Future of Schools

Number of students overcoming barriers and detours to graduate from Excel Centers is growing fast

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Nearly 200 students graduated from Excel Centers, a growing network of dropout recovery charters.

Teresa Gonzalez married young. Although she stayed in high school at first, Gonzalez soon miscarried and fell into a deep depression. In her senior year, she dropped out of school.

But after Gonzalez, 26, had three daughters, she decided to go back.

“They needed somebody to look up to,” said Gonzalez, who is now a pharmacy technician, of her children.

Finishing her education would make her a better role model, she thought.

On Thursday, Gonzalez was one of nearly 200 students who graduated from the Excel Centers, a network of dropout recovery charter schools run by Goodwill Industries. Including spring graduates, about 400 students in Marion County earned high school diplomas through Excel in 2015, according to the center.

That’s a dramatic boost for the Excel Centers, which graduated just 4 students in the first year they opened in 2010. Since then, the network has been growing its enrollment by hundreds of students each year and has now expanded to 11 campuses, six in Indianapolis. Statewide, 846 students graduated from Excel Centers in 2015, 33 percent more than last year.

The Excel Centers in Indianapolis have been hailed by school choice and dropout recovery advocates as one of the best examples of successful charter school innovation.

In 2014-15, 92 percent of graduates earned industry certifications or college credit along the way. Most get jobs that make more money than they made before or go on to college.

Excel has fueled its growth by opening several new schools. In 2011, it opened four schools outside of Indianapolis. The same year, expansion was briefly stymied by a state law capping the number of dropout recovery charter schools at 11 — an effort to prevent the schools from drawing money away from funds primarily intended for K-12 schools.

But in 2014, the legislature shifted course, changing the law to allow new dropout recovery charter schools in years when the legislature allocates enough money to support them. 

Since then, Excel has grown even more, adding a new Indianapolis school and a Noblesville campus in August. The network is planning to open additional schools, though it has not released the locations. Last year an Excel Center opened in Tennessee and this year one opened in Texas. Goodwill locations in other states, and even in Canada, are looking at opening similar schools.

In their Indianapolis hometown, an Excel graduation is an especially jubilant, and sometimes emotional, scene for graduates who have waited a long time to wear a cap and gown.

At most high school graduations, the crowd of onlookers is filled with proud parents cheering on their children. But at Excel, it’s just as likely to see children fill the gym seats and crowd forward in the aisles to celebrate their parents as they receive diplomas.

Three out of five Excel students have children under 18. Like Gonzalez, many of those parents return to school not only to improve their job prospects but also to set an example for their children.

That’s also why Ryan Durrett, who has two young sons, decided to go back to school.

“I wanted them to look at dad and be like, ‘dad, I want to do the same things you did. I want to get my diploma and I want to work hard to get to where I need to go in life,'” Durrett said.

Durrett completed his senior year of high school in 2007, he said. But after he failed the exam required to graduate, he gave up and quit school without a diploma.

For years, he worked odd jobs. But after graduating from Excel, he is studying business at Ivy Tech Community College, and he plans to start his own beauty supply business.

He’s not intimidated by that challenge after overcoming all the barriers he had to cross to earn his diploma.

“It feels like a lot of pressure has been lifted off my shoulders,” Durrent said.

enrollment woes

More students applied to Renewal high schools this year, but that won’t necessarily jolt sagging enrollment

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
August Martin High School is part of New York City's Renewal turnaround program.

High schools in New York City’s controversial turnaround program saw 1,100 more applications this year, a jump city officials touted as evidence the long-floundering schools are rising in popularity.

But overall, 3,305 students received an offer to attend a Renewal high school this year — up just 26 students from the previous year.

Education department officials said the 9 percent rise in applications over last year shows that the 20 high schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expensive and controversial Renewal program are successfully turning a corner and attracting new students. The stakes are high for Renewal schools: City officials have closed or merged schools that have struggled with low enrollment.

But the rise in applications doesn’t necessarily mean those schools will have a flood of new students next year.

One reason for the gap between applications and actual offers is that more students are applying to a larger number of schools. Students can list up to 12 schools on their high school applications, and this year the city saw a 4 percentage point increase in the proportion of students who listed all 12 options. That means students are applying to more schools generally, not just ones in the Renewal program.

Another reason more applications might not yield big enrollment jumps is that students could be ranking Renewal schools lower on their list of choices, making it less likely they will receive an offer to attend.

“If someone ranks a Renewal school 11th,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “is that really a reflection of the change in demand for that school?”

There are different ways students can receive initial offers. They can be matched with a school on their list of 12 choices. Or, if they don’t receive a match, they can be assigned to their default “zoned” neighborhood school.

About 140 more students received offers as a result of ranking them among their 12 preferred choices this year, which a department spokesman said is evidence of increased interest in Renewal high schools. But fewer students were assigned to Renewal schools after failing to receive an offer based on their list of 12 choices, which is why only 26 additional students overall were matched at Renewal high schools this year. (An official also noted that two Renewal high schools are closing, which also caused fewer offers to be issued.)

The spokesman added that the number of offers by itself is not a perfect predictor of next year’s enrollment, since students who were not matched to any schools during the initial round of applications can now apply again. (It’s also possible that some students who arrive to the city after admissions process ends could be sent to a Renewal school.)

Still, at some Renewal schools, the jump in applications has been significant, which Pallas said could suggest some schools are successfully changing their image. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx, for instance, the school received 945 applications this year — a 47 percent increase.

And at Longwood Preparatory Academy, which saw a 16 percent bump in applications, Principal Asya Johnson said the school has worked hard to market itself to families. The school changed its name, launched a new career and technical program in digital media, plastered local bodegas with fliers, and beefed up its social media presence. For the first time this year, school officials invited middle school guidance counselors across the Bronx for brunch and a tour.

“We have been doing a lot of recruitment,” she said. “We are constantly advertising ourselves.”

Below, you can find a list of each Renewal high school and a breakdown of how many applications they received this year compared with last year. (The list also includes “Rise” schools, which are being phased out of the turnaround program.)

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.