Mentor for America: Exploring Unified Best Practices in After-School Mentoring Programs

Mentor for America: Exploring Unified Best Practices in After-School Mentoring Programs

Hannah Alexander and Laura Londoño


The United States experiences a strong culture of mentorship programs for all ages. Schools, churches, community centers, service groups, and universities set up opportunities for young people to engage with older, more experienced mentors that guide them through a wide range of life decisions and areas of personal growth. These mentoring relationships vary in core purpose, format, setting, frequency of meetings, and overall scope. Given the diverse nature of mentoring programs in the United States, this report explores the value and scalability of a specific mentoring model in which college students are paired with local middle school students in a three year program.


The Jones-Zimmerman Academic Mentoring Program, hereafter referred to as JZAMP, is a three year academic mentoring program that pairs college students at urban universities with local middle school students at risk of dropping out. This free after school program creates an environment in which local middle schoolers can further their academic and life skills while developing a close relationship with a college student wholly invested in their success. Our experience with JZAMP’s successes in building on the motivation of students who have committed to the program, combatting the trend toward low performance in math and reading, have inspired us to explore the expansion and scalability of this model currently concentrated in three Connecticut based  universities and their four corresponding middle schools.

In this report, we will couple our understanding and experience with the structure of the Jones Zimmerman Academic Mentoring Program with the Teach For America model. We will explore how TFA’s recruiting, training, and impact model can be applied in standardizing and scaling up three-year college mentoring programs throughout the United States.

Teach for America has a streamlined recruiting, placement, and training structure for its corps members. It provides on-campus recruiting at universities, encouraging college juniors and seniors of all academic backgrounds and interests to consider teaching. Beyond recruiting, Teach for America bridges the gap between new teachers and their placement schools through placement relationships and matching. This reduces the barrier between new teachers, and schools seeking to recruit new teachers, in working with one another. TFA additionally guides new teachers through training, certification, and preparation for their first day of teaching.

The aforementioned model allows Teach for America to place over 3,300 new corps members in schools throughout the country each year, providing them with a “skeleton” of tools they need to make a successful transition from college to the world of teaching. (TFA, 2017) Though different in nature, purpose, commitment level, and scope, this report will explore the ways in which TFA’s scaling model can be used to implement the J-Z AMP model throughout the country. More specifically, it will consider how a standardized method for recruiting and training college mentors for a three-year mentoring commitment can curb trends of low-impact programs throughout the country, changing the culture of mentorship altogether.


Mentoring Programs

Academic research pertaining to mentoring programs shows mixed results. In a meta-analytic review conducted by a group at the University of Missouri, it was determined that there was “evidence of only a modest or small benefit of program participation for the average youth.” (Allen et al., 2008) However, the data demonstrated that, “program effects are enhanced significantly, however, when greater numbers of both theory-based and empirically based ‘best practices’ are utilized and when strong relationships are formed between mentors and youth.” (Allen et al., 2008)

This data demonstrates an imminent need to disseminate, employ, and enforce these “theory-based and empirically based ‘best practices.” Perhaps more importantly, it alludes to “practices” that do not work, and a responsibility to ensure that they are not universally employed. Given the wide scope of mentoring programs in the United States, however, bad practices are both ubiquitous and diverse in nature. We now will briefly explore what some of these practices look like.

Models That Do and Don’t Work

In the study conducted by a group at the University of Missouri, it was determined that “best

practices coincided with “multifaceted intervention program[s]” where “mentoring is linked to other supportive services.” (More specifically, they are usually installed to promote “positive youth development” and/or “instrumental goals relating to areas such as education or employment.” (Allen et al., 2008) Thus, it has been determined that the general philosophy with which mentoring programs are founded and approached is relevant in determining its success rate.

In analyzing these philosophies, it is also relevant to explore philosophies as such that have led to failing programs. In an analysis of the educational impact of a mentoring program at Wesleyan University, several of these less effective program philosophies were exhumed. In their mission, the NEAT program states that, “The North End Action Team (NEAT) is a community-based organization whose mission is to empower residents and stakeholders to participate in and advocate for the interests of the North End neighborhood within Middletown, Connecticut.” (NEAT, 2017) This program’s philosophy does not fall under the two aforementioned categories that the University of Missouri qualified as “effective,” and thus might explain the reasons why its mentors felt dissatisfied in its effectiveness.

Beyond the content of the program and the services provided to the individuals involved, the structure and methods by which the program and its services are provided fall into the aforementioned “practices.” Among them, the methods by which mentors and mentees are recruited, the timing and frequency of mentoring sessions, the setting in which mentoring takes place, and the time allocation within mentoring sessions are relevant.

Assessing Effectiveness

Though these factors can be objectively observed and disentangled, the capacity to subjectively evaluate them is limited for several reasons. In the study conducted by the University of Missouri, the team pointed to to the difficulties involved with the “Assessment of Outcomes.” They state that, “the type of data source or informant utilized as well as the timing of outcomes assessment relative to the active period of program operation,” affect the already difficult process of evaluating the outcomes of varying “patterns of interaction’ from program to program.

Having addressed these challenges in assessing effectiveness in mentoring programs overall, in addition to “best practices,” we will outline four factors that will define the way in which this report identifies an effective mentoring program. They will be: consistency, goal-oriented philosophies, mentoring relationship strength, and purpose-driven program structures.

JZAMP within the context of mentoring programs overall:

JZAMP employs many of the aforementioned theory and empirically based best practices as well as strong relationships between mentors and youths to ensure a successful mentorship program, improving academic and social outcomes for the students involved.  The aspects of the program fall under the categories defined for assessing program effectiveness: consistency, goal oriented philosophies, mentoring relationship strength and purpose driven program structure.  For the purposes of this report, we will focus on the particular JZAMP site of Wexler-Grant Community School in New Haven, CT and its partner university, Yale.

Goal Oriented Philosophy:

JZAMP was created in 2000 when then Connecticut State Representative Reginald Jones partnered with fellow school board member John Zimmerman with the aim of combatting school drop-out rates. This goal oriented philosophy is the foundation upon which the other effective strategies the program employs are built. To combat school drop out rates, JZAMP seeks students who are below grade level proficiency in reading and math; the students are selected based on recommendations from their fifth grade teachers and results of standardized tests administered by the state of Connecticut. The tests determine the baseline of the students proficiency in math and reading and the teachers recommend students who are highly motivated to do better in these areas.

With this benchmark goal of increasing proficiency in reading and math to combat the risk of dropping out firmly in place, mentors can build  proficiency throughout the three years by setting smaller quarterly and semester goals of achievement for their mentees.  Concrete goal setting is important for both mentors and mentees because “seeing oneself gain progressive mastery strengthens personal efficacy, fosters efficient thinking and enhances performance attainments” (Bandura, 1993). This self efficacy in combination with goal setting contributes to academic attainments (Zimmerman, Bandura, Martinez-Pons, 1992).

Students gain confidence by meeting goals they set in conjunction with, and with the support of, their mentor and improve academically. Examples of smaller goals set by some mentors and their mentees range from general improvement of grades, to speed and accuracy with which students complete specific types of math and reading problems in homework, to increasing the amount of time spent focused on work during academic time. Setting and reaching these goals allow both the mentor and mentee to gauge their academic progress over time .


This goal oriented philosophy is reinforced by the consistency of the program, another area in which JZAMP maintains mentoring effectiveness.  Consistency is manifested both in the duration of the mentoring cycle as well as the frequency with which mentors and mentees work together.  Both mentors and mentees are recruited to JZAMP knowing that the program lasts for a full three years.  College students apply to mentor with the program at the end of their freshman year and are selected on the basis of their experience with tutoring and mentorship as well as their willingness to commit to the full three years of the program. During these three years, mentors and mentees meet twice a week for the duration of the school year–barring school holidays.  This year to year, week to week, and day to day consistency is crucial to the achievement of the aforementioned academic goals because mentorship has been shown to increase in effectiveness over time (Grossman and Rhodes, 2002). Grossman and Rhodes found in a 2002 study that the benefits of a mentoring relationship are best achieved if the relationship lasts at least one year (Grossman and Rhodes, 2002). JZAMP’s three year duration ensures that not only the minimal benefits of a mentoring relationship can be achieved, but that they can be maximized over an even longer period of time.

Mentor Relationship Strength:

Strong mentor-mentee relationships that are also core to the success of the program.  Herrera, Sipe and McClanahan identify eight characteristics that contribute to a strong mentoring relationship: mentor and mentee engagement in social activities; mentor and mentee engagement in academic activities; hours per month mentee and mentor spend together; decisions made about how mentors and mentees spend time; similarity of interests; prematch orientation and training; post match support and training from program staff; and age of the mentee (Herrera, Sipe, McClanahan, 2000). JZAMP builds mentor-mentee relationship strength along each of these eight metrics. The strong mentoring relationships of JZAMP are due in part to the duration of the program and the frequency with which mentors and mentees interact, discussed in the consistency section above. Engagement in social activities, academic activities, time management decisions, training, matching and support each fall under the category of purposeful program structure which will be discussed in the following section.

