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?’”

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.