prep school

In pursuit of college readiness, a course about "Assimilation"

Mitch Kurz leads students through a true/false quiz about the psychology of dreams.

Mitch Kurz is a math teacher and a college counselor, but the lessons he teaches don’t fall neatly into either subject area.

On a recent winter morning, Kurz asked students in his college readiness class to describe their dreams. On the board, he wrote, “What do your dreams mean?” followed by “Sigmund Freud” and a list of vocabulary words more typical of a Psychology 101 class: id, ego, superego.

Most of Kurz’s two dozen South Bronx juniors and seniors had not heard of these concepts before. But after a semester learning a hodgepodge of lessons from Kurz meant to ease the transition to college — covering everything from the dreidel game, to basic French, to the elevator pitch — students say they come into class expecting the unfamiliar.

The class, which Kurz calls “Assimilation,” is meant to ease the transition to college for students at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a small school with many poor students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The school emphatically urges all graduates to enroll in college, and the vast majority do — but they suffer the same academic and financial challenges that low-income, first-generation students often face. Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years.

Increasing students’ likelihood of graduating from college has emerged as a major frontier in education policy. The city’s approach is to toughen high school preparation so students have a better shot of handling the rigor of college-level work. Others, such as the KIPP network of charter schools, believe the problem lies more in students’ capacity to handle challenges and have developed programs to bolster traits such as resilience and “grit” that seem correlated with college success.

At Kurz’s school, academic standards are important, and so is character. But Kurz adds an additional approach.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Kurz worked as advertising executive before cashing out— to the tune of millions of dollars — and getting involved in education. Already a trustee of Teach for America, he joined the New York City Teaching Fellows in 2002 and now serves on the board of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Kurz believes city students fear college and sometimes struggle once they get there because they lack the vocabulary of the dominant college-going culture. At least at selective schools and schools outside of New York City, first-generation college students from urban high schools are a rarity, he said.

“We know adapting to the social environment of college, away from home, can be forbidding for tons of kids. [Alumni] would come back and say, ‘In my dorm room or in the hall or the cafeteria, these conversations would take place, and I never felt like I could participate in them,'” Kurz said.

So he designed a class to give the students something he thought they lacked: social capital, or, as he describes it, “All the non-academic stuff that makes up social intelligence, small talk, making conversation — even something as mundane as table manners. … Many young people have this, depending on their upbringing, but almost none of our students have it.”

Kurz’s recipe for social capital involves a crash course in foreign languages, religion, and schmoozing, in addition to other more academic subjects meant to introduce students to features of the liberal arts, such as sociology and psychology. His syllabus assigns each week a big idea, such as “happiness” or “social currency,” and breaks it down into wide-ranging content.

One day, students learned the rules of dreidel, the game played during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. On another, they simulated eating at a formal dinner party, using plastic silverware and plates to practice dining etiquette. This week, Kurz used photos from his advertising days to teach students the meaning of the golden ratio — a mathematical concept related to image proportions.

The curriculum can seem to careen from one subject to the next, but researchers say the approach has important value.

“The premise of the class is solid,” said Will Perez, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies college readiness. “The idea is supported by research that there are social adjustment challenges first-generation students face — particularly when they go to highly selective colleges and universities where there is a much smaller group of minority, working class students and a lack of information about how to function in college in ways that require familiarity with white, upper-middle-class culture.”

But Perez — who researches education, race and cultural capital — also cautioned that a course meant to explicitly introduce students to those cultural differences would necessarily walk a fine line between teaching students tools for adaptation and suggesting that their own cultural backgrounds are inferior.

The course title would suggest that Kurz aims to help his students become more like the middle-class children of professionals that he expects them to encounter in college. But he said his goal is not to press the students to change themselves but to equip them with the tools to engage in cultural “code-shifting” — altering their behavior based on where they are and who they are with — so they can fit into unfamiliar settings when they want to.

Past lessons in Kurz's class include "How to make an elevator pitch," and "What is Hannukah?"

It’s a mission that resonates with Lisa Delpit, an education researcher who has argued that educators should initiate minority students into the “culture of power” through explicit instruction — not only so that they can succeed in it but also so that they can ultimately influence it.

“I don’t want us to limit where kids can go,” Delpit said. “I think some of the things he’s talking about, students may or may not see in a college setting, but they certainly could come up in some settings. There is power in learning about other settings and other cultures.”

It is less apparent how the course materials may be relevant to students who do not choose to attend liberal arts colleges outside of the city, or do not participate in formal networking events. But Delpit say these subjects can hold value regardless of what students pursue after high school.