The mentor-mentee relationship is also strengthened by pairing mentees with mentors in a ratio no higher than 2:1. Because the mentor’s time is not split between many parties, the mentees receive more focused academic and social attention from their mentors. This focused attention allows mentors to tailor the time spent with their mentee or mentees to maximise effectiveness. In practice, this takes the form of concentrating on academic areas of weakness specific to the mentee or mentees;  pushing the mentee or mentees to move at a specific pace; or spending focused social time getting to know mentees on a personal level.

Purpose Driven Program Structure:

The effectiveness of JZAMP is also owed to the structure of the program, both at its higher programmatic level and in the day to day structure at the schools, for this section we will examine Wexler-Grant School in New Haven and its partner university, Yale, as a case study.

JZAMP at Yale is administered through the university’s undergraduate student lead community service organization, Dwight Hall.  Dwight Hall appoints a site director that acts as a liaison between the university and the foundation that supplies the funding for the program. Day to day operations of the program at the local middle school are administered by the student director appointed by the site director at Dwight Hall. This separation of overall programmatic administration from day to day operations at the school relieves the administrative burden on both parties, allowing for efficient running of the program.   The two act in conjunction, trading information and reinforcing each others roles to maximize program effectiveness.

The Dwight Hall site director acts as support for the program, providing training and resources to the student director and mentors. The site director oversees the program’s budget, accounting for mentor pay, funding for supplies and field trips. The director also oversees the period of onboarding and training each each year for the mentors during which data from the previous year are assessed and improvements and adjustments are made to ensure a better experience for mentees.

The student director acts as on the ground support for the mentors–interacting with school administration and teachers to smooth the day to day operations of the program. The student director acts as a resource for the mentors on site, facilitating communication with teachers about mentee progress and keeping the school administration abreast of program activities.

A day of JZAMP at Wexler-Grant is as follows:

2:00- Mentors arrive before the end of the school day and prepare by bringing JZAMP materials to the classroom used for the program.  Mentors arrive with any specific materials needed for that days activities and bring the materials left at the school to our mentoring site.  

2:10- School day ends and mentors usher their mentees to the classroom and wait until everyone has arrived.

2:20-2:40- Mentors and students go to the gym or outside if the weather permits to decompress after the school day and relax before resuming academic activities. This is a period during which mentors and mentees can interact in a more casual and social setting.  Mentors and mentees may play a game of basketball or tag, or sit and exchange stories about their days or engage in a discussion about current events. This is a time during which mentor and mentee relationships can be strengthened in a social setting.

2:40-3:00- Mentors and Mentees return to classroom for snacks, announcements and prepare for academic time.  During this period, the student director may make announcements about upcoming field trips or group activities. Students also have the opportunity to share about their lives in a larger group setting through “Rose, bud, thorn” an activity in which students share something good that happened, something they’re looking forward to, and something negative that has recently happened. During this time, mentors may poll the crowd about upcoming school assignments that mentees can work on.

3:00-4:00- Mentors work with mentees on homework and projects, or tutor to reinforce areas of academic weakness. During this time, mentors and their mentees break off into their assigned matches and work on whatever mentor and mentee agree should be done that day.  Mentors and mentees may employ goal setting by setting daily goals such as finishing x number of assignments or getting to a certain point in a larger homework packet assigned for the week. With both parties aware of  the daily goal, mentors can chart a pace for their mentees and provide support needed to succeed for the day. Shared goal setting and small group or one on one pairing lends the interaction a collaborative feel rather than a teacher-pupil hierarchy that strengthens mentor and mentee bonds.

4:00-4:30-Mentors lead a session of academic enrichment, the theme of which changes weekly, giving each mentor a chance to elect the theme of the week. Academic enrichment themes can include but are not limited to political debate, historical discussion, and recent scientific discoveries. This time is intended to encourage students to engage in intellectual pursuit outside of work assigned in school.  This time is opened with an introduction and transitions to an activity related to the topic, with the second day of mentoring building upon the first.

4:30-5:00 Mentors and mentees return to the gym or outside until transportation arrives to take students home.

This schedule is strictly followed each day of mentoring and ensures that mentees are getting the most out of their time with their mentors, both academically and socially.

These elements of consistency, goal oriented philosophy,mentoring relationship strength and purpose driven program structure have proven effective in improving academic outcomes for JZAMP mentees.  JZAMP has achieved its goal of combatting drop out rates. JZAMP’s first cohort graduated high school in 2008 and JZAMP participants had a graduation rate of 85% (JZAMP, 2016), higher than the state average of 79.2% (Lohman, 2011) for that year. JZAMP mentees at Wexler-Grant outperform their school peers in both school assessments and standardized testing; two JZAMP mentees scored the highest in the schools administration of the PSAT 8/9 test.

TFA Within the Context of Training and Disseminating Universal Practices

This report has already established the fundamental differences between TFA and mentoring programs like J-Z AMP. It has indicated that the TFA model will be used in order to extrapolate methods by which mentoring “best practices” could be universally employed and applied. In this section, we will more concretely evaluate what elements of the TFA model would be most effectively applied to a “Mentor for America” model. This section will briefly elaborate on concrete elements of these practices to be implemented.

Broad Scope

Teach for America is both applauded and criticized for its broad recruiting efforts. More specifically, Teach for America seeks to encourage a diverse range of college students– regardless of their background or academic interests– in order to pull from a significant pool that selects for competitive applicants. At the point in which it most invested in recruiting, around 2013, Teach for America, “attracted 57,000 applicants, yielding a corps that year of 5,800 teachers.” (Washington Post, 2016)

This data begs questions pertaining to the reach with which Teach for America recruits. Critics argue that because of its mission to recruit in high numbers, Teach for America focuses marketing on people who are not necessarily interested in education, affecting TFA’s retention rate. (Donaldson, Johnson, 2011) These critics might cite the fact that more than two thirds of TFA teachers leave their positions at public schools beyond their two-year commitment. (Donaldson, Johnson) However, this data is limited given its framing. Though two thirds of TFA teachers leave their positions after their two year commitment, almost 90% of them remain in their positions during the first two years. We will now briefly explore this paradox, arguing that it is okay that a majority of teachers leave after their two year commitment given the leverage that this provides TFA in its recruiting efforts.

In analyzing this data, it is relevant to further explore the methods by which TFA goes about recruiting at this scope. One of the main marketing efforts that TFA employs in this effort is its emphasis on “exit options.” By “exit options,” we refer to the cues that it provides potential corps members pertaining to ways in which TFA will expand, rather than stunt, their future alternative career options. On one of its alternating website tiles, TFA emphasizes that corps members will, “join an extraordinary, diverse network 53,000 strong tackling inequity from every sector.” (TFA, 2017)

TFA asserts to its potential corps members that TFA will not lock them into a career path in teaching, using the fact that they can leave after two years as a selling point. Through we have explored the reasons why critics find this problematic, this report will argue that this framing and emphasis is beneficial.

This method is practical and beneficial for several reasons. Given that it targets people beyond those seeking to enter an education track, it increases its numbers substantially. TFA does this knowing that there is a teacher shortage, and that finding people that are good teachers, and who can fill the gaps in today’s teacher deficit, requires a broad selection method. This type of recruiting emphasizes the fact that effective teachers come in many different “shapes and sizes,” and that it is in many bests interests to welcome and acquire a diverse pool of teachers. By embracing the fact that their goal is not to commit teachers for a lifetime of teaching, TFA maximizes its ability to recruit a pool of diverse and effective teachers.

Establishing Commitment & Constant Contact

Recruiting a high number and wide variety of corps members does not cause Teach for America to compromise in its high expectations for corps members. From the beginning of its recruiting path for corps members, it ensures commitment through a high-level investment threshold on the part of the potential new corps member.

In practice, this means that Teach for America develops a constant feedback relationship with its corps members, establishing a level of commitment that goes beyond average onboarding practices.

From its application process, TFA requires new corps members to dedicate time to submitting personal statements, answering purpose questionnaires, and complete activities that require upwards of five hours. (TFA, 2017) After the application process, TFA requires all potential new corps members to conduct a day-long in-person interview that is tiered to challenge the applicant’s individual and collaborative background, goals, and intentions. (Glassdoor, 2016)

Once corps members are hired, the methods by which they are prepared to teach in classrooms vary from region to region. In TFA’s New York Region, for example, new corps members are required to attend multiple preparation webinars, upload videos pertaining to their intentions and goals, and participate in a busy “grooming” process where they are prepared for the licensing process and placement. (Teacher Certification Degrees, 2017)

In analyzing this process, it is relevant to extrapolate the broad factors of consistency, commitment, and contact. Teach for America ensures teacher commitment— amounting at the previously cited 90% retention rate during the two-year placement– through creating a process of substantial investment on behalf of its new teachers.

