Steinhardt Grad Aims to Improve Lives of NYC Public Schoolchildren

For Arlean Wells, a Ph.D. recipient from the Program in Educational Leadership in the Steinhardt School, her dissertation was not “just a research project.” It gave her the chance to better understand a formative childhood experience: being held back in third grade.

Her dissertation, “The Third- Grade Retention Policy in New York City: A Case Study of ‘The Left Back Group,'” analyzed the retention policy under the Michael Bloomberg administration, but was inspired by her own experience as a New York City public school child during the 1980s and 90s. Her confidence and selfesteem were hurt by being retained; few, if any, support systems were available. She fears that poor children and children of color continue to be negatively affected by the policy.

“Too many kids who look like me are not making it through the public school system,” says Wells, who is African American.

Wells's research focuses on a cohort of students who repeated the third grade and were taught as a distinct class, rather than dispersed into regular classrooms. This provided Wells with a research opportunity to compare the group's third- and fourth-grade academic achievement. She found that any achievement gains of the repeated third-grade year were lost during the fourth grade.

Her study captures the perspectives of administrators, teachers, and, perhaps, most importantly, children who are being affected by these reforms,” said her advisor, associate professor Colleen Larson of Steinhardt's Department of Administration, Leadership, and Technology. “These stories and the findings of this study need to be read by policy makers and educators who truly care about children.”

While earning her Ph.D., Wells taught K-3 special education in public schools in New York. She also worked with Steinhardt's Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, first as a tutor and later as a project associate, helping to recruit and train tutors to work in public schools.

Creating opportunities for New York's underprivileged schoolchildren is her greatest passion. Last year Wells organized a conference at NYU for local high school students for whom college might seem an impossible goal. She brought 60 students from four local schools to visit NYU and participate in workshops on choosing and applying to college. The event culminated with a bus trip to Howard University in Washington, D.C.