mind the gap

Panel: Path to college-readiness paved with hard-to-fund plans

Panelists discuss obstacles to college readiness at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs.

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.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede