The Forgotten Population: Over-age and Under-Credited Students by Jonathan (JD) McCausland

In 2015, 5.9% of people 16 to 24 were classified as “status dropouts” or students who were not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school diploma or equivalency degree (U.S. Department of Education, 2017); the total number of the students who joined this group by dropping out was just under 750,000 students in 2012 (Camera, 2015).  The reasons behind this decision varies from student to student. Thankfully, there are schools attempting to reduce the dropout percentage by reengaging students who are classified as “over-age and under-credited” (OA-UC). This label is applied to students who have less credits than the typical student who is their age. For example, a 16-year-old student who should be in 11th grade may only have enough credits to be considered a 9th grader. Unfortunately, many OA-UC students end up dropping out (New York City Department of Education, 2005).

The dropout population in the United States highlights many of the issues within our current education system and society. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2015), most of the high school students who drop out are disproportionately students of color and immigrants. Additionally, high school dropouts are less likely to find employment, more likely to be incarcerated, and more likely to have lower health outcomes among other negative social consequences (State Education Resource Center, 2011). The economic costs of these outcomes are extreme. On average, the yearly income of individuals without a high school diploma is approximately $8,000 less than an individual with a high school diploma (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2015). The overall burden of the 6.7 million opportunity youth, a label which includes all dropouts, on taxpayers ranges from $1.6 trillion to $4.7 trillion when accounting for social costs (Belfield et al., 2012). Our Piece of the Pie, an organization dedicated to assisting urban youth, calculated that if only 4,500 of the 9,000 students who failed to graduate in 2011 reversed this outcome, they would generate $57 million more revenue resulting in the creation of 270 new jobs (Rath et al., 2012). With proper support, many OA-UC students can graduate. One such support network is the Transfer School system in New York City.

I recently received a text message from a former student whom, without the support of a Transfer High School, may have become part of the 5.9 percent:

“Hey JD!!! …I just want to say thank you for being my teacher my support system for helping me to get where I am today and for teaching me all about science and thinking highly of me and always pushing me and inspiring me to love science. My major is physical therapy so I have to take a lot of science classes so I’m really psyched about that… I look forward to hearing from you again…”

I do not include this message because it helps boost my ego (which it does), but to illustrate the impact teachers and consequently, schools, have on their students; encouraging and mentoring them, helping them love particular subjects, and providing them the opportunity to achieve their goals. Unfortunately, not all schools have positive impacts on students. I remember my great aunt would describe with vivid detail the day she decided school wasn’t for her. She decided to leave by “jumping out the window of the second floor.” The difference between my great aunt and student, is the type of support each received from their school to remain engaged in their respective education. These two experiences demonstrate why all educators need to understand the influence schools have on their students’ lives, and how they can impact personal decisions on whether to stay in school or not. However, new regulations may limit the ability of New York schools to support students who do not fit the “traditional model.”

Transfer High Schools, like the one that helped my former student, are a network of specialized high schools in New York City specifically designed to address the OA-UC population in New York City Public Schools. There are approximately 138,000 youth between 16 to 21 who fit this description in New York City and about 68,000 have already dropped out (NYC Department of Education, 2006). We can only hope the approximate 70,000 students who remain can succeed, but with new regulations in New York State, this success could be in jeopardy.

On September 11, 2017, the New York State Board of Regents approved a plan outlining new goals as mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed into law during 2012 by President Barack Obama (Taylor, 2017a). When signing the bill, President Obama stated:

“This bill makes long-overdue fixes to the last education law [by] replacing the one-size-fits-all approach to reform with a commitment to provide every student with a well-rounded education… With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamental American ideal that every child – regardless of race, income, background, the ZIP code where they live – deserves the chance to make out of their lives what they will.” (Hirschfeld Davis, 2015)

This sentiment implies every student will receive a quality education designed specifically for them. However, the ESSA has resulted in the Regents, the government body which supervises all educational activities in New York State, altering how individual schools will be evaluated and identified for rankings that indicate a need for improvement. The plan particularly impacts the lowest-performing 5% of schools receiving Title I funds and schools with 6-year graduation rates below 67% (Taylor, 2017a). This includes all schools except 4 of the 51 Transfer High Schools in New York City. If the Transfer Schools cannot get off the list in 3 years, they could be closed (Taylor, 2017b). Although there have been modifications to the plan preventing Transfer Schools from automatically being placed on the list, the delay does not exempt these schools from being placed on the list, jeopardizing their futures. Advocates of New York’s plan are praising “high standards” and outlines of how schools will be improved, but at what cost?

Understanding OA-UC students dropout 93% of the time, it is incomprehensible that a law designed to help “every student succeed” could potentially push Transfer Schools to close.

