a season of searching

A dream to leave Brooklyn, play football, and go to college — with applications in the way

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Jamal Trotman, a senior at Eagle Academy for Young Men II in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, finishes a study hall period where he works on college applications.

Jamal Trotman is a star at Eagle Academy for Young Men in Brooklyn.

He made the All-State football team and was a team captain. He wants to be a journalist, and he’s interned at NBC and at the investment firm Blackstone. His counselors say he’s a dedicated student and selected him to be his school’s spokesman at a college fair last fall.

But his college options could be limited by a misunderstanding: He didn’t realize he needed to answer most of the questions on the SAT.

The mistake could have been a small one. (Like many students, he eventually retook the exam after preparing more seriously.) But the SAT trouble, and a series of other recent setbacks, might have significant consequences. Though he still has time, months into the search process, he hasn’t sent off many applications, overwhelmed by his long list of schools.

“This process is more of a nightmare rather than an experience to me,” he said.

We first met Trotman, who was born in Guyana and lives in Flatbush, at a college fair this fall. He agreed to let Chalkbeat check in throughout his college search — and his story illustrates just how many opportunities there are during the application process for students to get tripped up.

Oct. 23: The college fair

Eagle Academy II, a small, all-boys public high school that serves mostly black and Hispanic students, is focused on helping its students get to college. The school had a 95 percent graduation rate last year and has a dedicated college counselor.

At a college fair at Eagle Academy’s other campus in the Bronx, Trotman explained that he already had a dream graduate school in mind: Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. But he was still unsure where he wanted to go first, though some applications would be due in a few months. The end of football season would mean more time to look into schools, he said.

Trotman has a B average and a passion for writing. But when he was younger, Trotman thought he would attend a trade school and enter the construction industry.

“After I found my love for writing, it just made me want to go to college,” he said.

The college adviser's office at Eagle Academy for Young Men II.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The college adviser’s office at Eagle Academy for Young Men II.

Nov. 2: A massive list

By November, the college search had taken on a life of its own.

Trotman’s dream to study journalism had spawned a confusing list of about 50 potential schools — and he had no idea how to pare it down. Northeastern, Syracuse, and University of New Hampshire were under consideration. If it weren’t for football, he said, he’d think about Brooklyn College.

He knew he wanted a school with a good journalism program and low tuition bill. He also hoped to move out of state — and to play football. Still, schools made his list when family members or advisers suggested them, and he had trouble deciding which would best match his résumé and need for financial aid. This confusion lasted well into his college application process.

“The minute I try to take a school off my list then I realize, oh, I put that school there for a reason,” he said.

Trotman isn’t on his own as he works toward his goals. His three older brothers went to college, an aunt went to Rutgers, and he has mentors from his internships. Eagle Academy provides a college counselor and a host of other advisers to students. (Citywide, 79 percent of high school students said someone at their school was helping them plan for after high school, according to the city’s survey, but many high school counselors are stretched thin.)

Trotman’s grateful to have the help, but sometimes it can be overwhelming.

“It’s just everyone,” he said. “‘Hey, you should check out this school, you should check out that school.’”

Hefty tuition is about the only reason Trotman had removed a school from his list. He’s doesn’t want to apply to schools that cost more than $35,000 each year out of fear that he would end up with the bills.

Monteka Maddox, the school’s college counselor, says that’s a misconception about financial aid that a lot of students come to her with.

“There are plenty of guys here who graduated last year who aren’t paying anything,” she said.

Nov. 28: The offseason arrives

For the second year in a row, the Eagle Academy football team made it to a city championship game. Playing in the championship with his “brothers” was a milestone Trotman had worked toward for years.

In the third quarter, Trotman was blindsided by an opponent from Frederick Douglas Academy. His foot slammed into the ground and his body twisted in the opposite direction.

“At first I thought it was just a cramp in my calf,” he said. “Then I realized I couldn’t get up.”

His team won the game. But Trotman began the offseason — the time he had waited for to select schools and finish applications — at the latest possible date, with two torn ligaments and and a torn meniscus. He scheduled surgery on his knee and began walking with a brace and cane.

Eagle Academy for Young Men II senior Jamal Trotman talks to Wallace Niles, the school's operations director, about his college application process.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Eagle Academy for Young Men II senior Jamal Trotman talks to Wallace Niles, the school’s operations director, about his college application process.

Dec. 16: Waiting for his SAT scores

Trotman hobbled into his college adviser’s office on Dec. 16.

He still hadn’t applied to SUNY or CUNY schools, and he still had about 40 schools on his list. He was also deep into the 800-page “Ultimate Scholarship Book.”

“This is even more effective than FAFSA to me,” he said, referring to the basic federal financial aid form, “because I can just look through the book, skim through it real quick, and apply.”

Trotman hadn’t applied to schools yet because he was waiting on his SAT scores, he explained. He took the test in May 2015, and was under the impression that he could reach his goal of scoring a 1,000 on the reading and math sections combined by answering only about half of the questions. (It was a strategy he acknowledged later — with his typical good-natured attitude — was “kind of stupid.”)

He ended up with an 890. That’s 20 points below the average score in New York City for the reading and math sections in 2015, and 97 points below the national average.

Determined to boost his score when he took the test again in early December, Trotman enrolled in an SAT prep class. He had studied hard, sometimes skipping homework to complete practice questions. He knew the new scores would be released soon.

“I know it’s going to be better,” he said.

Dec. 21: Expecting SAT scores but getting something else

Trotman stayed up until midnight on Dec. 21 to check his scores. When he logged on, he faced an unwelcome surprise: His scores didn’t exist.

Confused, he called the College Board, which administers the SAT. No one could provide answers because staff members were out for the holidays. The next Monday, Trotman had surgery on his knee.

