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College Board ends school-support program amid shifting goals

At the Preparatory Academy for Writers in Queens, being a College Board School meant tablet computers for students and weekend visits to Boston’s elite universities.

For Palisade Preparatory School in Yonkers, just north of New York City, a partnership with the maker of the SATs and the Advanced Placement program meant top-notch teacher training and a chance to collaborate with educators from the city — not to mention the iPads and college visits.

And at South Bronx Preparatory, the fact that a national organization had helped found their small school sparked pride in their alma mater.

“When kids say, ‘a College Board School,’ they feel something,” said South Bronx Prep Principal Ellen Flanagan.

Then, in June, the nearly decade-old College Board Schools program was quietly canceled. The schools lost the support and funding that they had been getting, in some cases since 2004.

“I feel like we’ve been thrown away and abandoned,” said Cynthia Schneider, principal of a former College Board School in Queens, World Journalism Preparatory.

The dozen city schools that had been part of the program, as well as schools upstate and in Baltimore, learned about the change in a June 3 letter from the program director, Helen Santiago.

Santiago explained that the College Board had “not been able to find a way to effectively deliver on the promise of this program at scale” and asked the schools to stop identifying themselves as College Board Schools. “The term no longer carries the meaning it once did,” she wrote.

The shuttering of the schools program came nearly a year into new leadership at the College Board. David Coleman, a former McKinsey & Company consultant and a chief craftsman of the Common Core standards, which New York and 45 other states have adopted, took over the test-making company in 2012. He said his focus would be on boosting equity and achievement in all grades, rather than simply on the college admissions process for which the College Board had become known.

In May, the organization laid off more than 100 employees as it restructured to reflect the new priorities.

John McGrath, the College Board’s vice president of communications, said the schools program had run its course and the organization had decided to invest its resources elsewhere.

“We have to make difficult resource-allocation decisions everyday,” McGrath said. “In the case of this program, we fulfilled the obligation we set out to do.”

The College Board Schools program launched in 2004 to help districts create small middle schools and high schools that would push students to college. It began with grant money from the Gates Foundation — at the time a major sponsor of small schools — and later received Dell Foundation funds.

Eventually, 20 College Board Schools opened in New York, Maryland and Colorado. (West Leadership Academy in Denver is the only school still affiliated with the program, since it recently opened and remains under contract with the College Board.)

College Board staff were deeply involved in the schools’ design, going so far as help hand pick some school personnel, principals said.

They also offered coaching, leadership retreats and data-tracking support to the schools’ teachers and administrators, and helped them provide SAT prep, college counseling and intensive advisory sessions for students.

And then there was the money: $100,000 per school in few-strings-attached funding for their initial start-up years, then thousands more in later years, which could go towards technology, teacher training, college visits and more, according to principals.

“It really was a fantastic partnership,” said Palisade Prep Principal Michelle Yazurlo.

Still, the schools occasionally questioned parts of the program, as well as the College Board’s role in it.

The schools were encouraged to buy and adopt College Board’s academic curriculum, SpringBoard, even though some found it lacking, according to three principals.

And when one College Board-founded school, the Prep Academy for Writers, started to flounder, the program pulled out – until a new principal arrived and turned around the school, after which the program returned, according to the school’s current principal, Charles Anderson.

“The teachers here don’t think of the College Board as a support organization,” Anderson said. “They think of it more as the bad guy sometimes.”

Anderson and other principals speculated that the College Board’s decision to end the schools program was motivated by money.

“Once the [grant] funding went away, it seemed like the College Board didn’t have a huge stake in it,” Anderson said. “It was never really a financial [asset] for them.”

Schneider said she suspected that under Coleman, the College Board’s focus was narrowing to its most lucrative, marquee products – namely, its tests and AP program. “What they’re changing it up for is products and money,” she said.

A former College Board official, who asked to remain anonymous because the official was not authorized to speak about the program publicly, said that while the organization always keeps one eye on revenue, its decision in this case likely had more to do with impact.

“It was a lot of money invested in just a tiny number of schools,” the official said. “It makes sense for the College Board to focus on broader ways to have an impact on more children.”

Whatever its motives, the College Board’s decision has left a void at the schools.

Gone are the quarterly school counselor meetings at the College Board headquarters, the hands-on “implementation managers,” the brand-name partnership.

Without the funding, Anderson’s students take one-day trips to upstate New York or New Jersey schools, rather than weekend excursions to Massachusetts colleges.

South Bronx Prep’s Flanagan said she would “scrap around” to find the college-visit money – perhaps by postponing plans for a new Smart Board or laptop cart.

What really bothers her, she said, is the broken relationship between the College Board and her school.

“Our kids experience a lot of loss,” she said. “This is one more loss.”

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