First Person

Lengthy Commutes and Academic Progress

Students at my school who travel long distances come to school less often, I concluded earlier this month. But what does their commute mean for their academic achievement?

In the second phase of my study, I examined how the length of a student’s commute relates to his academic progress. Again, I looked only at the self-contained special education students at my school, Columbus High School in the Bronx, and I used credit accumulation as the tool to measure progress. My results show that the negative impact of a long commute on attendance is magnified when looking at credit accumulation.

Here’s the bottom line:

picture-40

Having looked at these numbers and through the raw student data, I noticed that for the students traveling farther to school there was a subset of students outperforming others — the students taking work-study programs or internships. Among the 180 self-contained I students studied, 28 participate in one of three vocational programs. These students often seemed to be able to beat the relationship between the commute, attendance and credit accumulation.

picture-411

Of these 28 students, three take the yellow bus, three live close to school, eight are in the 15-29 minute range, and the remaining 14 live 30 minutes or more from school.

Here are the same results depicted another way:

picture-42

One of my most troubling findings is that even accounting for the commute and participation in special programs, the farther students live from the school the more slowly they accumulate credit.

As I began to notice this phenomenon I frequently went a step further in ARIS, the city’s school data system, and checked out the students’ test scores. Anecdotally (I have not formally measured this yet), the students with the longest commutes appear to be at increased risk of having scored at level 1, or far below grade level, in all subjects in which they were tested in the lower grades and of having made little or no academic progress in the middle grades. I plan to test this hypothesis more thoroughly.

The reality is that most students coming longer distances to Columbus are coming from further south in the Bronx, where poverty increases. I can’t help wondering whether students from this area experience greater challenges in general, or whether those who are most challenged in those neighborhoods are not being sent to local schools for some reason. There are no longer any zoned high schools in the South Bronx. Of the schools there, many do not provide small, self-contained special education classes. Those schools that do provide such classes are serving considerable percentages of students — particularly those schools that are larger in size and are have both 15:1 and 12:1:1 classes to the students whose special education plans indicate that these class sizes will best meet their needs.

I cannot help but think about what my findings might say about Columbus’s progress report. Last year high schools received an extra credit point on their progress reports if at least 45.7 percent of all special education students earned more than 11 credits in the year. They got two extra points if 56.3 percent of students or more earned that many credits. I couldn’t help but observe that (had the fall’s credit accumulation trend carried through to the spring) if Columbus had been judged on our yellow bus, local and vocational students, we would receive two extra points for outstanding credit accumulation for this group of students — but with the more distant students included, Columbus received no bonus points in closing the achievement gap for special education students. But if commute distance for this group is as significant as it appears to be, is this the school’s fault?

Once again, I recognize that this is a small study of just one set of students at one school. A project of much larger scope would be needed to reveal whether these relationships exist across a broad spectrum of New York City schools. This study does, however, suggest several possibilities for raising attendance and improving outcomes for self-contained students — neighborhood schools, the school bus, and vocational programs.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.