In an ideal world, the Department of Education would install dedicated college counselors in each city high school, according to Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky.
But doing so would cost the city more than $600 million, he said, so the department is trying instead to close the college-readiness gap with free or low-cost solutions, including training staff members at each school to offer college advice and tweaking the way school performance is measured.
Polakow-Suransky made the comments last week while appearing on a panel on college-readiness hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs. The center is set to release a report next month about why so few city students graduate with the skills they need for college — and what can be done about it.
Interviews with hundreds of students at struggling high schools conducted as part of the center’s research revealed that most had high aspirations for themselves, but few understood that simply graduating from high school would not ensure success in college. The findings reflect a dim reality: In 2010, when the city touted a 61 percent four-year graduation rate, just 21 percent of students who had entered high school in four years earlier met the state’s college-readiness standards.
The city’s main strategy for closing that gap is the Common Core, new learning standards that are supposed to push students to develop critical thinking skills required for college-level work.
But making sure students have the academic skills and knowledge to hack it in college is necessary but not sufficient to ensuring that they succeed there, said David Conley, a researcher who students college readiness. They also need “soft skills” such as persistence and “transition knowledge” about how to navigate the admissions process, he said.
Ideally, a dedicated college counselor in each school would provide the full complement of college-preparation skills, agreed the panelists. But even if the city could afford it, there is actually no way to get counseling training that’s focused on the college admissions process, said Richard Alvarez, the head of admissions for the City University of New York. Instead, licensed guidance counselors must juggle other responsibilities alongside managing college applications for hundreds of students.
Nonprofit organizations shoulder some of the burden, helping students develop study skills, visit colleges, and apply for financial aid. Some even supply full-time counselors for individual schools or campuses. “This is like an alternative that really works,” said panelist Fernando Carlo, who runs an activist group that helps staff “Student Success Centers” that supply college preparation training at some campuses.
Polakow-Suransky said the department is in the middle of training point-people at each school to offer college advice to students and teachers alike. He said the department is also encouraging schools to look to peers who have been more successful at promoting interest and energy around college attendance.
As an example, Polakow-Suransky pointed to Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School’s annual parade to the local post office to mail college applications. “Those kinds of culture rituals and making it at the heart of the school’s community don’t actually cost money,” he said.
The city is also starting to measure whether schools are teaching the “soft” skills students need for success in college, he said. On this year’s quality reviews, reviewers will look for the first time for evidence that students are being encouraged to ask for help and try again after falling short, both markers of whether a student has the inner resources for tougher work in a different environment.
The department is also poised to factor a set of college readiness metrics into each high school’s annual progress report for the first time this fall.
“We’re trying to put pressure on [schools] through a number of means, by offering them these resources but also saying to principals, ‘Your grade on your progress report is going to depend on how many kids actually enroll in college,’” Polakow-Suransky said.
“Principals are not totally happy with us about this because they feel that, ‘I can get a kid into college but then that period from May to September when they’re supposed to go, all kinds of things that are outisde of my control can happen,’” he added. “And what we’ve been saying is, ‘Yes, that’s true. But if you lay this foundation well and you see this as part of your responsibility, a lot more kids are going to get there.”
Sheena Wright, who heads the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem, said lead time alone was inadequate preparation for the new accountability metrics.
“With the … stick that schools are going to be held accountable in terms of how their students persist through college, there really does need to be a complementary investment in the resources,” she said. “I don’t think training is going to be sufficient — you know, kind of identifying a leader that already exists in the school that already has five other jobs — but a real investment in someone who … that’s what they do.”
And Wright said she doubted that principals would be eager to share what works in their schools when they know that the city’s accountability system measures their performance against a “peer group” of similar schools. She proposed that schools get credit for how schools in their communities perform in the aggregate, to create incentives for sharing.
“That’s been very challenging for us in our neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s been extremely difficult to break down the walls with some of the school leaders to say, ‘You’re doing a great job. How do we share it with the school down the street?’”
Polakow-Suransky said he had heard that concern before, but that it was misplaced.
“Actually there’s very little to be gained by not sharing information with other schools,” he said. “People don’t necessarily understand that. … Each year when we do the training on the progress reports, we try to explain it again.”