News arrived just three days before the Jan. 1 application deadline for some colleges. His test was under review, which his counselor said was likely because his score increased so much.

College Board officials told Trotman that he’d have to wait until mid-January to receive his scores. In the meantime, he will miss a few early January college application deadlines. (College Board did not respond to questions about the reason for Trotman’s delayed scores to protect his privacy. They said scores can be delayed for a number of reasons.)

The questions almost certainly won’t prevent Trotman from going to college. Plenty of colleges have rolling admissions or later deadlines. After he gets the scores, he’s hoping to get his applications sent out quickly.

But in the meantime, he’s waiting to take the next step.

”It’s kind of a setback,” he said. “This right here is my make-it-or-break-it for my future.”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

No Strings Attached?

Gov. Cuomo is proposing free college tuition, but are his plan’s rules too strict?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

As a freshman at City College last fall, Saad Ahmed stopped by his advisor’s office for what he thought was a routine meeting — until he found out he had lost all his state financial aid for the semester.

He thought it was a mistake, but it wasn’t.

Although he should have received about $2,000 per semester under the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, he unknowingly took a history class he didn’t need to graduate. Since TAP only covers courses applicable to a student’s “program of study,” he was suddenly one credit shy of the required course load.

“It was obviously frustrating because I lost the money, but it wasn’t my fault,” he said.

Ahmed is not alone. TAP has strict requirements about which courses, and how many courses, students must take in order to keep their aid. The “Excelsior Scholarship” — Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new plan to provide free college tuition at state schools to families making less than $125,000 a year — does too. The new scholarship, as it is currently configured, carries over some of TAP’s regulations, and some of its rules would be even more stringent.

The governor’s office, and many supporters, argue that cases like Ahmed’s are rare. Officials said they will try to address any problems with state financial aid, and that Excelsior’s additional regulations are intended to encourage on-time graduation.

But advocates say that argument misses a larger, structural issue with the state’s financial aid system: The more rules there are, the more chances there are for students to get tripped up. That ranges from seemingly innocuous mistakes like forgetting to count college credits obtained in high school, to situations in which students have to drop classes in order to support family members.

“How many 18-years-olds do you know that know exactly what they want to be when they grow up and don’t stumble and fall a little bit?” asked Susan Mead, director of financial aid at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie. “Unless we have a parachute to catch them while they’re having difficulties, they’ll end up going out the exit door.”

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New York offers one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation, but stringent rules have historically limited the pool of students who can benefit. Under the current TAP rules, students have to maintain 12 credits per semester and those credits must count toward a student’s program of study. Excelsior ups that requirement to an average of 15 credits per semester.

The idea of asking students to take only courses applicable to their study area is designed to discourage students from taking ones won’t help them get a degree. But the requirement is applied unevenly across colleges, said Victoria Hulit, a college success director at Let’s Get Ready, a program that helps low-income students finish college.

“In theory, it sounds great. We want our kids to get degrees. But the way that TAP regulates it, it gets a little bit tricky,” Hulit said. “We didn’t even realize [TAP] was a thing until kids started losing it.”

For instance, Hulit knows one student who decided he wanted to switch majors from forensic science to fire science. He took a semester of fire science courses, but hadn’t technically switched his major in time for those courses to count for TAP. He lost all of his aid for the semester, she said.

Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College, where Cuomo announced his support for a free college tuition proposal, said that some of these problems can be solved by better tracking of credits on the part of students and schools. Sometimes, students say there are no courses available, but either they don’t want to wake up for an 8 a.m. class or the class conflicts with work. (Her students, for instance, sometimes work the night shift at LaGuardia Airport, she said.)

Schools are under pressure to make sure students meet each of the requirements. An auditor from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office confirmed that they frequently audit TAP rules at colleges and prevent schools from providing aid to students not considered full-time.

Hulit estimates she knows about 20 students who have lost TAP funding. Though that is only a small fraction of the students she’s worked with, she says more often counselors caught students right before they made a mistake. In many cases, she said, students simply lost funding because they did not meet TAP’s academic or credit accumulation requirements.

That’s where the Excelsior Scholarship is even more stringent than TAP. The scholarship requires students to average 15 credits per semester and finish in two academic years for an associate’s degree or four years for a bachelor’s.

“The way to make college a greater success — more success and completion — is more full-time faculty, more opportunity for a large number of class sections,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the higher education committee. “That is the way to improve the end result. Not putting a gun to their head.”

There are exceptions, according to officials from the governor’s office. Students could take 12 credits one semester and make up classes the next, but they will still have to average 15 credits per semester in most cases. The state would also make exceptions for extreme circumstances, such as caring for a sick husband or serving in the military, officials from the governor’s office said.

“From a ‘stepping out’ provision permitting students to pause their education to allowing students to take variable credits if necessary, the program includes built-in flexibility and any suggestion otherwise is patently false,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Still, an average student would not get more time, officials said. Their scholarship would not extend beyond two or four years, depending on the type of degree, even though the vast majority of students need extra time.

Only 22 percent of first-time, full-time students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at CUNY graduate in four years, but that number jumps to 54 percent after six years. The numbers are even more striking for students in two-year degree programs. Only three percent of students earn an associate’s degree in two years, but by the four-year mark, about 20 percent have.

This could be particularly difficult for students who have to take remedial classes, which do not count toward a student’s degree. Only about 50 percent of New York City high school graduates have met CUNY’s standards for college-readiness in math and English.

If the governor wants to help more students graduate, he should focus on eliminating some of these restrictions, instead of adding more, said Kevin Stump, the Northeast Regional Director for Young Invincibles, a group that encourages young adult activism on a range of issues, including healthcare and higher education.

“If the governor is serious, and if the state is serious — about college affordability and making college free,” Stump said, “it shouldn’t have all these ridiculous rules.”