Self-Evaluative Tools

Teach for America is capable of holding its large pool of new corps mentors universally accountable through its methods of self-reflection and evaluation. More tangibly speaking, TFA’s “Teaching As Leadership Comprehensive Rubric” is a model of the ways in which TFA requires and perpetuates the importance and magnitude of this process. (Teaching as Leadership, 2017) This rubric provides new corps members with the framework from which to set goals that are tangible and tiered; they seek to assure that new teachers constantly improve themselves through self-evaluation and incrementally higher goals.

The “Self-Evaluative Tools” element of Teach for America’s  “universal practices” is perhaps one of the most worthy of extrapolation and ubiquitous implementation. This is due to the fact that it ensures constant increased output from each of its new teachers and staff members, thus generating optimal results for children in classrooms.

Combining the Two: Scalability of Good Mentoring


This report has extrapolated “best practices” from J-Z AMP, mentoring programs at large, and Teach for America in order to consider the ways in which the United States could improve statistics that currently demonstrate the ineffective nature of youth mentoring programs. (Aben et al., 2006) This section will explore how these aspects can be tangibly combined in order to improve mentoring programs nationwide.

In implementing a program with such goals and practices, we propose a large-scale, centralized mentoring institution that recruits, trains, and places mentors in localized regions. These regions are broken down into campuses and schools of contact. However, the process of creating such a hierarchy allows for the “universal best practices” implemented by TFA to be disseminated throughout the United States.

Mentor for America will recruit, train, and place college-aged mentors within partner schools throughout the country, seeking to universalize the effective strategies and structures utilized in JZ AMP. It will use universities, as does TFA, as the centers in which these actors are prepared to effectively mentor in schools. The ultimate goal of this organization will be to implement the best practices of JZ AMP and TFA to universalize good mentoring throughout the United States, and change the status quo of mixed successes in the variety of programs that currently exist in the country.

Potential Problems

The implementation of the expansion of JZAMP following the TFA scalability model is not without  potential problems.  Scaling any program, despite its effectiveness and organization at the micro level, will have its problematic areas at the macro level.

The first potential problematic area may arise in funding the program. JZAMP is funded through a grant from the Jones-Zimmerman Foundation to pay for all costs associated with the program. Securing adequate funding to run the program on a larger scale may be difficult.  This could be mitigated by addressing the need for funding through each university’s Dwight Hall equivalent.

The existence of a Dwight Hall like entity within each university is also unlikely and may cause problems in implementation. Embedding JZAMP at Dwight Hall aids in the smooth running of the program, but may not be necessary.  There would have to me extensive structure building at the new universities to accommodate a program of this type.  


Existing literature pertaining to mentoring programs in the United States shows mixed results with regard to their effectiveness. At this point, the benefits of mentoring programs are not concretely defined or discernable, and many studies point to net losses. This report identified one of the reasons for these existing results: given an absence of ubiquitous best practices, mentoring programs fall on a broad spectrum of general success.

Due to the broad range of mentoring programs and corresponding success rates in the United States, this report has considered the ways in which uniting best practices pertaining to mentoring, and those pertaining to running an effective, nation-wide educational program (TFA), might increase success rates of mentoring programs around the country.

From a proscriptive standpoint, this report has suggested the implementation of a mentoring-based program modeled after the best practices of Teach for America’s recruiting, training, and placement practices and JZ AMP mentoring techniques called Mentor for America.

Moving forward, there is room to consider the practical elements of implementing a program such as Mentor for America. More specifically, it will be relevant to consider financing, fundraising, staffing, leadership hierarchies, and distribution channels. Though these factors have not been examined at this point, the theoretical evidence of the need and projected success rate of such a program has been established in this report.

Works Cited


Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational psychologist, 28(2), 117-148.

Director, Judith Lohman Assistant. DIFFERENCES IN GRADUATION RATES FOR THE CLASS OF 2008. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.

Grossman, J. B., & Rhodes, J. E. (2002). The test of time: Predictors and effects of duration in youth mentoring relationships. American journal of community psychology, 30(2), 199-219.

Herrera, C., Sipe, C. L., & McClanahan, W. S. (2000). Mentoring school-age children: Relationship development in community-based and school-based programs.

“How to Apply.” Teach For America. N.p., 24 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.

“J-Z AMP™ – About Us.” About J-Z AMP. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.

Morgaen L. Donaldson and Susan Moore Johnson, Phi Delta Kappan. “TFA Teachers: How Long Do They Teach? Why Do They Leave?” Education Week. N.p., 10 Mar. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.

“New York Teacher Certification and Licensing Guide 2017.” Teacher Certification Degrees. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.

North End Action Team. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

North End Action Team. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

Post, The Washington. “Teach for America Retools Efforts to Recruit Top Prospects.” N.p., 01 June 2016. Web. 04 May 2017.

“So Why You?” Teach For America. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.

“Teach for America Interview Questions.” Glassdoor. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.

“Teaching Leadership Skills.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Zimmerman, B. J., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American educational research journal, 29(3), 663-676.

Understanding the dyslexic drop-out: why students with learning disabilities graduate at a lower rate than their peers

Executive Summary

There are mixed messages about dyslexia. It is simultaneously true that 50% of NASA employees (Dyslexia Awareness) and 85% of prison inmates (Coalition for Literacy) are dyslexic. And, while researchers estimate that 1 in 5 Americans has a form of the learning disability (Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity), it does not play a prominent role in discussions of education policy or practice. Recent waves of activism in the learning disability (LD) community has promoted the message of untapped success for students with disabilities like dyslexia. They have heralded Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo da Vinci as their proof, identifying known traits which indicate some level of dyslexia. Many modern-day celebrities, including Steven Spielberg, Anderson Cooper, and Keira Knightley, have also advocated for the rights of students with learning disabilities by talking about their struggles in the education system. In 2012, The New York Times published an article titled “The Upside of Dyslexia,” which advocated for research that found “people with dyslexia have skills that are superior to those of typical readers.” (Paul, 2012) However, while the research she references provides promising knowledge to those with the disability, it does not incorporate the attached social and educational challenges. Having dyslexia, or another learning disability, is still stigmatized and misunderstood in many school districts, and many public schools do not have the resources or knowledge to educate students that require additional accommodations adequately. These combined forces have contributed to a staggering drop-out rate for students with special educational needs. However, little attention is given to accurately understanding and attacking the problem. While other research has identified the reasons why students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are susceptible to dropping out of high school, this paper will contribute information about the difficulties of students with learning disabilities and the reasons why they are prone to join the drop-out epidemic.


In 2013, data from the Department of Education indicated that students with disabilities only graduated from high school at a rate of 62% compared to the national average of 81%. (Diplomas Count, 2015) This data encompasses a broad range of disabilities, not just dyslexia, but it is an important starting point for understanding the linkage between disabilities and dropout rates.[1] Dyslexia is exceptionally common – around half of individuals with learning disabilities have dyslexia – and is related to other forms of learning and behavioral difficulties. There are known links between ADHD and dyslexia, as well as issues with executive functioning, slow processing, auditory processing and visual processing (Dyslexia Research Institute). The National Center for Education Statistics states that, in the 2012-2013 graduation year (the same year examined in the data above), students with registered disabilities made up 12.9% of total enrollment (NCES, 2016). 14.8% of these disabilities could be identified as physical disabilities, whereas the other 85.2% incorporate a learning difficulty. (NCES, 2016)

Figure 1, Data from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (NCES 2016-014). Chapter 2.

In the data set provided to the NCES, the categories of disability are broad. Even this refined data set does not provide much more information about the number of students experiencing learning disabilities in high school, nor does it indicate whether or not health complications and physical disabilities contribute to the dropout statistics. The lack of answers here should provoke more research. But, given the lack of students with disabilities in higher education – researchers predict only 34% of students with dyslexia will graduate from college within eight years (NLTS2, 2011) – there have been few people who have been paying enough attention to notice and ask questions. Therefore, the study of dropout rates for students with disabilities must proceed with insufficient data.

Even without complete data, there is still striking evidence that students with disabilities, especially learning disabilities, are dropping out of school at much higher rates than other demographic subgroups. Figure 2 shows that, except students with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities graduate at the lowest rate.

