moving the bar

Principals wonder how last-minute graduation rule changes will affect their students

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

As students across New York began taking mandatory Regents exams Tuesday, some of their principals were wondering whether their scores would matter at all.

That’s because the state’s Board of Regents passed a new set of rules this week that eliminate the need to earn passing scores for an estimated 2,200 students with disabilities. Those students will be able to earn a less-rigorous “local” diploma by passing just two Regents exams in math and English, but will not be required to pass tests in other subjects.

The decision left some educators wondering how the new rules, which take effect this month, would affect students with disabilities who are just weeks short of graduation, and what alternate measures would be used in place of the usual Regents exams.

“I’m sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what [the requirements] will look like,” said Abraham Lincoln High School Principal Ari Hoogenboom. “I have no sense at all.”

Under the new rules, it will be up to local superintendents to determine whether students who did not pass their additional Regents exams have demonstrated proficiency in those subjects and should graduate. They will be expected to review students’ final grades and coursework completed throughout the year, according to the rules.

Some principals saw the changes as positive. But most said they still don’t understand how they will work — or how the new rules will interact with the state’s existing appeals process for students with disabilities who are on the cusp of passing the tests.

For a student who doesn’t pass five Regents exams, “Do we appeal the score or do we demonstrate mastery to the superintendent?” Hoogenboom asked. “We’ll have to go down a list of all our students who were unable to graduate and say, This one is eligible for this program, and another student is eligible for another program, this other one is eligible for everything. What do we do?”

The principals didn’t anticipate a flood of students graduating who otherwise wouldn’t have. Hudson High School for Learning Technologies principal Nancy Amling said she thought only one or two of her students would be affected.

Still, the principals wondered if they would have to scramble to pull together examples of student work to show superintendents in the next few weeks.

“Are we supposed to create portfolios?” asked one transfer high school principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know how they would do that by the end of this year.”

City officials did not have specific answers Tuesday about how they would help principals and superintendents implement the new policy, or how many students they anticipated would be affected this year. An education department spokeswoman said the city is waiting for guidance from the state, and will work closely with superintendents and principals.

The changes are the latest battleground in a debate over how to balance rigorous graduation requirements against the reality that some students with disabilities struggle to meet them.

Several advocates for students with disabilities said easing graduation standards could help students earn a diploma and enable them to apply for a vocational program, get a job, or join the military. Those options were not available under a previous credential New York offered for students with disabilities that has since been eliminated.

“We have some of the most onerous exit exam requirements in the country,” said Abja Midha, a project director at Advocates for Children who runs the organization’s statewide coalition that advocates for students to have more options to earn a diploma. “We’re hoping this is the beginning of thoughtful changes to exit exam requirements more broadly.”

Indeed, the changes are part of a wider effort by policymakers over the past two years to ease graduation requirements.

But others are worried the new rules will lower the quality of the education a student with disabilities would receive.

“Teachers are going to try to push students there, and now we’ve lowered the bar,” said Mark Anderson, a special education teacher at a Bronx middle school.

Todd Kaminsky, a state senator who pushed for the new graduation requirements, said the change isn’t about watering down standards, but paving the way for more appropriate, “project-based” measures for students who struggle to meet graduation requirements.

“There are ways to show potential and demonstrate [proficiency] without taking a test,” he said.

“Is there an implementation concern? Yes,” he added. “But I’m confident it’ll be carried out.”

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.