Nowell Leadership Academy is a school designed to serve students who are over-age, under-credited, and either pregnant or already parenting at least one child. They are students whose path to graduation was so rocky in the traditional school system that any chance of them graduating four years from the day they started 9th grade disappeared long ago. Most of them are students who were poorly served by their zoned schools and have found their last best hope to graduate from high school at Nowell Leadership Academy.
High school graduation rate is one of the categories in the state’s rating system that just released its second year’s findings last week—and the score in that category is based on how many students graduate in four years. This means that schools like Nowell (and also the DCYF schools) cannot, by design, earn more than one star in that category. Their mission, as schools, is to serve students precisely because they are off-track to graduate in four years. Maybe they were incarcerated, maybe they had a baby, maybe they dropped out—whatever the reason, their cap and gown ceremony does not count toward the school’s graduation rate.
But the star rating system is designed such that the lowest rating a school earns in any single category must also be the rating they receive as a school overall. This means that if a school earns 2, 3, 4, or even 5 stars in every other category but has only one star in high school graduation, they are labeled as a “one star school” overall.
It is hard to overstate how absurd and unfair this is.
The staff at Nowell start the year knowing that they will be rated as a one star school because of their school mission to serve pregnant and parenting teens and other students whose high school years have been interrupted. School leaders know that they will struggle to recruit top talent because potential applicants will likely be discouraged by their one star rating. School staff get up every morning knowing that their potential to attract funders to support the important work they are doing is greatly diminished because of their one star rating, no matter how worthy of funding and replication their work may be.
The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) needs to take advantage of the waiver that exists in federal law for schools that serve an alternative population, including “students who, based on their grade or age, are significantly off track to accumulate sufficient academic credits to meet high school graduation requirements, as established by the state.” RIDE has a responsibility to do something different for Nowell and any other school serving a similar population of students. Nowell’s mission, student body and the work they do every day deserves to be evaluated through a different lens than traditional schools that, if we’re being honest, often push out the students that Nowell Academy welcomes with open arms every single day. They have the legal right under federal law to a different accountability measure.
And there is a rich irony in the fact that Nowell is the only school in the entire state that has, on their own, designed an accountability system to ensure that their diplomas are meaningful. Even though state officials bowed to political pressure and gave up on plans to attach accountability to diplomas, the leadership at Nowell moved forward in designing their own graduation standards. They know how damaging and dishonest it is to hand diplomas to students that are nothing more than lies to frame and hang on the wall. Their principal, Jessica Waters, has written about that danger, based on her own personal experience as a high school drop-out.
The current star rating system cannot be used on schools whose very mission makes it impossible for them to earn more than one star. This needs to be fixed now.