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?’”

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.

Revisiting CTE

Workforce training programs may soon look different in Memphis schools

Health care and information technology are among the career pathways that likely would be emphasized under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis students would get more opportunities to earn job certifications before graduation under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Details of the overhaul are still under wraps, but Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin wants to make sure the district’s offerings align with the region’s most sought-after jobs. That may mean more classes focused on hot career fields like health care and information technology.

The school board is expected to get a first look at the proposal later this month.

Career and technical education, or CTE, is getting renewed attention under a state and federal push to prepare students for jobs of the future. And it’s especially important to students in Memphis because nearly half of graduates from Shelby County Schools don’t enroll in any formal education after high school and 21 percent aren’t working either — the highest rate in the nation.

Meanwhile, business leaders are talking with school leaders about improving education pathways to equip graduates for work in high-demand jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

“We need our students to have work-based learning experiences and residencies and then [businesses] don’t even have to train them,” Griffin said. “They’ll come out with a license; we’re going to pay for it. They’ll come out with a license ready to work.”

Currently, the 27 traditional high schools in Tennessee’s largest district offer a total of 207 classes that explore 16 career paths ranging from finance to advanced manufacturing. About 20,000 students participate.

PHOTO: SCS
Hamilton High students tour Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co. in Memphis on National Manufacturing Day in 2016.

But of about 400 participating seniors who are eligible to gain job certification, less than half did so last school year. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that has got to change.  

“The point of revamping our CTE program is we don’t really have true effective career paths right now,” Hopson told school board members last week. “We spend $20 million on CTE, but its not designed to say that when I finish this program, I’ve got something I can go out to an employer and say ‘I’m skilled and I’m ready for this job and I’m certified.’”

Shelby County Schools has incentives to revamp its CTE programs. In response to a new federal education law, the Tennessee Department of Education will grade schools in part on how well they prepare students — not just for college, but for directly entering the workforce.

“It’s about making sure you can map and track and document and assess and quantify whether or not something is working,” said Terrence Brown, who co-directs CTE for the district. “And all of that has been on the college-bound, academic part of the house, not in trade and industry and skills and training. [Now] the age of accountability has now come to career and technical education.”

To measure a “ready graduate” under its new plan, Tennessee will look at how many students earned industry certification, took dual enrollment or Advanced Placement classes, passed military entrance exams, or earned a 21 or higher on the ACT. The metric accounts for 20 percent of school and district scores under a new grading system being rolled out later this year.

As part of its stepped-up commitment to workforce training, Shelby County Schools already has introduced a major change to one of its most historic high schools. East High began this school year to transition to an optional school focused on transportation logistics, engineering, and technology in partnership with several businesses such as global engineering manufacturer Cummins.

But the goal is to get a quarter of students districtwide participating in CTE by offering courses at more high schools. And the focus will be on equipping students for high-demand jobs that offer living wages in the Mid-South. More than 100 jobs fit that bill and not all require a college degree, according to a report from the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee. Those fields include electricians, machinists, medical record technicians, and computer support specialists, all of whom earned at least a median income of $40,000 per year in 2016.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has promoted the importance of career training by visiting schools with robust CTE programs such as one in Murfreesboro that she toured last November during her first stop in Tennessee as education secretary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who helped author the new federal education law, told Politico recently that updating how federal funds are allocated for CTE is one of his top priorities this year.

But some educators and advocates worry that CTE will become a second-tier track for students viewed as incapable of going to college — or that their advantage in a fast-changing workforce will be short-lived.

“We want to make sure we’re not doing what we use to do with (vocational-technical education),” said Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center. “My dad would tell me that, as a black male, they funneled him to vo-tech because you’re a black male.”

A 2015 Stanford University study of CTE programs in 11 countries showed short-term employment gains for students. However, the researchers also found that those students lacked the skills to adapt to changes in the economy later in life compared with peers with a more general education.

Brown said Shelby County’s redesigned program will focus on higher-wage jobs that students can get certified for during high school or can train for in technical schools after graduating. That could boost business prospects when big companies consider locating to Memphis — such as the city’s recent failed bid to land an Amazon headquarters.

“One of the things we believe Amazon was looking for was (information technology) people who could come off the bat and write code and set up cybersecurity,” Brown said. “If you have an IT certification, you’re going to be in demand.”