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.”

Beyond High School

Beyond dinosaurs and rocket ships: New Children’s Museum program aims to help neighborhood families

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Children's Museum of Indianapolis held a school fair this fall.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is largest children’s museum in the world, attracting visitors from across the country who shell out as much as $82 for a family of four.

But this gem sits in the midst of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where just one in four adults has a college degree and nearly half of families with children live in poverty.

That’s why museum leaders decided that they needed to do more to help kids close to home, said Anthony Bridgeman, who runs community programs for the museum. Kids in the surrounding neighborhoods already get free admission but now the museum has launched a program called Mid-North Promise that aims to help neighborhood families further their education and achieve their goals.

Among the 33 families currently participating are a man who needed help finding a new school for his grandchildren, a mother who needed a job that would reimburse her college tuition and a woman who needed childcare so she could complete her pharmacy technician training. But the museum is particularly focused on one group: Teens who were part of the state’s 21st Century Scholars program, which provides qualified high school graduates with free tuition to Indiana colleges and universities.

“We have a very transitory neighborhood in general,” Bridgeman said. “I would like to see … more young people from our neighborhood engaged in seeing a future … a big, bright future that those folks say, ‘Hey, you know what, there’s something really good happening here, and I’m going to plant roots and stay in the neighborhood.’ “

neigh-club-map-updated
The neighborhoods served by Mid-North Promise.

Thousands of Indiana students have benefited from the lucrative 21st Century Scholars program but some eligible students don’t know about it. Others have struggled to meet application requirements.

The state reported last spring that the vast majority of students in the program were in danger of missing out on scholarships because they were not meeting new requirements, but Mid-North Promise staff are determined to make sure that eligible students in the neighborhoods around the museum are able to get the scholarships they deserve.

Caseworker Tremayne Horne is now working with 26 high schoolers who are eligible for the scholarships, including Stacia and Simone Clemons.

When the Clemons sisters signed up to become 21st Century Scholars in middle school, their mother Dennicka Kendall assumed they were set — stay out of trouble and keep a high GPA, and they would get the scholarship.

But when Horne met with the girls — Stacia is a senior and Simone is a junior at Crispus Attucks High School — he discovered that they were behind on meeting requirements such as personality tests that need to be completed and community service projects that must to be fulfilled.

“A lot of the requirements were kind of sent to me … later,” Kendall said. “I didn’t even know that they had so many requirements.”

Now that they’ve joined Mid-North Promise, Horne has helped both sisters get back on track toward earning the scholarship. He also is working with Stacia Clemons, a senior, on her plans for college and the future, helping her make sense of applications and financial aid deadlines as well helping her think through her decisions about where to apply.

When she and her mother got into an argument because Clemons was unsure what she wants to do for college or a career, it was Horne who she called.

“I was kind of freaking out,” Clemons said. “He made me feel a lot better.”

In addition to helping teens get 21st Century Scholarships, the Mid-North Promise program will also offer $2,500 scholarships for families, Bridgeman said.

The Mid-North Promise is currently funded by grants from the Lumina Foundation and Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and sponsored by Old National Bank. The museum is looking to raise nearly $4.6 million to support the program longterm. That includes $3 million for a scholarship fund and nearly $735,000 to pay for family education and caseworkers like Horne.

The program is modeled on efforts like the Kalamazoo Promise, which offer free college tuition to graduates of Kalamazoo public school. That program has spawned copy cats across the country in cities like Syracuse, New Haven and Detroit.

But while most Promise programs are focused on money for college, the museum is also working with parents to help achieve their goals.

Horne is helping Kendall, the Clemons’ mother, finish her college degree and prepare to buy a house, for example.

“A lot of people come to the program solely focused on their kids and how to basically make a better life for their kids,” Horne said. “For them to be able to sit down and go over their goals and how they want to better themselves, I think has really been a big impact for them.”

Deadline extended

More Tennessee Promise mentors needed in Shelby, 43 other counties

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Gov. Bill Haslam greets Nashville-area community college students to launch Tennessee Promise in 2014.

About half of Tennessee counties still need volunteers to mentor the record number of high school seniors who applied for the state’s tuition-free community college program, prompting the state to extend its deadline.

As of Tuesday, Shelby County had the greatest shortage and needed 509 more volunteers to serve as mentors for Tennessee Promise, the state’s pioneering program to get more students to attend in-state community or technical colleges. Home to the state’s largest school system, the Shelby County also had the most students apply: about 8,650.

In all, 44 of Tennessee’s 95 counties still need volunteers, although some, like Campbell County, need as few as one. Last Sunday’s deadline has been extended to Dec. 1 for volunteers in those counties to apply, according to a spokeswoman for TNAchieves, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the program.

Other counties had substantial surpluses in volunteers and have closed applications. Nashville’s Davidson County, for example, has a surplus of 296 volunteers.

Statewide, about 61,000 high school seniors have applied for Tennessee Promise. They’ll go through a nine-month process of qualifying that includes working with an adult mentor.

Research shows that mentor relationships help students not only enroll in college, but finish. On average, Tennessee Promise mentors spend about an hour a month working with up to seven students as they transition from high school to college, reminding them of important deadlines, encouraging them, and serving as a trusted resource. Mentors must be at least 21 years old and attend a one-hour training and two one-hour meetings with their students over the course of a year.

When Tennessee Promise launched in 2014, Tennessee became the nation’s first state to offer two years of community or technical college free of tuition and fees. Even as the state struggles with college preparedness, it’s seen a boost in college enrollment.