Whatever happened to the true meaning of “No child left behind?”

I would like to tell the story of a beautiful young man that who recently earned his high school diploma. For the purposes of this story I’d like to call him Phoenix.

Phoenix, who was a special education student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), came to us after having failed at middle school several times. His former school -- a traditional district school -- made sure to write us a letter and tell us how he was never able to meet their “high standards,” but perhaps he could meet ours.

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New Dawn Charter High School takes a different approach with its students. We know that traditional high school is not for everyone. We also understand today's students often are faced with many issues – substance abuse, homelessness, drugs, etcetera - that can interfere with school. We try to catch the students who have fallen through the cracks at traditional schools.  This is central to our mission as a school designed for over-aged, under-credited students.  

We welcome students who have already left school for any reason, or those who are taking a little longer to graduate.

That is where Phoenix comes in. His old school never believed that Phoenix would succeed.

But we knew better. Phoenix became a success story. He passed Regents exams. He passed his classes. He made the honor roll. And this January he earned his diploma. When he stopped in to say goodbye, we brought him in to a faculty meeting to be recognized. After telling the staff he would be attending Medgar Evers College in the spring and working on his nursing degree, the room erupted in applause. Phoenix had to step out, his face full of tears. Our Phoenix: finally a graduate.

But according to NYS accountability measures, it’s Our Phoenix: Sorry but you didn’t graduate fast enough.

You see, Phoenix didn’t graduate in four years. Even though he has until the age of 21 to complete high school, Phoenix still isn’t considered a success of the New York State education system since it took him so much longer to graduate. Doesn’t make any sense.

The state’s accountability measures are focused on the four-year cohort graduation rate. Here’s why: The National Governor’s Association (NGA) says, with the signatures of all 50 states, the definition of when a student should graduate from high school: As defined in 34 C.F.R. §200.19(b)(1)(i)-(iv), the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (hereafter referred to as “the four-year graduation rate”) is the number of students who graduate in four years with a regular high school diploma divided by the number of students who form the adjusted cohort for the graduating class.[1]

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The issue for schools all around the country is that for students who are deemed “at-risk”, the very over-aged and under-credited students we have committed to serve, there is no “safe” way to enroll and save these students except by going beyond the four years that we have to give them an education.

This includes students like Phoenix who have an IEP and just need extra time. It also includes students that are absent for long periods of time for a variety of reasons. These are students that can miss school because they are in substance abuse programs, or because they have had children.

Regardless of the circumstances, our society and our accountability systems celebrate timeliness over perseverance. Whatever happened to the true meaning of “no child left behind?” We should be celebrating the accomplishments of students who persevere and earn their diploma, especially when it takes 5 or even 6 years – it can be much easier to give up than fight through.

We have to evaluate how we are measuring the success of all students. That includes students with IEPs, ELLs, transient students – there are so many different reasons why a student just cannot graduate in four years. In the adult world, no one notices how long it takes a student to graduate, but they certainly notice if they have not.

Schools don’t want to shy away from accountability, but the measures must be fair for all learners. Now is the time, while we evaluate how students are measured academically, to revisit graduation success rates on a national level. Schools that particularly serve this group of students should be supported in their efforts to help our youth achieve success and have a bright future.

After all, if Phoenix did not enroll in New Dawn, and therefore wasn’t given the extra time to graduate, he would be nowhere but on the street. Why would anyone want that to be his future?


The Board of Regents recently passed a regulation to allow more special education students to graduate. 

Lisa is the Founding Principal of New Dawn Charter High School. Visit www.ndchsbrooklyn.org and http://www.charternotebook.org/
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Whatever happened to the true meaning of “No child left behind?”
Whatever happened to the true meaning of “No child left behind?”
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