transfer high schools. Listening closely we hear stories of young people rising up in the face of obstacles, thirsting for and seeking out a meaningful education, dream­ing big and daring to reach for their dreams, accepting responsibility for their shortcomings, and tenaciously staking a claim on their agency and choice in the matters of their education.

This report concludes with a series of recommen­dations devised through a participatory collective process with educators, students, alumni, and community partners. As we release this report, in August 2020, it is abundantly clear that the young people most affected by the concurrent crises of COVID-19 and state and police violence are Black and Brown, immigrant, queer, indigenous, low income, living in poverty, precariously housed, and impacted by the crim­inal justice system. These young people in New York City are disproportionately represented in alternative transfer schools. It is imperative that we support transfer schools and listen to transfer school students, that we fight the budget cuts to these schools and the public services these young people depend on, and that we establish a more equitable system for evaluating these schools and the essential work they do with young people in New York City.