stuck in the middle

One-fourth of city's middle school students are older than their classmates, report says

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

By the time Daniel stopped showing up at his Brooklyn middle school last year, he was 17 and still had not completed the eighth grade.

Nearly a quarter of the city’s middle-school students — or more than 50,000 pupils — are at least one year older than their classmates, in most cases because they have been held back from moving to the next grade before, according to a new report by Advocates for Children of New York, which provides free legal and advocacy services for families. Last school year, more than 8,600 middle-school students were, like Daniel, three or more years older than most of their classmates.

For Daniel, a Jamaican immigrant who entered the city school system in third grade and was eventually diagnosed with a learning disability, his troubles began in elementary school, where he was held back multiple times. Once he reached middle school, he was retained again.

As Daniel’s teenage peers moved on to high school without him, his frustration and embarrassment grew — he couldn’t bear walking to school in a middle-school uniform — and he acted out. He tangled with the law and stopped going to school, prompting children’s-services officials to contact his mother.

Meanwhile, his mother was trying to enroll Daniel in schools for older students, but he either didn’t meet their admissions criteria or wasn’t accepted. As another school year started last week, Daniel left home and hasn’t returned since, said his mother, Ingrid Lamont.

“I feel like I’m losing my son,” she said, “and there’s nothing I can do.”

For a new schools chancellor who has made middle schools a priority, these older middle-school students present a daunting test.

Like Daniel, they are more likely than other students to have a disability, to be black or Hispanic, and to attend a school in a low-income area, according to the report, which analyzed demographic data from the 2011-12 school year. The path to graduation for these students can look bleak: They have lower attendance rates than their peers and are two to 11 times more likely to drop out of school, according to statistics cited in the report.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has already taken steps that could lead fewer middle-school students to fall behind. Most notably, she ended the requirement that students pass certain tests to move to the next grade — a decade-old policy meant to hold students to high standards, but which advocates say sent many on a downward spiral.

The education department is also expanding a program this year that lets older eighth-grade students learn alongside peers their age and potentially be promoted to high school mid-year, and another designed for overage middle-school students caught up in the criminal-justice system.

But even with the expansions, programs created specifically for older middle-school students who are behind their peers can only serve about 450 students, according to the report, titled, “Sixteen Going on Seventh Grade.” That could leave thousands of additional overage students stranded in middle school and in danger of dropping out, said Ashley Grant, an Advocates for Children staff attorney and lead author of the report.

“While we’re excited about the direction the city is moving,” Grant said, “it’s not enough.”

Students can get stuck in middle school for many reasons, advocates and educators say.

They may have disabilities, behavior problems that have led to frequent suspensions, or unstable home lives. (In 2011, roughly a quarter of the students who were older than their classmates and had been held back more than once were recently homeless, a city official said at the time.)

The requirement under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that students pass state exams or a test at the end of summer school in order to move to the next grade stymied many students, according to the report. Some students passed one of the state tests but not the other, or left town for the summer and missed those exams, and so were held back.

Especially if they are retained more than once, some middle-school students dread taking classes alongside visibly younger peers and start to skip school, advocates say. In many cases, those students face the same coursework and tests that stumped them before, but with little extra support.

“Students see this hurdle and they feel with every fiber in their body that they can’t make it over,” said James Waslawski, principal of M.S. 350, New Directions Secondary School, a Bronx school that opened last year and will eventually enroll overage students in grades six through 12.

The report calls for several changes that could reduce the number of middle-school students who fall behind, and help those who already have.

One idea is to allow students to move to the next grade as soon as they meet the promotion requirements, even if they do so during the school year. (Waslawski said the education department promised he would be able to promote students mid-year, but as of now he cannot.)

Another recommendation is to establish more programs to catch up overage sixth and seventh-grade students. Last year, about 2,900 students were at least three years older than their seventh-grade classmates, and yet the city has only 200 seats in programs designed for such students, according to the report.

In response to the report, an education department spokesman noted the expansions of the programs for overage middle-school students, the promotion-policy change, and new after-school programs.

“Supporting middle school students is at the heart of the Chancellor’s priorities,” said the spokesman, Harry Hartfield.

Correction: A previous version of this article and headline said that about one-fourth of middle-school students have been held back before. In fact, while 23 percent of middle-school students are at least one year older than their peers, and advocates believe most of those students have been retained before, some portion of those students are overage because they enrolled late or transferred from districts with different age requirements. The city Department of Education has not provided data about what share of overage middle-school students have previously been held back.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”