college prep

How one program is using frank conversations to help students choose the best college

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Dennique Khanns, 16, talks with a fellow Fordham High School for the Arts junior after their OneGoal class.

When Samara McLendon looked at a list of colleges recommended for someone with her mix of grades and test scores, the 16-year-old didn’t see many that she recognized.

The private Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs was included, along with the University at Buffalo. So was SUNY Geneseo, which has a student population that is 74 percent white. The student population at McLendon’s Bronx high school is 2 percent white.

As the high school junior stared at the list of school names, she wondered aloud if she would fit in.

“How is the social aspect going to affect my learning?” McLendon said. “How does that play into the college that I choose?”

Her questions were prompted by an organization called OneGoal, a college-readiness program that provided McLendon with her list of schools. That program, which is now in eight New York City schools, recruits educators to teach a course that covers everything from how to get financial aid to how to choose where to apply to college.

English teacher Casey Goodson leads a discussion with students during their OneGoal class at Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
English teacher Casey Goodson leads a discussion with students during their OneGoal class at Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx.

But the teachers dive deeper than explaining the Common Application. They also have frank discussions with students about what it will be like to on campus, which might involve any number of challenges for those moving out of the city. Some of those talks touch on tricky subjects like race and class.

“It’s not enough to get students into college,” said Nikki Thompson, the executive director of OneGoal in New York City. “Once they’re there, how do they survive?”

Research supports the idea that making students comfortable socially in college is key to ensuring that they graduate, said Gregory Wolniak, the director of the Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes at New York University. That is particularly crucial for students from low-income communities, where only 9 percent of students typically graduate from college by age 24, according to a recent Pell Institute study.

That’s why teachers working with OneGoal tackle the topics head-on. They encourage students not to attend schools where a large percentage of students of color do not graduate. They also start discussions about what it might be like if the students choose schools where they are minorities for the first time.

“They don’t even think about race, or like racial tension, or racism, or prejudice. For some of them, they’ve never experienced it,” said Jennifer Blalock, one of OneGoal’s teachers at Fordham High School for the Arts. “And so it’s thinking, how do we get them prepared for an environment where they’re most likely going to come across that at some point?”

Dennique Khanns, a junior at Fordham High School for the Arts, had already started thinking about how much her choice should hinge on college demographics. She wants to attend Spelman College, a historically black college in Georgia, but wonders if narrowing her search to schools that serve mainly students of color will cut her off from other good options.

“I want to be in my safe zone,” she said. “And then I’m just like, but opportunities are open for predominantly white schools too. So it’s like, I’m still iffy about that.”

Fordham High School for the Arts junior William Carrasquillo, 16, talks about summer job and internship opportunities during his OneGoal class.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Fordham High School for the Arts junior William Carrasquillo, 16, talks about summer job and internship opportunities during his OneGoal class.

OneGoal encourages students to consider schools, like those in the SUNY system, that are both affordable and have better graduation rates than CUNY schools. (Among students who entered CUNY in 2006, only 30 percent of students had earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree after six years. At SUNY, 64 percent graduated in six years.)

But SUNY schools are varied, with some in the suburbs, upstate cities, or small rural towns. Almost all have a very different look and feel to New York City, which means students will have to get acclimated to a different culture in an unfamiliar area.

One of those adjustments will likely be in the school’s racial diversity. Though state schools tend to be more diverse than other colleges, they still won’t look like the Bronx, said Risa Dubow, a counselor at BottomLine, another program that helps students through the college application process.

“A diverse SUNY is still not going to look like New York City,” she said.

Teachers can only hope their lessons about college life will help students once they get to school, but sharing information about the application process can make a quick and tangible difference in where students apply to college.

OneGoal is there to fill in the gaps in student knowledge about everything from tuition costs and to realistic academic expectations. Students with 2.0 grade-point averages sometimes want to attend Ivy League schools. Others, like McLendon, don’t realize that in-state tuition is cheaper than out-of-state tuition.

“For a lot of them, the messaging is just ‘get to college,’ but the conversation doesn’t go past that,” Blalock said. “The conversation doesn’t go to, ‘OK, but what’s the pathway? How do I get there?’”

Pathways

Tennessee’s career readiness program expands beyond high school

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks in Nashville in 2015 at a Drive to 55 summit. Launched Thursday, Tennessee Pathways, part of the Drive to 55 initiative, was spearheaded by McQueen and Governor Bill Haslam.

Six years after the state launched Pathways Tennessee, a career readiness effort for high school students, the program is growing and rebranding as Tennessee Pathways.