Figure 2, Diplomas Count 2015

Much attention is given to the disparities between race when it comes to drop-out rates, and it is evident from Figure 2 why this would be the case. This research can be beneficial in understanding the dropout rate for students with disabilities, for two particular reasons. First, the theories about why students drop out of high school point to trends which exist for students with learning disabilities as well, even in the manifest differently. Second, low-income students and students of color are referred to behavioral and learning specialists at a much higher rate than their peers. These two reasons can help form a greater understanding of why the dropout rate for students with learning disabilities continues to be high even when there is improvement elsewhere. The data from which this graph was created also divides by state, indicating state disparities in the education of students with disabilities. In all states, the graduation rate for students with disabilities was lower than the state-wide graduation rate. Rural states tended to have the greatest difference between graduation rates. Most notably, in Mississippi, students with disabilities only graduated at a rate of 23%, compared to a state-wide rate of nearly 80% (Diplomas Count 2015). Furthermore, the states with greater gaps in graduation rates already are known for their under-resourced public school systems, which would also imply that their resources for students with learning disabilities are likely also below par. These hypotheses require further research but are certainly worth considering.

Figure 3, Diplomas Count 2015

Before delving into some of the reasons why these students may be experiencing this dropout rate more than their peers, one must clarify the definition of a learning disability. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the term “specific learning disability” is used to identify a disorder with the following description.

A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. (20 U.S.C. § 1401 (30))

Specific learning disorders also appear in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which was last revised in 2013. The DSM-V description provides another way to identify the disabilities.

Current academic skills must be well below the average range of scores in culturally and linguistically appropriate tests of reading, writing, or mathematics. The individual’s difficulties must not be better explained by developmental, neurological, sensory (vision or hearing), or motor disorders and must significantly interfere with academic achievement, occupational performance, or activities of daily living. Specific learning disorder is diagnosed through a clinical review of the individual’s developmental, medical, educational, and family history, reports of test scores and teacher observations, and response to academic interventions. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

As these descriptions determine, experiencing a learning disability is neither a choice nor a sure indicator of intelligence. However, not much is known about their origin. Progress has been made in determining specific genetic factors which can contribute to learning disabilities, explaining similarities among members of the same family. Other research suggests prenatal or maternal injury can be a contributing factor, as can traumatic injuries, nutritional deprivation, and exposure to substances like lead (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014). Inadequate teaching cannot cause learning disabilities, nor are learning disabilities a prescription for a negative schooling experience. The research proves exactly the opposite.

Learning disabilities are not a prescription for failure. With the right kinds of instruction, guidance, and support, there are no limits to what individuals with LD can achieve. (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014)

Despite this message, students with learning disabilities continue to drop out of high school and struggle in the public-school system.

Evidence: Why students with disabilities drop out

It is not necessarily the learning disability itself that causes the high drop out rate. As Annie Paul argued in her New York Times opinion article, “The Upside of Dyslexia,” many gifts come from the dyslexic brain. However, the issue comes when teachers do not know how to hone these gifts. New York City public school teacher Mary Beth Crosby Carroll wrote a letter to The New York Times in response to “The Upside of Dyslexia.” In her letter, she pondered, “it makes you wonder how many scientists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and writers we have lost because they failed early on in school and no one knew how to tap into their talents and teach them how to read.” This is the unfortunate reality for many students with dyslexia. They drop out before they can realize their potential. Dr. Robert Balfanz, in his research at John Hopkins University and coiner of the term “dropout factories,” identified four main reasons why students drop out of high school. His research incorporates all students and focuses more on race than on students with learning disabilities, but his framework can be used in this case as well.

  1. Life Events
  2. Fade Outs – those who stop seeing a reason for coming to school
  3. Push Outs – those who are encouraged, some more subtly than others, to withdraw from school. This can be for a myriad of reasons, but more often than not, it’s because a child is perceived to be “difficult, dangerous or detrimental.”
  4. Failing to Succeed

These reasons interact and overlap, and are not designed to be prescriptive. The written and researched experiences of students with dyslexia indicate that they fall into the latter three categories. This next portion of the paper will look at these three categories and examine why students with learning disabilities find themselves in these categories, and determine whether there is anything that can be done to solve these problems.

Fade Outs

Diagnosis, or the lack of it, in public schools remains a major problem, and is a primary contributor to students “fading out.” The Dyslexia Research Institute estimates that although 1 in 5 Americans likely has dyslexia, only 5% are diagnosed. Even fewer are diagnosed during their elementary education years. So, by the time students reach high school, they have learned poor coping mechanisms for their dyslexia and struggle in silence, or they continue to struggle academically and incur low self-esteem as a result. In Family Education, a blog site for parents, Betsy Van Dorn provides tips for parents of high school students with dyslexia. She writes that one of the biggest problems for getting students diagnosed with dyslexia is that “distractibility, dreaminess and lack of motivation are age-typical behaviors, [and] it’s not always easy to separate real learning problems from adolescent angst.” (Van Dorn) The challenge of not being recognized and appropriately diagnosed can build up stress within a student that can lead to apathy towards their education and thus cause them to fade out. This is not an issue of schools being ill-intentioned or intentionally bias towards students with learning disabilities. The lack of diagnosis can occur for lots of reasons.

Most schools are not able to administer a complete language processing evaluation, and outsourcing it can be expensive. Therefore, referring someone to a testing center requires confidence from the part of the teacher, or the parent. Teachers need to be sure that they can accurately discern the difference between a student with a learning disability and a student who is struggling to keep up, or a student who will learn in time. It is not always the case that the dyslexic student will be the one at the bottom of the class, as their academic challenges may manifest in different ways. Schools that do provide some form of evaluation are not always able to formalize a diagnosis. Sandie Blackley, speech-language pathologists and co-founder of Lexercise, wrote in a blog post some of the reasons why these forms of evaluation are insufficient. She writes that the lack of diagnosis can make it difficult for teachers, parents and the student themselves to understand what their specific differences are, and how to move forward. The standard measure of evaluation in public schools, from the psychoeducational perspective, is to measure IQ and academic achievement and determine if there is a gap. The difference is interpreted as a learning disability, for it indicates a difficulty in expressing one’s IQ in achievement. However, the evaluation will not provide a course of study, and may not even identify all students. This process is lengthy and demands a lot on the student. It is unsurprising, therefore, that some students would choose to drop out of school or remain undiagnosed.

The “fade out” phenomenon can be linked to lack of diagnosis because of the challenging experience it creates for a student in the classroom. In an article published by the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, teacher and mother Kyle Redford explained how the dyslexia diagnosis helped her son embrace his education.

My son’s reaction to the dyslexic label convinced me that my reservations were a form of educational elitism. He was delighted with the new word; it helped to contain his condition. His learning challenges could no longer be confused with generalized stupidity. (Redford)

Redford’s story is not unique. Other stories cite newfound confidence after a diagnosis, better performance in school and a better self-awareness (Pearce). Even in those to whom the diagnosis evokes a false sense of shame, the ability to form a strategy of their own with the knowledge of their dyslexia allows for success. The absence of this knowledge can be demoralizing and prevents students from understanding their potential, especially when it may look different from their peers.

Push Outs

The issue of students being forced out of the public-school system is most frequently discussed in regards to issues of racism. Black students are suspended from K-12 public schools are a much higher rate than their peers, indicating a longstanding pervading problem of institutional racism in many school districts across the United States. (Smith & Harper, 2015) While the issue of suspensions and disproportionate discipline to racial minorities remains relevant, similar tactics are used in pushing out students with learning disabilities, a topic which continues to be relatively under-discussed. However, while racism is the driving factor between the disproportionate expulsion of Black and Latino students, a lack of understanding drives out many students who have a learning disability. They may ‘act out’ more frequently than their peers, but the underlying cause is certainly more than just a tendency towards truancy.

Students with learning disabilities often become frustrated with their inability to learn in school. Some become behavior problems to divert attention from their academic performance; others try to behave perfectly and hope that adults won’t notice them.” (Levine & Osbourne, 1989)

In some instances, as in Levine and Osbourne’s example, there is a choice made. Truant activity is a way to get attention and be noticed by members of staff; it is a way to present the image of not caring about one’s education. For, as high school social environments would dictate, it is easier to be failing if you give off the impression that you don’t care. In other instances, resisting instruction is a defense mechanism to avoid the embarrassment of being unable to read or partake in ordinary academic activities. But, for other students, acting differently from the rest of the class isn’t necessarily a choice. For students with ADHD, behavioral problems may stem from the inability to focus in the classroom. Genuine curiosity may be construed as rude or intrusive behavior. Even in dyslexia, which does not have any obvious behavioral symptoms, there is evidence of truant behavior. Dahle and Knivsberg conducted a study of behavioral issues in children with dyslexia against children without dyslexia. In their study, teachers reported more instances of aggression, hyperactivity, and delinquency in the dyslexic students, “indicating that children with dyslexia may use overt behaviors as an avoidance or coping strategy when faced with difficult tasks in public environments.” (Dahle & Knivsberg, 2014).

