First Person

Researchers: College readiness requires resources

The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In the first installment, Janice Bloom and Lori Chajet present their research into the college application and transition process in New York City Schools. Bloom and Chajet both taught in small city high schools that mostly serve low-income students of color before enrolling in CUNY Graduate Center’s urban education program. They now co-direct an organization, College Access: Research & Action, to ease the college transition for city students.

Leave questions for Bloom and Chajet about their research in the comments section.

What questions guided your study?  

Bloom: How does social class impact students’ choices about post-secondary education and their transition to college?

Chajet: What happens to students when they move from a small urban public school, with a college-for-all mission, to college, and how does this illuminate the power and the limits of small school reform and the policies and practices of higher education?

How did you conduct your research?

Bloom: I used ethnographic research to study students at three small New York City high schools over the course of a year. The elements of my research were: Weekly observations of college prep or “advisory” classes; focus groups and individual interviews with a small target group of students; interviews with parents, college counselors, teachers, and the school principals; two surveys administered to a large cohort of seniors at each school.

Chajet: My study had two parts: 1) an ethnographic school based study that included participant observation, interviews with staff members and students, and document collection at one academically-unscreened small school; 2) a graduate follow-up study for which I followed a group of 6 students for three and a half-years as they transitioned into and through college – including interviewing them and their families, visiting them at their colleges, collecting their of syllabi and assignments, emailing and calling them. I also did interviews, focus groups and surveys with approximately 100 other graduates.

What were your major discoveries?

Bloom: Research indicates that the post-secondary outcomes of this transition for low-income students are often negative. Educational sociologists and other scholars have debated whether these outcomes are due to ‘contradictory attitudes towards education’ exhibited by low-income students.

My findings, however, point to a different explanation. With few exceptions, the seniors that I followed, all of whom were qualified to attend college (as demonstrated by their acceptance to four-year colleges), initially declared their intent to go to college. Their journey towards that goal, however, varied based on their backgrounds and financial resources. Poor and working class students face significant economic, social and psychological risks that middle and upper class students do not.

First, while many people are aware of the skyrocketing costs of college over the past 30 years, fewer are aware that the percentage of federal financial aid available as grants has dropped precipitously, while the percentage represented by loans has grown proportionally. For low-income students and families, taking out significant educational debt poses far larger risks than it does for middle and upper income families.

Second, these students and their families enter the college application process with far less familiarity with the landscape of higher education and the requirements for matriculation, which makes the application process far more difficult.

Finally, as the first in their families to go on to post-secondary education, students are often intimidated by college campuses, and the make-up of their faculty and students; and they carry a heavy weight of family expectations and fears with them as they head off to a new and unknown world. The transition to college campuses is often much more fraught for these students than for those from middle and upper income families, where college is a known quantity.

Thus, rather than students’ attitudes being contradictory, they are reacting to real barriers to college that they see and experience in their lives – even if those barriers may be invisible to middle class educators, policymakers and researchers.

Chajet: My study showed that when a small school redefines structures, practice, and relationships, it produces graduates who outperform national averages in rates of college attendance and persistence and emerge with an increased desire to continue their learning. At the same time, graduates’ journeys collectively demonstrate the complexity of implementing a college-for-all mission given the reality of the obstacles low-income students of color face in college.

*National numbers come from 2003 US Census data compiled in “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2003” (US Census Bureau, 2004) and New York City numbers come from 2000 US Census data compiled in Census 2000 Summary File (US Census Bureau, 2000).

Bridges’ (pseudonym for school studied) persistence rates were higher because it structured its school towards its college-for-all mission: classes were not tracked; all students had access to college guidance and were helped to apply to college; students and teachers engaged in trusting relationships; academic courses were designed for rigor and engagement; high-stakes standardized tests did not dictate standards; and teachers, treated as professionals and given the power to shape practice.

At the same time the numbers were not what small schools educators’ hoped for; the obstacles were more varied and constant than many ever imagined. Graduates’ journeys revealed a complex story – one that captured students’ intense desire to learn and how trying college can be for low-income students of color. Critiques of college teaching, stories of money and family-related stress, and indications of alienation from campus-communities were echoed throughout many interviews and surveys were.

My findings spoke to practices in both small high schools and colleges. The data illustrated that small schools – even high performing ones – need to do more around college-readiness; specifically, they need to do more to develop students’ understanding of the landscape and costs of higher education and to support students through the college search, financial aid, and choice process. They also need to increase family involvement and provide professional development around college-readiness to all staff. At the same time, the post-secondary experiences of Bridges graduates reinforce many of the documented problems within higher education for low-income students of color: inadequate financial aid; the challenge of living between two (or among many) cultures; alienation from campus communities; a lack of tacit knowledge needed to navigate the system; and un-engaging classroom practice.

While the media and policy makers often attribute low persistence rates in college to high school under-preparation, there is a need for more accountability in higher education to support, engage, and integrate low-income students of color into college.

What can policy makers learn from your work?

Bloom & Chajet: If the New York City Department of Education is going to hold schools accountable for their college-going outcomes (as it is now doing on school report cards), it needs to dedicate sufficient resources to making this possible. This means vastly increasing the resources for hiring and training college counselors in schools, providing resources to help students visit college campuses and take part in programs on these campuses, as well as training teachers and providing curriculum to high schools to do work with students about college-going, beginning in middle school.

Have you done any follow-up work? 

Bloom & Chajet: Since completing our research, we have gone back into schools (through a grant from the Higher Education Services Corporation, administered by the Institute for Student Achievement) and worked to develop these kinds of resources to train teachers and implement curriculum with students. This year, with our colleague Lisa Cowan, we started an organization — College Access: Research & Action (CARA) — to help schools, community-based organizations, and the larger policy arena put into practice what we found through our research.

Are there further questions you are exploring? 

Bloom & Chajet: A “college-going culture” is often seen as the ideal. However, many schools struggle to operationalize this: Beyond wearing college sweatshirts or naming advisory classrooms after colleges, how can schools create a “culture” that encourages ALL students towards informed choices around post-secondary education?

First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.