CharterFolk Contributors Arthur Samuels and Pagee Cheung – Creating 13th Grade Because Our Students Deserve Even Better

Good Morning, CharterFolk.

Today it is a thrill to share with you a Contributor Column from Arthur Samuels and Pagee Cheung, the Founders and Co-Directors of MESA Charter High School in Brooklyn, New York.

I provide bios for Arthur and Pagee below.

Pagee Cheung and Arthur Samuels are the co-founders of MESA Charter High School, which opened its doors in 2013 and since celebrated over 90% graduation rate for the past 5 years. The New York Post has said that MESA “just might be the best charter high school in New York State.” MESA has emerged as a leader in the charter sector in several areas, earning plaudits for both its academic and operational performance. MESA leadership has shared its “secret sauce” in areas ranging from standards-based grading to creating student programming, from SPED/ELL instruction to DEI practices. 

Formerly a high school math teacher in both NYCODE and charter schools, Cheung holds a B.A. from the University of Southern California and an M.A. in Secondary Math Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is an alumna of the Cahn Fellows Program for Distinguished Principals. She is a championship-caliber competitive eater currently accepting challenges. 

Samuels is a former teacher, college counselor, and youth baseball coach. He holds a B.A. from Brown University, a J.D. from Harvard Law School and a Master of Arts in Education Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University.  He is a 50Can National Voices Fellow for 2021. His educational rap videos has been viewed over 150,000 times on YouTube. 

As CharterFolk readers may remember, Arthur and Pagee were recently recognized as CharterFolk Extraordinaire, and after being profiled reached out to me about whether we might welcome a post where they could elaborate on their ideas for 13th grade. We said we would, of course, be delighted to get their voice further out in the CharterFolk community.

It’s a great reminder that any CharterFolk X awardee or reader is actively encouraged to get your thoughts out into the CharterFolk readership. If you have thoughts or ideas for a Contributor Column, please ping me directly at

One last special thanks to Arthur and Pagee. Let’s get to their post.

Creating 13th Grade Because Our Students Deserve Even Better

Pascal and Steven were both members of the first class at MESA Charter High School, which we co-founded in 2013. Both were bright young men with easy smiles, solid students if not at the very top of the class. They performed well, graduated on time, and got accepted into highly regarded colleges–Pascal at SUNY Albany, and Steven at Seton Hall.

But, as is all too often the case with first-generation students, they ran into obstacles. Pascal had challenges at home that kept him from even matriculating. Steven encountered financial troubles that forced him to withdraw after a year. Sadly, this is not surprising. Even before the pandemic, Hispanic first time four-year college students, like Pascal, only had a 50% chance of completing their degree. Black first-timers like Steven were even less likely; only 41% persisted through. Two years after graduating from MESA, Pascal was stocking shelves at CVS and Steven was behind the cash register at Family Dollar. Working dead-end, minimum-wage jobs not only trapped them in poverty, it robbed them of their confidence and sense of self-worth.

Their story is not unique. A report published earlier this year by the New York City’s Disconnected Youth Task Force found that nearly a quarter of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are both out of school and out of work.  Nearly 80% of those are youth of color. For many of them, the future can seem over before it has begun. Disconnected youth earn $31,000 per year less upon reaching adulthood, and are 52% less likely to self-report good or excellent health.

We are proud of the MESA we have built. In a district where the high school graduation rate has averaged just over 70% over the past four years, MESA has graduated 93% of its students on time in the same period. We achieve these results by providing an overwhelming amount of support to Pascal, Steven, and their peers. Kids get highly targeted instruction, frequent communication with parents, and a loving, positive environment where they can thrive. 

But once they leave MESA, their economic precariousness and lack of institutional connections make it extremely challenging for students like ours to find their way.  According to the Pell Institute, just 11 percent of students from the lowest-income quartile earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, compared with 58 percent of students who come from the highest-income group. 

Our kids deserve better. Here’s how we can do it:

College is great; it’s not for everyone

For a long time, charter schools were laser-focused on getting kids into college. Kindergarten cohorts were identified by their year of college graduation; homerooms or advisories were named for the teacher’s undergraduate institution. Many schools still employ these practices, and the rationale is clear: building an early narrative around college enables students to see themselves as college bound and motivates them to do the work necessary to achieve that goal.

At the same time, there is a downside to pushing kids exclusively towards college, especially those who are on the fence about it or only qualify for a less selective institution. As of December, 2017, the three year graduation rate from community colleges in the CUNY system was only 22%.

How does this happen? Students who struggle academically and don’t necessarily know what they want to do wind up going to community college because it’s what they’ve been told to do and because it’s the path of least resistance. But any system in which nearly 80% of the students fail is unacceptable by any standard. To make matters worse, in many cases they leave saddled with debt, worse off than if they had never gone to college at all. No matter our intentions, when we send children into those systems we abet that failure. That’s not what charter schools are supposed to do.

Charters need to forge connections with non-college post-secondary programs that lead to financially secure careers. At MESA, we’ve built partnerships with programs like Marcy Lab School, KindWork, and NPower, to help students go directly from high school into technology. We’re working with Co-Op Tech, Strive, and other organizations to help our students get training in building trades. And we’re developing opportunities in the medical field for students. These are growing sectors with a demand for labor, and where there is an abundance of well-paid jobs with benefits that don’t require a college degree.

Develop workforce readiness in high school, and support after graduation

As a charter high school, we’re familiar with doing catch up work–most of our kids come in reading at about a 7th grade level. Over time, we’ve gotten quite good at getting kids up to speed academically in four short years, usually by throwing a kitchen sink of supports at them.

But this “whatever it takes” approach has its downside. Kids often don’t develop the real-life problem solving skills they’ll need to navigate a post-MESA world. It’s a catch-22: the MESA “love bubble” is necessary for them to graduate from high school, but once they leave that bubble, they’re adrift.

This means we have to intentionally expand our students’ skill sets while keeping supports in place. Despite eight years of impressive academic results, we’re re-designing our curriculum to de-emphasize breadth of content and focus on depth of skill. And bearing in mind the words of Marian Wright Edelman – “you can’t be what you can’t see” – we’re furiously curating internships and cultivating mentors for our young people. Awareness of the options in front of them will help them develop the perseverance to succeed.

And yet, they will still need support after graduation. Unlike their middle class and wealthy peers, charter school students graduate onto the razor’s edge. Their families don’t have the resources to cushion any fall. They have to learn immediately how to navigate faceless and often unforgiving bureaucracies that no one in their family has ever confronted. So we’re implementing “13th grade,” a series of supports in areas like mental health, financial management, and just “adulting” to help kids transition from high school into college and the workforce.

There are challenges to this work to be sure. It demands a substantial additional deployment of resources that are not built into a public school funding structure. It requires the development of lots of external partnerships, arguably outside the traditional scope of a public school. And it represents a shift away from a pedagogical approach that has worked well for nearly a decade. All of these are risky.

But here is the reward. As a small, close-knit school, we can retain strong relationships with our alumni after they graduate. We got in touch with Pascal and Steven, and helped them apply to the Marcy Lab School, a partner program that runs year-long coding bootcamps for low-income youth. The starting salary for the average Marcy graduate is six figures. We helped Pascal and Steven apply for the program, helping them not just with the essay and interview but with rediscovering their confidence; we helped them see themselves as capable of this program. They are now both enrolled in Marcy Lab, thriving. They’re reconnected.

We’ve seen what this approach can do for Steven and Pascal, so we’re going to apply it to our whole community. Every child in our city deserves a brighter future. At MESA, we’re going to do our part to make that happen.