Regardless of the reason, however, suspension rates for students with disabilities is high. Research from The Civil Rights Project at the University of California found that “for all racial groups combined, more than 13% of students with disabilities were suspended. This is approximately twice the rate of their non-disabled peers.” (Losen & Gillespie, 2012) For students of color, this number is even higher. These students were also more likely to be suspended multiple times instead of just once, with one out of every four Black K-12 students suspended at least once in the 2009-2010 academic year. The interaction between race and disabilities is sobering, especially in light of federal legislation which is designed to protect students with disabilities from this kind of disciplinary discrimination. The study from The Civil Rights Project asked the important question: are the suspensions justified due to misbehavior, or are they discrimination? This question is particularly hard to answer in regards to students with disabilities because often their natural behavior, as determined by their disability, conflicts with the disciplinary standards of the school.

For students who have not been diagnosed, disciplinary action becomes difficult to understand and comprehend. Especially in students who are making less conscious choices about their activity, the act of being reprimanded or suspended devalues education. In line with the students who fade out without disciplinary action, the value of education is reduced when students feel like they are being disciplined for who they are, instead of actions they did wrong. This does not excuse dangerous or harmful behavior but poses a Band-Aid solution to something that could be better addressed with more information about learning differences and disabilities.

Failing to Succeed

Academic failure is the most stereotypical problem of the dyslexic student within the public-school system, especially in the last decade, and has been measured with more scrutiny since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. The law, signed into law by President George W. Bush, demanded higher standards of all students before they graduated high school. According to the Act, all students should pass the same benchmark of academic standards. Given the size of states and the discrepancy of education systems across one state, the standards were determined and measured by performance on standardized tests. The importance of these tests developed a high-stakes testing culture, as schools with insufficient test scores were threatened with closure. For schools with high numbers of students with disabilities, this posed a problem. Students with learning disabilities were supposed to take the same test and meet the same standard as the other students in the school. In the 2009 reading assessment for twelfth graders, 64 percent of students with disabilities tested below basic proficiency compared to 24 percent of students without disabilities. (NCES, 2009). The rate of success is consistently much lower for students with learning disabilities, especially dyslexia.

Many children and adults with dyslexia and other learning disabilities report their schooling experience as incredibly difficult, as they often felt “deeply humiliated when asked to read. They reported being ridiculed and bullied because of their reading difficulties.” (Rose, 2009). Boyes et. al, in 2017, published an article outlining the relationship between learning disabilities and mental health problems, many of which emerged from this feeling of shame. Given the intensity of high-stakes testing, the pressure to do well can feel all-encompassing to a student with a disability. Lacking self-esteem can remain a barrier for other disciplines as well. Even if a student with dyslexia shows promise elsewhere, their experiences in other classrooms may hinder their belief that they can succeed. As Richard Dowson writes, “failure in school can result in depression and a fear of school. The student dreads going to school. Who can blame him? Except for a chance to clown around with friends, school is a hostile place where the dyslexic does not experience academic success.” (Dowson) Psychological research finds that these kinds of experience normalize negative self-worth and self-esteem, so much so that dropping out becomes an attractive alternative to continued negative experiences. When the failure to succeed is combined with disciplinary action or a feeling of being misunderstood by peers and teachers, it is unsurprising that many students with learning disabilities drop out of school.

Conclusion: The Answer?

As the evidence above shows, there are many significant problems for students with learning disabilities in the public school education system. Not all of them can be solved overnight or with federal policy. The major shift that needs to occur is one of greater understanding of learning disabilities. Educators need to be able to have the means and knowledge to recognize a learning disability in an individual, or at least be able to discern when a student should be referred for further testing. It is possible that the limited access to comprehensive evaluations is blocking a lot of this understanding, and therefore measures need to be taken to create a better system for evaluating and diagnosing students. These tests need to be inexpensive or subsidized by governing authorities as opposed to the school so that teachers and parents can provide comprehensive care to their students with learning disabilities. This care should be specific to the needs of the children and altered from the traditional route if necessary. Having a greater understanding of learning disabilities through better training and continual support will allow teachers to be able to handle the difference in education and help the student better. However, while better understanding from the standpoint of an educator may help a student with a learning disability, more research still needs to be done about the specifics of dyslexia before a full solution can be determined. There is a dearth of literature on the experience of dyslexic students at school, and even less literature which talks about the experience of people with dyslexia outside of the education system. It is well known that students who drop out of school are more likely to be incarcerated and more likely to be unemployed, but little attention is given to how learning disabilities factor into these issues.

But, while this paper has outlined many of the logical reasons why a student may choose to drop out of school, the real problem that will likely continue is the feelings of shame and humiliation that pervade the school experiences of students with learning disabilities. These moments often do come from a lack of understanding from peers and educators, but also from an educational system that has narrowed its focus to standardized testing and proficiency in reading and math. Until these systems begin to become more flexible in their measurements of intelligence, students with learning disabilities will continue to be put to one side and the epidemic of the dyslexic dropout will only just continue.


Thank you to Professor Debs for allowing me to write a paper that allowed me to learn so much more about what it means to be dyslexic, and for making me all the more grateful for my teachers and family members who allowed me to thrive in the education system instead of drop out. And, thanks to my fiancé Andrew Bean for the M&Ms. I needed them all. Thank you to Alison Levosky, Brian Pok and Julie Zhu for putting up with me and my GIFs, and to Julie (again) and Emily Patton for their edits.

Works Cited

Balfanz, Robert. “What your community can do to end its Drop-Out Crisis: Learnings from Research and Practice.” Prepared for the National Summit on America’s Silent Epidemic. May 9, 2007. Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University. Accessed:

Boyes, Mark. E.; Leitao, Suze; Dzidic, Peta; Claessen, Mary; Gordon, Joanne; Howard, Kate; Nayton, Mandy. “Exploring the impact of living with dyslexia: The perspectives of children and their parents.” International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, (2017). DOI. 10.1080/17549507.2017.1309068.

Blackley, Sandie. “Why Public Schools Struggle to Help Kids with Dyslexia.” Lexercise. March 24, 2014.

Carroll, Mary Beth Crosby, “The Reality of Dyslexia: Millions Struggle,” The New York Times, February 12, 2012.

Coalition for Literacy, “$2 Billion is spent on students repeating a grade every year because of problems related to reading.”

Anne Elisabeth Dahle, Ann-Mari Knivsberg, Internalizing, externalizing and attention problems in dyslexia, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 2014, 16, 2, 179

Diplomas Count 2015, “Graduation Rate tops 80 percent.” Data from the U.S. Department of Education, published in

Dowson, Richard. “Dyslexia – the Least Known, Most Common Learning Disability.” The Alberta Teacher’s Association. Vol. 2084. No. 201. Accessed:

Dyslexia Awareness,

Dyslexia Research Institute,

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1401 (30)

Losen, Daniel J; Gillespie, Jonathan. “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School.” (2012) The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project. University of California. Accessed:

Levine, Sarah L.; Osbourne, Sally. “Living and Learning with Dyslexia.” Phi Delta Kappan. V70 n8 p594-98. April 1989.

National Center for Education Statistics, “The Nation’s Report Card: Grade 12 Reading and Mathematics 2009 National and Pilot State Results” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).

National Center for Learning Disabilities, “The State of Learning Disabilities,” Third Edition, 2014. Accessed:

National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, National Center for Special Education Research, “The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults with Disabiltiies up to 8 years after high school.” 2011. Accessed:

Redford, Kyle. “My Son’s Dyslexia Diagnosis.” Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Accessed:

Paul, Annie Murray, “The Upside of Dyslexia.” The New York Times. February 4, 2012.

Pearce, Barbara. “Confessions of a Parent of Two Dyslexics.” Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Accessed:

Rose, Jim. “Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties.” An independent report from Sir Jim Rose to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools nad Families. June 2009. Accessed:

Smith, E. J., & Harper, S. R. “Disproportionate impact of K-12 school suspension and expulsion on Black students in southern states.” (2015) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. Accessed:

“Specific Learning Disorder” Fact Sheet, American Psychological Association, 2013. Accessed:

Van Dorn, Betsy. “Dylsexia and the High-Schooler.” Family Education. Accessed:

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (NCES 2016-014), Chapter 2. Accessed:

Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, “Multicultural Dyslexia Awareness Initiative.”

[1] Some states provide more specific data, whereas others do not, making it difficult to get an accurate picture of the specific breakdown of this data nationwide.

