My school, the High School of Language and Innovation in the Bronx, where I became founding principal in 2011, serves newcomer immigrant English Language Learners. We graduated our first class in 2015.
This past June, as I listened to the Class of 2018’s graduation speeches, I was struck by how students had experienced our intended vision for the school: “We learned to work together as a team in order to learn English,” “We got to make friends with people from diverse cultures.”
However, even as I enjoyed the graduation, something else was on my mind: 90% of our girls were graduating compared with only 51% of our boys. In an even more dramatic gap, 88% of our Latina girls had graduated, compared with less than 40% of our Latino boys.
Several months earlier, my leadership team and I had begun examining equity. Last February, I attended a workshop, the NYC Leadership Academy’s Coaching for Equitable Practice, that pushed us to examine equity gaps in our school data. I saw that our Latino male students had lower passing rates on the New York State Regents exams than the rest of the student body, which of course was directly related to their lower graduation rates. As I sat with the data, one of the workshop facilitators asked, “Are your school goals targeting this gap?”
This question seemed so obvious, and yet the truth was that my goals were not covering this gap. One of my instructional goals for the previous year had been to “increase College Readiness through the school’s instructional focus of paraphrasing.” We were targeting a particular skill but setting the same goal for every student. That was equality. What our students needed was equity.
My team and I, with support from my leadership coach, began looking more closely at and revising our goals. One of our year-end goals had been about building in more opportunities for students to review previously-learned content throughout the year so that they really mastered it. We revised this goal to target the achievement of Latino students, specifically, by increasing the Regents passing rates of Latino students in all subjects by 5%.
We also had as a goal to train our staff on Responsibility-Centered Discipline, a restorative approach to discipline. To target some of the underlying causes of the gender gap in the graduation rate, my team and I revised that goal so that it targeted Latino and Middle Eastern male students, the sub groups that had the highest number of discipline referrals. We set a goal to reduce discipline referrals of these subgroups by 20%.
We are only a few weeks into the new school year, but already there are shifts in our practice as a result of these goals. For example, we have always held a week of professional development the last week of August, spending most of the time in instructional planning. This year, we spent a lot of time training teachers on how to build strong relationships with students and effectively use a restorative approach to discipline. We were clear that investing in relationship-building, and coaching teachers to handle challenging moments effectively, were key to increasing the achievement of our Latino and Middle Eastern boys.
I am proud to report that by the end of the summer, five of the six boys we had targeted for an August graduation did earn their diplomas, raising our graduation rate for boys to 60%. The mere awareness of the graduation gender gap had produced a different sense of urgency in my staff and in myself. While our staff always works hard during the summer, we were particularly mindful of giving frequent feedback to the boys in a way that was compassionate and showed we were on their side, while also pushing them academically. We worked as a team to ensure each boy was attending class regularly and putting forth his best effort toward the exam or class he needed to graduate. We had several “graduation talks” where we gave the boys information and “previews” of August graduation, talking to them about graduation as if it was a no-brainer that we’d see them there.
While we are not yet close to reaching our ultimate goal of graduating 90% of our male students – the same proportion of girls we now graduate — the improvement indicated that we are on the right track.
Verta joined the The Leadership Academy in 2018. Prior to that, she designed, managed, and delivered professional learning experiences and programs for sitting and aspiring school leaders at UnboundEd and New Leaders. Verta began her 20-year career in education as a teacher in Prince George’s County Public Schools, and then as a literacy specialist for the New York City Department of Education. She was principal of Bronx Arts for five years and served for several years as a leadership coach for principals and residents at New Leaders. Verta has a B.S. in communications and middle school education from James Madison University, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University.