Luisa Diaz, a 2011 graduate of Bronx Center, said Kurz let students know right away that he wanted them to head off to college with their own identities intact.

“The first thing he said was, “In no way, shape, or form am I trying to exclude some cultures and include others,” she said. “And everybody in the class’s culture in some way or another was incorporated into the discussions.” For example, Diaz said, Kurz made sure everyone had a crash course in Spanish vocabulary — creating an opportunity for Latino students to share about their backgrounds.

Diaz, now a freshman at Hunter College, said some of the lessons have already come up countless times in her post-high school life.

“We’re studying in college right now the different stages of the human being — id, alter-ego, psychology,” she said. “I came into my religion class once and that was the first thing [the professor] put on the board, and I was the first one to raise her hand. Everyone was in awe, and I was saying ‘Thank you, Mr. Kurz,’ in my head.”

Kurz said he takes his own lessons to heart by challenging himself to leave his comfort zone — in his case, by carrying a grade-book stored in a colorful folder featuring the face of teen pop icon Justin Bieber.

“One of the ways you can make yourself feel more welcome in an environment is to make fun of yourself,” he explained to the students when they laughed about the notebook. “Everyone is more comfortable with people who don’t take themselves so seriously.”

Laura Rivera, a senior, said Kurz’s class inspired her to apply to colleges outside of New York City.

“It gave me confidence,” she said. “And it’s helped me connect all my classes together. At first I thought, maybe I want to stay in New York, have my mom do my laundry and cook. Now, all my colleges are ‘aways,’ with exception of CUNY.”

access to what

This new report underscores a big challenge facing New York City’s college graduation aspirations

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A joint Medgar Evers-Boys and Girls choir performed at a graduation.

Thousands of New York City students who enrolled in college as the high school graduation rate skyrocketed appear to have ended up in debt and out of the workforce — and without degrees.

That’s according to a new analysis by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, the New York University institute charged with studying city schools data. The findings, based on students who entered high school during the Bloomberg administration, raise questions about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to getting more students to college.

About 55 percent of students who entered high school in 2003 enrolled in college after graduation, the researchers found. For students who started ninth grade in 2008, that figure was 61 percent.

But the gains in college attendance eroded because many of the 2008 ninth-graders who previously might not have gone to college ended up dropping out.

Exactly why is impossible to tell from the data, the researchers say. But it reflects a national trend in which college costs, poor academic preparation, and general life challenges make it harder for low-income students to persist in college.

PHOTO: Research Alliance for New York City Schools

Whatever the explanation, the trend cuts against New York City’s heralded narrowing of racial achievement gaps. In fact, the researchers found, because black and Latino students dropped out without degrees more often than white and Asian students, racial achievement gaps actually widened slightly after students left high school.

From the study:

Broad improvements in college access have not necessarily produced more equitable outcomes for historically underrepresented groups as they have moved into and through the first years of college. Although we have seen gains in high school graduation and enrollment among all students, regardless of background, more advantaged students have been able to maintain these gains as they have transitioned into college in ways that underrepresented students have not. Figuring out how to promote more equitable outcomes is a central challenge facing the City’s policymakers and educators.

So far, the de Blasio administration has thrown its weight behind making it easier for students to get into college, even as the mayor has acknowledged that access and success are not the same thing and moved to add more challenging courses at city high schools.

The city aims to have two thirds of graduates “college ready” by a decade from now. For now, de Blasio’s College Access for All program ensures that middle school students visit colleges and high school students create a “college and career plan,” often with the help of dedicated counselors. The administration also negotiated fee waivers for students applying to CUNY schools, the most common destination for city graduates, and began offering the SAT exam during the school day, eliminating two barriers to entry.

“For a long time, a lot of kids were told they don’t have a chance to go to college, and that was so often wrong,” de Blasio told SAT-taking students this spring. “We’re sending the opposite message now: Anyone who wants to go to college has a chance to make it.”

On Tuesday, the city announced that nearly 30,000 more students had secured fee waivers when applying to CUNY — saving families more than $2.5 million in application fees.

“As the first person in my family to attend college, I understand how important it is to remove barriers,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has frequently referenced her own shaky path to college when discussing the city’s new initiatives, said in a statement. (She has also blamed CUNY schools for letting students founder.)

De Blasio revealed the fee waiver total at the graduation ceremony of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, where almost all of the graduates received waivers. (There, 84 percent of students who entered ninth grade in 2012 graduated four years later, according to city data. But only 64 percent went to college, and just 28 percent met CUNY’s standards.)