Aspire Public Schools

Akintunde Ahmad

Hannah Alexander

Franklin Eccher

Tran Le

CMO Report

Aspire Public Schools, California


While there may be charter management organizations (CMOs) that fail their students in providing a quality education, Aspire Public Schools is a model of a successful CMO. In existence for 19 years, Aspire serves over 16,000 students in 40 schools throughout California and in Memphis, Tennessee (however this report used data only from Aspire California schools). Aspire was founded on the mission to prepare all students for college, and based upon students’ yearly academic performance and college acceptance rates, Aspire appears to fulfill its stated purpose. Aspire consistently surpasses the available public alternatives. This CMO can pursue its goal of sharing its practices in order to help catalyze education reform in public schools across the nation. By building on its history of reform, Aspire has the capacity to become an education leader.


In order to evaluate data from the Aspire Public Schools of California, we used an online random number generator to conduct a sample of six Aspire schools: East Palo Alto School, Inskeep School, Summit Charter Academy, Richmond Tech Academy, and Capital Heights School. We then compared federal, state, and CMO data for these six schools with data for the school districts geographically surrounding them.

History, Pedagogy, and Mission

In 1998, public school educator Don Shalvey joined forces with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings to launch Aspire Public Schools, one of the nation’s first charter management organizations. Their mission was to: “grow the public charter school movement by opening and operating small, high-quality charter schools in low-income neighborhoods…and prepare these students for college” (“The History of Aspire”). For the past eight years, 100% of Aspire graduates secured admission to a four-year college or university. Aspire has stayed true to Dr. Shalvey’s vision of preparing students to earn a college degree. In regard to student demographics, this CMO serves predominantly low-income students. It values racial diversity and believes that the varied backgrounds of students and families help create a rich educational environment. Additionally, in order to ensure that students and families feel safe on their campuses, the schools do not collect any information about the immigration statuses of students, and have enacted policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race and national origin (“Commitment to Students”).

School Demographics

Aspire Public Schools monitors the racial and ethnic balance among its students annually, engaging in a variety of strategies to try to achieve a student population that reflects the community while honoring parent choice. In 2014, 8% of its students had disabilities compared to 12% in surrounding districts, and 28% were ELL compared to 25% in local districts (U.S. Department of Education).

Using data from the 2014-2015 school year, this graph compares the percentage of students of color in each school to that of the school’s district. SOC enrollment in the selected sample of Aspire schools is higher than in surrounding districts, except in the cases of East Palo Alto and Summit. In 2014, 79% of students between 5 and 17 years of age were from low-income families, compared to 74% in the districts they came from. Based on enrollment data alone, the Aspire mission of inclusivity holds true.

Using data from the 2014-2015 school year, we compared the percentages of students who received free and reduced lunch (FRL students) in the individual schools with that of their corresponding districts. While East Palo Alto School is a definite outlier, as it had no FRL students, the other four schools had a majority population of FRL students, three of which had larger percentages than the districts in which they belong (there was no free and reduced lunch data for the fifth school, Richmond Tech Academy). It is evident that Aspire serves disadvantaged populations, a goal that accentuates their exceptional standardized testing performance, graduation rate, and college prospects (Fensterwald).


Student Achievement

In 2014, the overall attendance rate for Aspire Public Schools was 96%; the attrition rate was 3.5%; the graduation rate in 2013 was 83%, compared to the California state average of 79%, and college attendance for 2012-2013 was 87%. The graduation rate for network students from low-income families was 84%, compared to the state average for that group of 73%. Aspire students graduate with over 15 college credits already complete, so their completion rate of college courses required for admittance to California State or University schools is higher than that of local districts and California as a whole (U.S. Department of Education). Unfortunately, however, there is no available data on the college success and graduation rates of students who graduate from Aspire schools.

Additionally, the California Standards Tests are given to students in grades two through eleven each spring, and over the past four years, more Aspire students have scored Advanced/Proficient (A/P) than typical students in neighboring districts (that serve similar demographics of students) and statewide.

School Discipline

On average, the in-school suspension percentage of this CMO’s schools is higher than that of the surrounding districts. In three of the charters, the Aspire school’s rate of suspension is about three times higher than the district average. This may be the result of Aspire schools having stricter disciplinary practices than their surrounding districts, even though they do not outwardly display or advertise having a “no-excuses” policy. The only other available disciplinary data about this district and this CMO’s schools concerns school related arrests, but there were only school related arrests in Inskeep Aspire School. The percentage of arrests in Aspire Schools is less than that of the their surrounding districts, and the data is not available to see if these arrests are the result of violent or nonviolent incidents. However, the data does show that Black and Latino students are most likely to be arrested. Disciplinary action in the Aspire schools is decided by the CMO’s Board of Directors, and each individual school’s Advisory School Council (ASC).  An ASC consists of the principal, two teachers, two parents, one member of the chartering district’s Board, and one community member at large. It acts as an initial discipline review board, addresses school safety issues, reviews parental concerns, determines budget priorities, and sets policies that are unique to the school (“Accountability”). There are no areas of the Aspire Public Schools’ publications that advertise the schools as “No Excuses”, and the school has no history of “No Excuses” practices, as the CMO only results to expulsion if a student has a history of misconduct, such as over twenty suspensions in a single school year,  or if a student’s presence causes continuous danger to other students (“APS Student Family Handbook”).  There is no public controversy concerning student discipline with Aspire Public Schools.

Marketing and Media

The Aspire Public Schools advertise themselves as being inclusive, diverse, and accessible. On its home page, one will find a huge picture of a classroom of all black and brown students, the primary demographic of Aspire Public Schools in California. These schools operate on the platform of college for certain, with the slogan “make college the expectation, not the exception” also clearly visible on the APS home page (“Commitment to Students”). They are open about their inclusivity, as they also advertise on their website (including on their homepage) that they serve undocumented students and students of undocumented families (“Commitment to Students”). In addition, the Aspire website provides its enrollment directions in Spanish, to ensure that the large Latino population that they serve can properly matriculate to their schools.  In the media, Aspire Public Schools have been mentioned, surprisingly, in opposition to budget cuts of district schools, even if more funding is directed towards charter schools like their own (Toll, USA Today). There is also an ongoing litigation between the California Department of Education and the Concerned Parent Association, concerning the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and the APS website notifies its parents and students with directions to anyone wishing to object to presenting their personally identifiable information (“Accountability”). This implies that Aspire schools cater to the educational needs of immigrant families, regardless of their legal status.

Accountability and Oversight

Each Aspire school is governed by Aspire’s Board of Directors, but they encourage all stakeholders, including families, staff members, administrators, and community leaders, to take responsibility in the students’ education process. Each year, Aspire compiles information concerning progress across various metrics into an accountability report, which is available to the public. These reports include student enrollment demographics, teacher’s credentials, students CAASPP test scores, school climate data, class sizes, student fitness standards, and employee salaries. The Aspire data seems to be consistent with the state data and meet state standards. Aspire Public Schools is also committed to equal opportunity for all individuals in education, and is a Title IX compliant CMO (“Accountability”). It clearly displays that it is a 501(c)3 non-for-profit CMO, and states that because it is often easier for a group to work together to run a charter school, they banded different individuals of different areas together to run multiple charter schools (“FAQs”). Aspire provides lists of their different donors and investors and includes the range of donations that each person or organization gave for the operating year (“Partners and Investors”). In terms of how much of this money goes to the school compared to the CMO, there is no information readily available. Aspire Public Schools has not had any financial scandals or questionable financial interests in the media.


The Aspire CMO website shares its financials dating as far back as the 2008-2009 fiscal year, as well as some transparent information about its sources of funding. Aspire Charter Schools receive funding from a broad range of sources, both public and private.

The CMO receives federal, state – from California and Tennessee – and local funding from property taxes. In the 2015 fiscal year, the highest proportion of funding came from the state followed by federal and local funding (“ Quarter Financial Report”). The Aspire CMO is additionally funded through private grants and contributions from donors. The list of  “Partners and Investors” includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings, both donating more than $1 million to the CMO. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has a history of supporting charter schools, hoping to “increase the number of academically strong seats in charter networks that serve students of color and low-income populations”(“Charter School Growth Fund”). The Foundation has worked with Aspire because it is a “high performing CMO”(“Aspire Public Schools”).  Hastings, too, is an outspoken advocate of charter schools – currently serving on the board of the KIPP Foundation and previously serving on the California Board of Education (Huddleston, 2016). The Bill and Wells Fargo, Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and Chevron are among other higher profile institutions to donate to the CMO (“Partners & Investors”).


