Review: Evaluation of New York City’s Learning to Work Initiative

Peter Kleinbard

Our guest blogger today is Peter Kleinbard. Peter is an experienced practitioner who writes on young adult and other youth issues. To help us stay on top of research he has reviewed a recent study on New York’s City’s Learning to Work Initiatives, a key part of their Multiple Pathways to Graduation efforts. Please feel free to email Peter with any comments. 

The Evaluation of New York City’s Learning to Work Initiative by Metis Associates  was released recently. It offers encouraging news about reducing school dropouts in high school. There are also gaps in information that would be helpful in determining how this effort can be strengthened as well as adapted to other settings. 

Learning to Work (LTW) is part of the NYC Department of Education’s (DOE) effort to increase student proficiency and graduation rates. There are two main strands:  one, for all students, closes failing high schools and replaces them with smaller schools, more than 200 so far.  The other focuses on students who are two or more years behind in credits and overage for their grade, called Over Age and Under Credited (OAUC). More than 70% of these students are at very low literacy levels, a key impediment to future success.

LTW is part of the second strand, called the Multiple Pathways to Graduation Initiative (MPG). In the past, only 19% of these students graduated. So far, MPG schools and programs have graduated twice that percentage, more than 40% in each of the first two cohorts, while retaining another 20%. For students who enter with fewest credits, graduation rates are triple OAUC youth in regular high schools. The initiative has expanded from serving 6,500 students in its first year, 2005, to more than 12,000 in the most recent year evaluated, 2008.

MPG is delivered through three program models:
Young Adult Borough Centers (YABCs): These are fulltime afternoon and evening programs for students who are 17.5 or older who have at least 17 credits.
Transfer Schools: These are small, academically rigorous diploma-granting high schools for stu­dents who have been enrolled in a NYC high school for at least 1 year and are far from grade level.
·       GED Programs: These include part-time eve­ning programs as well as fulltime, stand-alone programs.

LTW services are provided by community-based organizations working in these schools and programs. Their primary goal is to re-engage students who are at risk of dropping out. CBOs include organizations such as Queens Community House, FEGS, East Side House Settlement and many others. They provide students with caring adult relationships, skills workshops, subsi­dized internships, college and career counseling, and job placement. The program includes atten­dance outreach, individual and group counseling, academic tutoring, and other supports. CBOs provide also informal supports to schools and programs as well as to students such as fund raising, engaging families and addressing administrative problems.

The school-CBO partnerships are informed by the youth development framework which stresses high quality, sustained relationships between young people and adults, engaging activities, opportunities to build skills and other components.  Aggressive technical assistance is cited as a key contributor to the success of the partnerships and is provided by the Youth Development Institute as well as other organizations. Good Shepherd Services developed the key prototype for the Transfer High schools.

Prior to MPG, NYC had one of the worst graduation rates in the country. Today, it is emulated widely. While in the past, a few schools and programs may have been successful, the city’s effort is systemic, linked to a broad range of changes in district and school organization, principal and school assessment, personnel and hiring procedures and other elements. The partnership strategy is one of the unique features of this strategy, building on the idea expressed by Paul Hill and others, “It Takes a City.” While the idea of partnerships is popular, many partnerships require a long time to develop and lack clarity about roles and accountability, reducing any return on investment. The LTW partnerships are different. They are erected quickly, guided by contracts detailing roles and expectations, closely monitored by the DOE and well funded.

The evaluation provides many useful charts and other information as well as results of an extensive student survey. It focuses on the LTW component and, unfortunately, gives little space to the academic components of MPG which are substantial and essential to its success. Student academic performance is not addressed, something that is essential for assessing the potential of these young people to move forward beyond high school.

It would have been helpful also if more information had been included about such things as:
  • what has happened to students who do not succeed and who they are
  • costs
  • implementation challenges

Finally, no mention is made of the fact that many OAUC youth are not being reached by this effort. While it is valuable to know about what is working, it is also helpful to know what is not working, in order to make adjustments. Presumably, the evaluator was addressing specific requirements set out by DOE, and these gaps in the report reflect such requirements. Some of this has been addressed in earlier reports that have not been made public. Perhaps these will be released or addressed in other materials about this important work.