Johanie Hernandez, the school’s principal, praised the College Access for All initiative in a statement, saying, “These investments are about making college visible and real for every student at Bronx LGJ, from the time they join us in sixth grade to their high school graduation.”

one barrier down

City to eliminate high school admissions method that favored families with time and resources

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At 9:30 in the morning, the line to get into the citywide high school fair last September already snaked around the corner.

New York City will eliminate a high school admissions method that puts low-income families at a disadvantage and has proven vulnerable to abuse, the city announced Tuesday as part of its plan to promote diversity in city schools.

“Limited unscreened” high schools don’t have academic requirements, but give preference to students who attend an open house or a high school fair. For students entering high school in 2019, that preference will be abolished. The change will mark a big shift: about a third of the city’s roughly 700 high school programs were “limited unscreened” this school year.

The goal of the “limited unscreened” designation was to give students a leg up in admissions at schools to which they conveyed their interest. But a Chalkbeat investigation this fall revealed it has not worked as planned because some students were more likely to get priority than others.

City figures show that 45 percent of black and Hispanic students who listed limited unscreened schools as their first choice received priority, while 57 percent of the non-black, non-Hispanic students did.

“The kids in a priority group are more advantaged on every single dimension you can think of,” said Jennifer Jennings, an associate professor at NYU who studies the high school admissions process. “Every single marker of advantage gets reproduced through priority admissions.”

There are several reasons students might struggle to get priority status. For one thing, attending open houses can be a burden for families. They often require a hefty time investment and may be far from students’ homes. Some are during the school day, causing parents to miss work. Other families struggle to pay the subway fare.

Figuring out when to attend an open house can also be tricky. A Chalkbeat analysis found that the education department’s calendar is missing several dates. (In Tuesday’s report, the education department said it had plans to improve this.)

As an alternative, the education department allows students to earn the same preference by signing in with a number of schools during a high school fair. But at this year’s fair, many schools seemed unaware of the rules or were simply not following them. And some schools were collecting surveys and other information about students — raising questions about whether they were trying to screen their applicants.

The “limited unscreened” admissions method was created during the Bloomberg era and has expanded exponentially since it started. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of limited unscreened programs nearly doubled. Part of the idea was that small schools with a specific theme, like marine science or culinary arts, should be allowed to give preference to students who are truly interested in that particular topic.

But even Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein who worked at the education department when the policy was created, said the policy had run its course.

“It only made sense to nurture those schools at the beginning,” Nadelstern said in an earlier interview with Chalkbeat. “We’ve now grown into a different period.”

Schools have already started to migrate away from the limited unscreened admissions method, according to city officials. One quarter of this year’s limited unscreened programs have a new way to admit students for next year, they said.

Many of those schools became educational option or “ed opt” schools, according to Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. Those schools are designed to enroll students with a mix of ability levels, but they often fall short of that goal. The admissions method that will eventually replace limited unscreened will “vary school-by-school,” Wallack said, but a number will become unscreened or ed-opt.

While eliminating limited unscreened admissions removes a barrier for many students, some question whether it will have a diversifying effect. About one third of high school programs are screened, which means they can admit students based on grades, test scores, interviews or other criteria.

Those schools drain off the top-performing students and also enroll a disproportionately low percentage of black and Hispanic students, who are often clustered at limited unscreened and ed opt schools.

“Embedded in this larger diversity plan is an effort to maintain screened schools, said Matt Gonzales, school diversity project director for New York Appleseed. “To eliminate limited unscreened schools, while maintaining all screened schools, is really disappointing.”

Maurice Frumkin, a former city education department official who now runs an admissions consultancy, also thinks the city could go further. It could eliminate District 2 priority, for instance, which gives admissions preference to families who live in a certain geographic area.

In response to those critiques, Wallack said the plan is meant to be “first steps.”

“We are open to taking on additional challenges and issues and we may very well discuss other screened programs,” Wallack said.

In addition to eliminating the limited unscreened admissions method, the city is trying to increase access to screened and specialized high schools and make open houses easier to attend. They are also giving more admissions control to students and families by creating online applications.

Middle schools, meanwhile, will no longer allow schools to see how families rank them, a longtime criticism of the system. That will, in theory, encourage families to rank their actual preferences rather than try to game the system.

But more importantly for Eric Goldberg, a member of the Community Education Council in District 2, it requires schools to reevaluate their admissions rubrics.

“Without this plan,” he said, “the status quo persists.”