Although the Aspire website argues that “Aspire is not a teacher-training institute” (“Effective Teachers”), the Aspire Public Schools network does offer its own comprehensive programs for earning teacher credentials, referred off-hand as being “Aspiratized” (Tucker 2011). Essential to this program are Aspire’s “Instructional Coaches,” or existing teachers who operate in two-year mentorship roles for new teachers, and the “Teacher Effectiveness Model,” a framework for reflective practice and self-evaluation (“Teacher Development”). Aspire also offers a Teacher Residency Program for prospective college graduates which, although an attractive financial option, has only attracted a few dozen students per year since its inception. That said, Aspire schools suffer from teacher attrition as much or more than their surrounding districts, like in Oakland, where the retention rate for Aspire teachers is only 75% (Mongeau 2015).

As explored above in “Student Achievement,” Aspire’s graduation and college enrollment rates are significantly higher than its surrounding districts, a clear positive indicator for Aspire’s pedagogy. Aspire’s pedagogy of teaching relies heavily on the “Blended Learning” model, which incorporates self-guided online learning in the style of services like Khan Academy. Data is perhaps Aspire’s most important driver of teacher improvement. In fact, each Aspire school has an actual “data driver,” or a teacher given the additional responsibility of implementing available data into teacher evaluation and feedback. This blend of hard data with best-practice resources helps to develop the standardized Aspire brand of pedagogy (“Teacher Development”).

Relationship to the District

Aspire, in line with the original rhetoric of charter school pedagogy, stresses heavily its commitment to collaboration and shared best-practice. However, we were unable to find any specific examples or evidence to demonstrate a relationship between the pedagogy of Aspire schools and the surrounding districts.  The Aspire websites states, “To date, our collaboration with other school systems has taken a wide variety of forms ranging from instructional to financial.” Aspire opens its doors to tours and partnership meetings with other schools, and intends for its “College Ready Promise” to be a message not only for Aspire schools but also for the broader district as well. Interestingly, Aspire developed its own online school evaluation system, Schoolzilla, available for free to educators, which processes data into tangible guidelines for improvement and is currently in use in 500 schools in ten states (“Collaboration,” “Schoolzilla”). That said, while stressing the importance of the district context, Aspire seems to focus more on the expansion of their own charter network, and not necessarily on nurturing other individual partnerships. Aspire makes a concerted effort to interact with the surrounding community and to be transparent in its pedagogy and offerings, but focuses more on their own practice in their push for new charters rather than their impact on the districts in which their schools reside.


Aspire’s mission is to build the public charter school movement by opening high-quality charter schools in low-income neighborhoods and  preparing these low-income students for college (“The History of Aspire”). This mission set forth by Aspire launchers Don Shalvey and Reed Hastings addresses the purposes of education set forth by Labaree of democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility (Labaree, 1997). Public schools should offer a quality education that provides all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, the tools to succeed civically, economically and socially. The Aspire CMO believes that the expansion of its network of high performing charter schools is accomplishing that through the expansion of the opportunity to attend college.

The students in high performing schools are better equipped to engage civically and to advance socially and economically. Aspire’s students outperform both their district and state peers in California Standards Tests in math and language arts. This high performance of Aspire’s predominantly low-income students has led to an eight year long 100% acceptance rate to four year colleges. Aspire’s “College for Certain” mentality addresses the purposes of education by noting the opportunities provided by a college degree. Namely, the students’ acquisition of skills needed to “support themselves and a family throughout life,” and the ability to contribute their time and talents to their communities” (“College for Certain”). Aspire’s high performance gives its students the opportunity for higher education, better equipping students to achieve better social position as well as become better citizens, fulfilling the role that a public school should.

Word Count: 2498


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West Haven, CT

Arsalan Sufi and Chris Rice


West Haven

West Haven is an incredibly dynamic suburb. It’s undergone rapid demographic change over the past two decades with a substantial increase in its minority population. Much of this dynamism has to do with West Haven’s proximity to urban New Haven. Unlike suburbs further away from New Haven, West Haven exists right at the boundary between city and suburb. This makes West Haven a fertile ground for studying social mobility, class tensions, and race tensions. This also makes answering the question of whether or not West Haven is desirable difficult. Whereas urban minority families may view West Haven as a step forward, suburban white families may view it as a step backward.

We present the data that we’ve collected in the following sections. In addition to describing trends, we do our best to provide explanations for those trends.

Population, Race, and Ethnicity

General Trends

West Haven’s total population has remained relatively constant since 2000, hovering around 54,000 residents [1]. However, the racial and ethnic breakdown of the suburb has changed significantly over the past few decades. The suburb’s minority population has been growing at a steady rate since 1990. In 2000, minorities constituted roughly 30 percent of the population. As of 2014, they constituted 47 percent of the population [2]. Since the overall population of West Haven hasn’t changed significantly, this means that white population is shrinking, both in terms of percentage and in absolute numbers. In other words, as minority residents are moving into West Haven, white residents are leaving. It’s very possible that the most affluent residents are moving to the wealthier adjacent suburbs of Orange and Milford. This pattern of moving further away from the city and into wealthier suburbs is common and tied to American consumerism [3].

Specific Trends

These population changes haven’t been uniform across the suburb’s constituent census tracts. Consider census tracts 1547 and 1550, located in the southwestern and eastern sections of West Haven, respectively. Census tract 1547’s white population dropped by 2 percent from 2000 to 2014. Over the same timespan, census tract 1550’s white population dropped by a much larger 35 percent [2].

The two census tracts in southwestern West Haven, 1547 and 1548, have historically been the whitest in the suburb and have remained the whitest even as the demographic breakdown of the suburb has changed [2]. We’ll return to these two census tracts when we discuss the economic state of West Haven.

More Hispanic minorities are moving into the suburb than black minorities. In 2000, 9 percent of West Haven’s population was Hispanic, and 16 percent was black. By 2014, the Hispanic population had increased to 19 percent, almost equaling the 21 percent black population. West Haven’s Asian and Native American minority populations have remained small [2].

Hispanic Migration

Figure 1. West Haven’s Hispanic population by census tract in 1990 (left) and 2014 (right).

Origins of Incoming Minorities

The incoming minorities are likely migrating from New Haven. The southwestern section of New Haven, which lies adjacent to West Haven, has a very high minority population. Census tract 1405 in southwestern New Haven, for example, is 56 percent Hispanic and 34 percent black [2]. Also notable is the fact that the incomes of minority families living in New Haven are lower than the incomes of minority families living in West Haven [4]. The families moving from New Haven to West Haven thus may be up-and-coming urban minorities hoping to reap the benefits of suburban life.

Economic State

Median Household Incomes

Income Increases

Figure 2. West Haven’s median household income by census tract in 1990 (left) and 2014 (right).

At a surface level, West Haven appears to be ascending economically. Every census tract but one has experienced an increase in median household income since 2000, even after accounting for inflation. Just like the population changes in West Haven however, the income increases haven’t been uniform. Whereas most census tracts experienced income increases between $5,000 and $10,000, the two southwestern census tracts’ incomes increased by $16,000 and $35,000 [4]. As noted earlier, these two southwestern census tracts are also the whitest in the suburb.

A quick anomaly worth mentioning: although the black population in the two southwestern census tracts is low, less than 5 percent in both tracts, the median household income of black families in these census tracts is notably higher than that of white families. In 2014, the median household income of black families in census tract 1548 was roughly 30,000 dollars higher than the the median household income of white families [4]. These families could be a part of a growing black upper-middle class in West Haven.

Unemployment Rates and Poverty Levels

Whereas rising household incomes suggest that West Haven is ascending, increasing unemployment rates and poverty levels in pockets of the city also suggest that disparities in the suburb are widening. Unemployment rates in a handful of census tracts have increased significantly. In tract 1550, rates rose from 3.9 percent in 2000 to 14.6 percent in 2014 [5]. Poverty levels have also increased in a handful of census tracts, specifically in the suburb’s central region. In tract 1542, the percentage of families living below the poverty line increased from 5.8 percent in 2000 to 18.2 percent in 2014 [6].

Classifying West Haven Using Owen’s Typology

To better understand the processes of economic ascent in West Haven, we’ve attempted to classify West Haven using the neighborhood types identified by Ann Owens in her paper on ascending neighborhoods [7]. Interestingly, it seems there are two distinct sections of West Haven.

The two southwestern census tracts, which are the furthest out from New Haven, resemble an “upper-middle-class white suburb.” They have high white populations, but their housing is too old to be considered a “new white suburb,” and their education levels aren’t high enough to be considered an “affluent neighborhood.” The median years houses were built in the two tracts are 1959 and 1952, whereas the housing in most new white suburbs was built after 1970 [7]. Likewise, whereas half of the residents in an affluent neighborhood have bachelor’s degrees [7], only a quarter of the residents in southwestern West Haven have bachelor’s degrees [8]. Interestingly, the education levels in southwestern West Haven aren’t significantly higher than the levels in the rest of West Haven where, in most census tracts, roughly a fifth of residents have bachelor’s degrees [8]. Thus, the relative wealth in southwestern West Haven doesn’t appear to be a result of increased education levels. One possible explanation is that some southwestern West Haven residents have accrued their wealth over generations [7].

