Intervening Early: One High School’s Efforts to Support Incoming Off Track Ninth Graders

Access to real-time data on student performance is critical if schools are to successfully intervene when students begin to fall off-track. Indeed, the New York City Department of Education has been stressing this very idea in the roll-out of its new “NYC Schools” data platform for parents, which is replacing ARIS. Officials at the Department, including Chancellor Fariña, have noted that access to real-time information will help make parents better partners in improving student achievement.

While we’ve long been proponents of data-driven decision making in the high schools in which we work, we also have come to recognize the need for schools to intervene early, even before indicators like poor attendance and failing grades show up in the student’s data profile. In our experience, preventing a student from becoming chronically absent or from failing a course in the first place requires fewer resources (and is more likely to be successful) than recuperating a student who has come off-track later on.

One high school in our network has made significant strides this year in executing early interventions with incoming students at-risk of falling off-track. The High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology (Telly), which we’ve written about a lot this year, serves as a model for how other urban high schools might approach the issue of off-track students early on.

Overview of Telly

Telly is one of New York City’s higher performing public high schools, and since 2009 has graduated 80 percent or more of its seniors within four years. In the 2013-2014 school year, 87 percent of students graduated in four years (compared to the the citywide average of 68 percent). In the same school year, 89 percent of first-time freshmen earned ten or more credits to advance as sophomores, an early indicator of “on-track” status that is highly predictive of whether a student graduates in four years.

Although Telly consistently graduates 80 percent or more of its students, many with rigorous advanced Regents diplomas, its record of success excludes one fairly sizable group: chronically low-performing students, which make up a large proportion of the 20 percent or so of students the school does not graduate in four years. 

Many of these students are already performing below grade level when they enter high school, and others join their ranks, particularly in grades 11 and 12. Once there, few of these struggling students improve their performance enough to shift into higher performance categories. Instead, they tend either to drop out or remain enrolled in high school beyond four years. Telly’s efforts to manage and meet variable student needs falls short in regard to this particular population. Susan Fairchild’s recent Education Week blog highlights the extreme challenges that students and schools face when students fall of track.

While our report Design and Data in Balance drew attention to Telly’s “Achilles heel,” educators at the school have long known and recognized the challenge of improving the performance of these low-performing students. The idea of an academic intervention system is not new and the system introduced this year (SY‘14-’15) builds upon many other initiatives. For example, for many years, Telly has structured intensive math and ELA support for those students with low proficiency on middle school exam scores; and educators at Telly take an individualized approach to their supports, offering tutoring, Regents’ prep classes, and smaller classroom environments. In the extreme case where learning needs are not being met, guidance counselors work with families to find a school better equipped to meet the student’s needs.

Telly’s Newest Approach: Intervening Early and Often

This year, however, educators at Telly have significantly increased their efforts and are taking a different approach to their academic interventions—one that directly addresses the core issues with previous models. First, this re-imagined intervention system considers timing. Typically, struggling freshmen are not categorized as off-track for graduation until the end of the first semester. Telly leadership used middle school data to anticipate the makeup of this particular group before beginning the school year. Second, in determining appropriate interventions for these potential off-track students, Telly leadership looked at a more comprehensive set of data. While previous interventions were often based on the assumption that students who become off-track are those students with low middle-school test scores, this year’s group of students was chosen because they displayed similar characteristics to previous off-track freshmen across a range of indicators. These indicators included test scores, number of failed classes during middle school, and trends in attendance. In particular, Telly leadership made the decision to value grades over test scores, eliminating from this initial group students who had low test scores but high grades and good attendance, while adding students who had middle-range test scores but multiple failed classes.

The interactive intervention descriptions below created by New Visions longtime partner, Andrew Garcia Phillips, detail the multiple layers of support many off track ninth graders require. Each description highlights data against key decision points, including criteria for students’ inclusion in the intervention, lead faculty, the communication strategy, core instructional activities, and early indicators.

In the interactive map below, we visualize the escalating nature of Telly’s off track student intervention throughout the first year of implementation. The data visualization highlights the inherent complexity associated with managing students who are off track before they enter 9th grade as well as students who become off track in 9th grade. Over the course of eight months, the visual captures the intensification of interventions for some students who were identified as at risk of becoming off track before entering into Telly and the process of quickly intervening with students who showed early signs of falling off track during the course of the freshman year.

Conclusion

We know more today than ever before about what it takes to prevent fifty-two eighth graders from becoming off track in ninth grade once they arrive at Telly. It has taken five distinct, but complementary interventions that have been rolled out over the course of a year and the involvement of 26 educators to implement these interventions. At least 190 calls have been logged to address attendance issues for a subgroup of the 52 students. For the students identified as most at-risk and who have undergone all five interventions,their current YTD attendance is 88% which is an increase of 4.7 percentage points from their  eighth grade year. 

What we do not yet know is how this complex intervention will play out over time. We will be tracking these students over the next four years as well as how the intervention changes and becomes deeply embedded within the fabric of a high performing high school. The hope is that additional data will help further refine and improve interventions so that Telly is a story of success for all its students.

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