mind the gap

Panel: Path to college-readiness paved with hard-to-fund plans

Panelists discuss obstacles to college readiness at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs.

In an ideal world, the Department of Education would install dedicated college counselors in each city high school, according to Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky.

But doing so would cost the city more than $600 million, he said, so the department is trying instead to close the college-readiness gap with free or low-cost solutions, including training staff members at each school to offer college advice and tweaking the way school performance is measured.

Polakow-Suransky made the comments last week while appearing on a panel on college-readiness hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs. The center is set to release a report next month about why so few city students graduate with the skills they need for college — and what can be done about it.

Interviews with hundreds of students at struggling high schools conducted as part of the center’s research revealed that most had high aspirations for themselves, but few understood that simply graduating from high school would not ensure success in college. The findings reflect a dim reality: In 2010, when the city touted a 61 percent four-year graduation rate, just 21 percent of students who had entered high school in four years earlier met the state’s college-readiness standards.

The city’s main strategy for closing that gap is the Common Core, new learning standards that are supposed to push students to develop critical thinking skills required for college-level work.

But making sure students have the academic skills and knowledge to hack it in college is necessary but not sufficient to ensuring that they succeed there, said David Conley, a researcher who students college readiness. They also need “soft skills” such as persistence and “transition knowledge” about how to navigate the admissions process, he said.

Ideally, a dedicated college counselor in each school would provide the full complement of college-preparation skills, agreed the panelists. But even if the city could afford it, there is actually no way to get counseling training that’s focused on the college admissions process, said Richard Alvarez, the head of admissions for the City University of New York. Instead, licensed guidance counselors must juggle other responsibilities alongside managing college applications for hundreds of students.

Nonprofit organizations shoulder some of the burden, helping students develop study skills, visit colleges, and apply for financial aid. Some even supply full-time counselors for individual schools or campuses. “This is like an alternative that really works,” said panelist Fernando Carlo, who runs an activist group that helps staff “Student Success Centers” that supply college preparation training at some campuses.

Polakow-Suransky said the department is in the middle of training point-people at each school to offer college advice to students and teachers alike. He said the department is also encouraging schools to look to peers who have been more successful at promoting interest and energy around college attendance.

As an example, Polakow-Suransky pointed to Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School’s annual parade to the local post office to mail college applications. “Those kinds of culture rituals and making it at the heart of the school’s community don’t actually cost money,” he said.

The city is also starting to measure whether schools are teaching the “soft” skills students need for success in college, he said. On this year’s quality reviews, reviewers will look for the first time for evidence that students are being encouraged to ask for help and try again after falling short, both markers of whether a student has the inner resources for tougher work in a different environment.

The department is also poised to factor a set of college readiness metrics into each high school’s annual progress report for the first time this fall.

“We’re trying to put pressure on [schools] through a number of means, by offering them these resources but also saying to principals, ‘Your grade on your progress report is going to depend on how many kids actually enroll in college,'” Polakow-Suransky said.

“Principals are not totally happy with us about this because they feel that, ‘I can get a kid into college but then that period from May to September when they’re supposed to go, all kinds of things that are outisde of my control can happen,'” he added. “And what we’ve been saying is, ‘Yes, that’s true. But if you lay this foundation well and you see this as part of your responsibility, a lot more kids are going to get there.”

Sheena Wright, who heads the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem, said lead time alone was inadequate preparation for the new accountability metrics.

“With the … stick that schools are going to be held accountable in terms of how their students persist through college, there really does need to be a complementary investment in the resources,” she said. “I don’t think training is going to be sufficient — you know, kind of identifying a leader that already exists in the school that already has five other jobs — but a real investment in someone who … that’s what they do.”

And Wright said she doubted that principals would be eager to share what works in their schools when they know that the city’s accountability system measures their performance against a “peer group” of similar schools. She proposed that schools get credit for how schools in their communities perform in the aggregate, to create incentives for sharing.

“That’s been very challenging for us in our neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s been extremely difficult to break down the walls with some of the school leaders to say, ‘You’re doing a great job. How do we share it with the school down the street?'”

Polakow-Suransky said he had heard that concern before, but that it was misplaced.

“Actually there’s very little to be gained by not sharing information with other schools,” he said. “People don’t necessarily understand that. … Each year when we do the training on the progress reports, we try to explain it again.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.