rubbing elbows

In Manhattan conference room, students get networking workout

College and career readiness isn’t just about what students know — it’s about whom they know, too.

That’s the philosophy behind the Opportunity Network, a 10-year-old nonprofit organization that aims to develop professional skills in students who might be the first in their family to attend college. Last Wednesday, that development came in the form of two-minute conversations with an array of young professionals during an event that the organization bills as “speed networking.” (Watch part of the event in the video above.)

The event was for the group’s 60 OppNet Fellows, high school students selected after a lengthy application process to get two years of weekly workshops and college guidance.

“All the things that I may have taken for granted in terms of what I was exposed to in terms of career content, professional etiquette, and networks — they need to learn to maximize their career search,” said Jessica Pliska, the organization’s founding director.

For the most part, the Opportunity Network has focused its efforts on high-performing students whose strong academic skills meant that a lack of relationships might be all that would stand between them and success after college.

“Even the highest-performing kids in high school in New York City are not getting the preparation they need,” Pliska told GothamSchools earlier this year. “The experience and the knowledge and skills are not sufficient — the networks piece is the secret sauce.”

But the group also offers eight-week workshops and a “Career Fluency” curriculum that schools can incorporate into their existing programs. And Pliska said work has been underway since last year to lay groundwork for expanding the programming to a broader array of students and different points during high school.

The Opportunity Network worked with the I Have A Dream Foundation, which sponsors groups of low-income students on their path toward college, to develop programs in three schools: the high schools operated by the Achievement First and Democracy Prep charter networks, and Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, whose focus on college has won accolades from top Department of Education officials.

At those schools, Opportunity Network worked with students who Pliska said were “not necessarily at the top of their class” to give them the study habits and professional behaviors that they will need in college and in the workplace. For Democracy Prep, the group developed online “webinars” about interviewing, goal-setting, and professional etiquette that could be used in other schools in the future, Pliska said.

Students who participate in the organization’s flagship program say they can already imagine how last week’s networking — which drew volunteers a wide array of professions, including medicine, finance, and fashion — could be helpful to them in the future.

“I kind of think of it as a tease,” said Mariely Garcia, who attends the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching in Manhattan and who learned last week that she had been awarded a full scholarship to Bowdoin College in Maine.

“You meet these professionals, and they tell you about themselves and you tell them about yourself, and if you really build a connection within those two minutes, the idea [is] that you go out and reach out to them and then have an even stronger connection.”

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.