The program will now serve K–12 students, not just high schoolers, with the goal of encouraging them to pursue post-secondary education — be it a college degree or a trade-school certificate. Tennessee Pathways is part of Drive to 55, Governor Bill Haslam’s initiative to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with postsecondary degrees to 55 percent by 2025.

On Thursday, Haslam issued a press release touting the expansion, into new districts and into grades beyond high school.

“[A]ll Tennesseans deserve the opportunity to pursue a rewarding career, and that includes the education and training to get there,” Haslam said. “Tennessee Pathways provides a key foundation to help us reach this goal.”

Participating schools must provide career advising and opportunities for students to gain work experience or earn college credit. They are also expected to build relationships with community groups and businesses.

Last year, the state Department of Education released reports that tracked Tennessee students after they graduated high school. The first-of-their-kind reports found that 63 percent of graduating seniors across the state were enrolled in post-secondary programs in 2016. In Shelby County Schools, Memphis’ main district, about half of students in the district continue their educations beyond high school.

The expansion of Tennessee Pathways, which is currently in 33 counties, isn’t directly tied to that data, the state department of education spokeswoman Chandler Hopper, said. Rather, it reflects the department’s desire to “ensure the state is on track” to have the majority of its students earn some type of postsecondary education after high school.

“We know that students and families want more options and opportunities after high school, and we want to scale up and align those pathways with regional needs,” she said. “This is happening in pockets now, but we want to make sure it’s happening statewide.”

The state intends to fund this expansion in two ways. First, they’ll invest about $2 million in hiring new regional coordinators to help school systems identify opportunities that align with their needs and resources. Second, they’ll offer grants to participating districts; those grants will be funded by J.P. Morgan’s New Skills for Youth initiative, aimed at strengthening career training.

Samantha Gutter, a workforce readiness director for SCORE, a state education reform group, welcomed the news of Tennessee Pathways’ expansion.

“Parents and employers tell SCORE they are concerned that too many students graduate from high school underprepared for the demands of higher education and the workforce,” Gutter said.

New Tennessee Pathways designations will be awarded to districts beginning in fall 2019. This year, regional coordinators will work with districts to help them adhere to Pathways expectations.

Future of Schools

The future of education reform in Indiana is pushing career-readiness to the forefront

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

After decades of blockbuster education policy changes that have catapulted charter schools, vouchers, and school choice into the national spotlight, the so-called education reform movement is in the midst of a change in identity.

A sector of influential education advocates is shifting its focus solely from the classroom to also emphasize career readiness, a less splashy type of education change than school choice — but one supporters say has the potential for broad and powerful impact.

And reform-minded Indiana, unsurprisingly, could be the proving ground for this national trend.

The state has recently put a laser focus on connecting education and workforce development. Instead of emphasizing college as the only post-secondary option, the state is encouraging schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers, take technical and science-based classes, and pursue internships. The goal is set up non-college-bound students for gainful employment in high-demand areas.

“It has a far greater impact than just focusing on one subset of education reform that is school choice, and it doesn’t divide people as much either,” said P.J. McGrew, who spoke with Chalkbeat when he was the senior education advisor to Gov. Eric Holcomb. “I think it’s something that everyone can rally around.”

The issue of career and technical education is bridging some of the political divides that the past couple of decades of school-choice-focused policy have wrought. But even with that consensus, meaningful career readiness policies still face an uphill battle, and the approach is not without its skeptics. It’s hard to start a movement around policies that require major institutional shifts, lots of planning, and take years to show they’re working.

During this year’s legislative session, workforce development bills were front and center, including initiatives like helping adults complete diplomas or certificates, encouraging internships and school-employer partnerships, and requiring schools to include more “employability skills” into their curriculums.

Funding has also been increased over the years to expand school career and technical education course offerings and incentivize the hiring of teachers transitioning from the workforce — all to fill a “skills gap” Indiana employers say is preventing them from finding the workers they need.

According to a 2015 report from the National Skills Coalition, a group that advocates for training workers to meet employer needs, 58 percent of Indiana’s labor market is made up of jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year-degree. Yet only about 47 percent of workers are trained enough to fill them.

The bipartisan support for workforce initiatives in education mirrors how broadly the issue resonates with Hoosiers. Many Republicans see career development as an extension of school choice policies, designed to allow families to find the school or program that is the “best fit” for their children. Democrats and Republicans alike see economic benefits for their constituents, whether they’re from urban centers trying to find higher-wage jobs or rural communities working to attract employees and keep industry in their region.

Ultimately, even fierce political opponents agree that students need options so they can be successful after high school.