Meanwhile, the rest of West Haven resembles a “diverse urban neighborhood,” given its high minority population and proximity to urban New Haven.

Owens has documented economic ascent in both upper-middle-class white suburbs and diverse urban neighborhoods. Regarding upper-middle-class white suburbs, she specifically notes that they are “more likely to experience ascent over time, suggesting a transition of these neighborhoods to an extremely affluent status reflecting the increase in economic segregation over time” [7, p. 358]. This observation aligns with our earlier observations. Although West Haven appears to be ascending, economic segregation also appears to be on the rise.



Zoning laws have guided development in West Haven, contextualizing the shifting population patterns mentioned in previous sections. Southeast West Haven is composed of a central business district surrounded by multi-family residences. South of the business district is shoreline commercial retail. At the heart of West Haven is its only affordable housing project, 15 Glade Street. The affordable housing is surrounded by other multi-family complexes. There are two large swaths of land in central and northern West Haven zoned for industrial planned development. The proximity to these industrialized spaces may explain why property values are relatively low in West Haven compared to other nearby suburbs [15]. These low prices may further explain why the minority population has been increasing.

The more affluent southwestern section of West Haven consists almost entirely of single-family detached residences surrounded by open spaces along the shoreline. The region is entirely residential, unlike the rest of West Haven, which consists of a blend of residential and commercial areas [15]. Some residents have made it clear that the commercial areas deter wealthier families who hope to provide a safe environment for their children. When describing a commercial area, one commenter on the New Haven Independent explains, “no parent would want their kid to be raised anywhere in that neighborhood to begin with” [16] highlighting the assumption that the parents who do raise their children in the area must not care as much about their wellbeing.


There are 525 homes/apartments up for sale/rent in West Haven. Of these listings, 27 are rentals, 256 are homes for sale, while the remaining 160 are listed as “pre-foreclosure.” This last fact is particularly interesting because Zillow defines the pre-foreclosure stage as “the period between the time in which a Notice of Default or lis pendens has been issued to the homeowner and after the property is sold at a foreclosure auction” [17]. This might suggest that the families who live in these 160 listings are facing financial troubles. Nevertheless, this value shouldn’t be taken at face value because the definition is broad and could include families that have paid their debts.


Retail in West Haven consists primarily of department stores such as Wal-Mart, Sears, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Super Stop and Shop. The suburb also hosts many auto shops: Monro Muffler Brake and Service, G B Wheels, Saveway Tire Center, NAPA Auto Parts, Star Tires Plus Wheels, Discount Tire Center, Sherwin Williams Automotive Finishes, and Larkin Tire East [12]. It’s possible that many of West Haven’s blue-collar residents work in the automotive industry. West Haven is also home to a small Turkish enclave neighborhood [13]. This explains the presence of Makkah Halal Meat and Istanbul Import Market.


Minority Student Population

Minority Students

Figure 3. The minority student percentages in West Haven’s public schools over time.

The minority student population in West Haven’s public schools has consistently increased since 1990, reflecting the general increase in West Haven’s minority population. However, the breakdown of the minority student population reveals an anomaly. Although the number of Hispanic students has increased considerably since 1990, the number of black students has remained almost constant despite increases in the suburb’s black population [14].

One potential explanation for this is that black middle-class families are sending their children to private schools. In his case study of Rolling Acres Public Schools, L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy notes that “The reputation of Rolling Acres Public Schools among white families was stellar, yet among black families, particularly the black middle class, RAPS was viewed as hazardous for educating black children” [9, p. 140]. Perhaps black middle-class families feel this way about West Haven’s public schools and have the financial means to send their children elsewhere. The median household income of black families in West Haven is higher than that of Hispanic families [4], so black families may indeed have more school choice agency than Hispanic families.

Test Scores

Test Scores

Figure 4. West Haven 3rd graders and high schoolers’ scores on the SBAC. ELA stands for English and Language Arts.

Regarding scores on the SBAC, Connecticut’s new standardized test, nearly all public schools in West Haven (elementary, middle and high) underperformed relative to the state. There was one exception however, visible in Figure 4. Edith E. Mackrille Elementary’s 3rd graders performed better than the state in both math and reading [10]. This school resides at the border between the affluent southwestern census tracts and the less affluent central census tracts. Interestingly, Seth G. Haley Elementary, which lies at the heart of the affluent southwestern census tracts didn’t perform nearly as well as Mackrille [10]. This suggests that neighborhood wealth and school performance don’t always go hand-in-hand. It’s possible that the most wealthy parents are sending their kids to private schools outside West Haven, directing their resources away from the public school system.


On, no West Haven school receives a GreatSchools rating higher than 6 out of 10. These relatively low ratings aren’t surprising given that they’re based primarily on test scores. However, the user ratings for West Haven’s schools are reasonably high, usually around 4 out of 5 stars. Some positive comments include: “I am a current Junior at West Haven High. I personally have had a great educational experience,” “WHHS is a great school u get what u put in,” and “I got great writing classes there.” Of course, not all comments are positive. One less positive comment states: “Unfortunetly as a public school it has been caught up in the degradation of schools by unions, local, state, and national politics” [11].

Perception vs. Reality

Negative Perception

The news tends to portray West Haven in a negative light. Running a search for West Haven on the New Haven Register’s site brings up several stories about crimes. There are only a handful of positive accounts among the generally negative accounts. Comments on articles are similarly negative: “Good start to Friday news with another West Haven resident in cuffs. That town doesnt need a carousel, the land should be used to build a jail big enough to hold all these idiots if thats possible,” and “West Haven was a great town prior to the 90’s….anyone still living there AND owning property needs to get out ASAP” [16]. The chronology in this second comment is important. The commenter marks 1990 as the cutoff date for when West Haven was desirable. It was also around 1990 that West Haven’s minority population started to grow.

The crime rates in West Haven reflect the general trend that we have identified throughout this report; they are lower in the wealthier single-family residential areas to the southwest and higher in low-income areas with multi-family housing. Minorities moving into eastern West Haven may not only be causing white flight, but also informing the assumptions that white residents have about the crime that is occurring in the city. Perhaps this dynamic is fueling the negative perception that some residents have of West Haven and its future?

A More Positive Reality

Community posts on Facebook groups made by West Haven community members are much more positive and tend to reveal the characteristics of a tight-knit group of concerned citizens. West Haven – What’s Happening, for example, is a group composed of 2,897 members that “posts information of events and activities” in the city [18]. Recent posts demonstrate a more desirable side of West Haven, one in which neighbors happily attend each other’s events and are supportive of one another’s causes. Communication is free flowing and no negative comments are to be found. It may be that this forum specifically facilitates this type of communication; however, this is certainly a side of West Haven that is not perpetuated in the media. After taking a deeper, unbiased look at the suburb, it starts to become much more desirable.

Works Cited

  1. Social Explorer, Population Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  2. Social Explorer, Race Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  3. Cohen, Elizabeth. A Consumers’ Republic. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Print.
  4. Social Explorer, Income Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  5. Social Explorer, Unemployment Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  6. Social Explorer, Poverty Data Set. U.S. Census Bureau. Web. 9 February 2016.
  7. Owens, Ann. “Neighborhoods on the Rise: A Typology of Neighborhoods Experiencing Socioeconomic Ascent.” City and Community 11.4 (2012): 345-369. Print.
  8. U.S. Census Bureau. Social Explorer, Education Data Set. Web. 9 February 2016.
  9. Lewis-McCoy, R. L’Heureux. Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. Print.
  10. Busemeyer, Stephen, and Matthew Kauffman. “How Did Your School Do On The Connecticut SBAC?” Hartford Courant. Hartford Courant. 27 August 2015. Web. 21 February 2016.
  11. GreatSchools. GreatSchools. Web. 21 February 2016.
  12. Google Maps. Google. Web. 21 February 2016.
  13. Turkish Cultural Center Connecticut. Turkish Cultural Center Connecticut. Web. 21 February 2016.
  14. Elementary / Secondary Information System. National Center for Education Statistics. Web. 9 February 2016.
  15. “Zoning Regulations.” City of West Haven. City of West Haven. Web. 21 February 2016.
  16. New Haven Independent. New Haven Independent. Web. 21 February 2016.
  17. Zillow. Zillow. Web. 21 February 2016.
  18. “West Haven – What’s Happening.” Facebook. Facebook. Web. 23 February 2016.