In October of 2005, the New York City Department of Education commissioned a report to analyze the city’s OA-UC high school student population and their needs through the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation. The information found in the report must be considered when forming one’s opinion on the new objectives set forth by the Regents even though the data is nearly 13 years old and has not been revised to reflect more recent trends. One of the major findings of the report was, 93% of the OA-UC students dropped out of the 2003 cohort. Additionally, the OA-UC population has 14% more African Americans and Hispanics than other racial groups and only 19% of OA-UC students ultimately receive a high school diploma or equivalent (NYC Department of Education, 2006). This indicates that once students fall behind, they never recover and the phenomenon disproportionately affects minoritized students. In fact, 43% of dropouts indicated the reason they left school was because they “missed too many days and could not catch up,” (Bridgeland, 2006, p. 7). A meta-analysis by Doll, Eslami, and Walter (2013) about why students drop out indicated similar results, but they also highlighted the complicated nature of what has caused students to drop out over the past 50 plus years. Between 1955 and 1980, surveys of students showed out-of-school factors, such as getting pregnant, supporting family, or getting a job, were most often the cause of students dropping out. In 1988, however, the majority of 8th-10th grade students began to report “in school” factors more. These factors included disciplinary practices, inability to keep up with school work, or a dislike of teachers more often. Ultimately, the data described shows many factors contribute to a student’s decision to drop out, but all of them result in an increase in missed class time. Many students believe decreasing class sizes, improved opportunity for real-world learning (such as internships or apprenticeships) more tutoring, having an adult who cared about them, and better communication with parents could have helped them stay in school (Bridgeland, 2006).

Transfer Schools attempt to meet the needs described by students by using restorative justice, extra academic support, and providing more social/emotional support among other strategies to help keep OA-UC students on a path to graduation. In Transfer Schools, students graduate at a rate of 56% rather than the 19% in traditional high schools. Transfer Schools have also been shown to raise student attendance from 40% to 78% (NYC Department of Education, 2006), a major indicator of high school success (Pinkus, 2008).  In addition to helping students graduate, Transfer Schools in New York City also provide work opportunities, additional academic support, counseling, college preparation, and unique learning environments to meet diverse student needs (NYC Department of Education, 2006). Transfer Schools, through their multifaceted approach to student learning and support are attempting to reduce the number of OA-UC students who become dropouts and show some success in doing so.

Transfer Schools are each unique in their approach to helping OA-UC students and offer a plethora of supports including smaller class sizes, online learning, and restorative practices. These schools also offer special programs including Learning to Work and Single Shepard where students get assistance with obtaining employment, learn social and emotional skills, as well as counseling. There are even schools designed to address particular populations. One such school, Judith Kaye High School, exclusively supports students within the legal justice system where students are given access to free mental health services and the ability to obtain not only a high school diploma, but trade certificates as well (Zimmer & Weaver, 2017).

As a former teacher at the transfer school, Metro, I can attest to the magnitude and quality of the work done by Transfer Schools. We stayed after school with students every day and spent Saturdays tutoring. Our counselors, social workers, teachers, and advocates in Mission Society, an organization focused on positively impacted the most underserved communities in New York City through varied supports, built relationships to bring students into school when they had many other important priorities outside of class or problems in school. We made phone calls every day to inform parents of their child’s progress which led to the use of innovative systems, such as Kinvolved, to keep parents aware of their child’s progress and attendance. Often times, students said, “You better tell my mom about what I did” when doing something positive or “Please don’t mark me late, I left on time, but got stuck on the bus,” allowing for a more nuanced conversation about attendance. Administrators even switched from semesters to trimesters, helping students accumulate credits at a higher rate. Thanks to the combination of practices, Metro is putting a dent in the OA-UC population and consequently, the dropout rate.

Understanding OA-UC students dropout 93% of the time, it is incomprehensible that a law designed to help “every student succeed” could potentially push Transfer Schools to close. I can personally attest to the number of students who have explained how without this type of school they would not have graduated. Before arriving at Metro, according to the students, some believed they would never (or did not deserve to) graduate from high school. These stories are not unique to Metro, and these stories only increase pressure felt by students, teachers, and administrators working in these schools. Now they must handle the added stress of potentially being closed for doing a better job at helping a group of students the traditional high school model did not help. Unfortunately, only between 9,550 – 13,000 OA-UC students are enrolled in Transfer High Schools (NYC Department of Education & Taylor, 2017a), leaving thousands more in traditional schools where they may be falling farther behind and closer to being pushed out. Instead of closing these schools, we should be looking to open more.

I feel privileged to know all my former students. The one who wrote to me is nervous about college, loves science, is on their way to being economically prosperous as a physical therapist (or whatever they choose), and is thankful to have had an experience where they felt supported and cared for.  Every student, like my former student, deserves the chance to feel the same way about their educational experience. President Obama said he wanted to help “every student” receive the education they deserve, but the policy enacted with presumed good intentions of pushing states to improve graduation rates forgot about a unique group of students. Now with the election of our 45th president, a man who inaccurately stated, “You’re living in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed — what the hell do you have to lose,” to a group of Virginian voters about black urban communities during his election campaign (Fausset et al., 2016), the threat to Transfer Schools may be greater than ever. By automatically assuming the schools in a geographic area are not good, there is no room to see the success stories, and by proxy, the success story of Transfer Schools. By passing new regulations, the New York State Regents is putting the one mechanism designed to support students who fall behind in jeopardy.


Jonathan (JD) McCausland is a PhD student in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus in Science Education at Penn State University. He is a former high school science teacher who served New York City’s “overage and under-credited” population and holds an M.Ed. from Brooklyn College. His current research interests surround preservice teacher education as well as understanding the experiences and policies affecting the success of “overage and under-credited” students and their teachers.



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