And these policy debates haven’t been “as burdened down by blame” as past ones, said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education.

Lubbers and others attribute the lack of friction to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s demeanor and political approach. Indiana isn’t new to conversations about combining workforce and education, but Holcomb and his administration have made them the state’s central focus.

In trying to address the state’s opioid crisis and concerns from rural areas where industry has declined, Holcomb’s administration has said additional education opportunities for adults and better-prepared high school graduates can make a difference.

Because Holcomb has pursued a more moderate political agenda compared to his very socially conservative predecessor, then-Gov. Mike Pence, other politicians have been more likely to sign on to his workforce vision, even if they had opposing views on other issues.

For instance, he’s found common ground on the workforce issue with Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick, a former public school educator who shared many of her education policy views with her Democrat predecessor Glenda Ritz despite being a Republican.

McCormick has come out strongly in support of more ways students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math, and set goals to update the state’s career and technical education courses.

And unlike Pence and Ritz, Holcomb and McCormick haven’t clashed as frequently — or as publicly.

The calmer political climate during the past two years has been far more conducive to a reform movement that requires a lot more collaboration between politicians and state agencies.

Prioritizing policies that create political unity not only reduces the spectacle of previous administrations, it primes the state for another controversial move lawmakers finally cemented in 2017 — making the elected state schools chief an appointed position, much like current agency heads for workforce development and higher education.

That cohesion, some believe, is what could lead to the most change.

“If you’re going to try and make a major push in the education and workforce space, you need alignment,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “Having a separately elected official makes that more difficult. We certainly saw that under Gov. Pence.”

It’s a less splashy type of education reform, said former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who led many of those school choice reforms himself under Gov. Mitch Daniels. But workforce initiatives are still rooted in many of the same principles that drove the choice movement, such as innovation and individualization.

“There is a lot of room for big policy movement in that area,” Bennett said. “I just hope that the traditional reform community sees that as as powerful as we saw the things that we pursued.”

Bennett touches on a potential hurdle that has current Indiana policymakers concerned about this new path: Supporters believe workforce-oriented reform efforts could end up having more impact than their choice-focused predecessors — but they’re harder to create, slower to implement, and take longer to post results.

Creating a sense of urgency around these issues, said McGrew, who in May took a new job as director of policy for the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, could be challenging.

But directing too much attention to work-based learning could have drawbacks, some education advocates say. And because Indiana has barely gone a year without changing some aspect of its education system, there’s fatigue for educators, students, and parents on the ground.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, worries the increased focus on education and workforce is redefining the purpose of education.

“That’s the debate that’s about to happen,” Meredith said. “What is the real role of public education? Is it to create bots to work in plants … or is it to create adults in a functioning society?”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said workforce programs should be careful not to fall into the old traps of traditional career technical education — namely tracking students and pushing them into the programs.

“As long as it’s not old fashioned voc ed,” she said. “This is really giving kids choices and different pathways … it has to be the kind of pathways that are interesting and exciting to kids.”

Even ardent supporters of the state’s career-readiness push, such as Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican lawmaker who has been at the helm of many of Indiana’s biggest education overhauls, want the state to think even bigger.

It’s not enough to increase career and technical education classes and funding, or even to encourage more work-based learning, he said. He wants Indiana to look at other models for education, such as those in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, where apprenticeships and career training are very integrated into K-12 education but it’s still possible to pursue higher learning.

“I think unless you are willing to really dig down to how we deliver education and how we should be innovative and change our system from early childhood to post-secondary and beyond, I think we’re just tweaking at the edges,” Behning said.

It’s likely the state will continue to see workforce issues driving education policy, and the proposals could be even grander with the availability of state funding during the next budget-writing year.

But even as the reform strategies shift, in Indiana and across the nation, the days of more controversial education policy aren’t necessarily over. A new budget also means school funding decisions are on the table, a major factor in heated debates over how school choice is affecting districts across the state.

Newer, more complicated policies like Education Savings Accounts have failed to gain much ground in Indiana, but there are still many advocates pushing for the voucher-like program that could direct more dollars away from the state’s traditional school funding system.

Local education advocates don’t expect the same kind of dramatic 2011-era policies that established the state’s voucher program and expanded charter schools to crop up anytime soon, but there’s still plenty of runway for Indiana to stay in the education reform spotlight on innovation schools and vouchers.

“I don’t see us dragging our feet on anything,” Lubbers said. “It’s certainly true in K-12 with reform, and it’s certainly true in higher education reform, that we are a leading state, not a lagging state.”