a tricky path

New rules to help New York students graduate offer ‘false promise,’ school leaders say

At South Brooklyn Community High School, teachers work to help struggling students earn the credits they need to graduate. But students at the transfer school in Red Hook often stumble over a final hurdle: passing all five of New York’s high school exit exams.

The difficulty “really punches you in the face,” said Jonathan Murphy, the school’s director.

A recent change to the graduation rules should be great news for Murphy and his students. Saying that some deserving students were getting trapped without a diploma by that fifth Regents exam, New York officials agreed to allow students to ditch it for an alternative test in science, art, or a technical subject.

But those new options are little more than an illusion for students at South Brooklyn Community. Of about 70 newly approved exams, the school offers courses to prepare students for just two.

“It’s kind of a false promise for our students who desperately need additional pathways and are being left behind,” Murphy said.

South Brooklyn’s bind speaks to a larger mismatch. High schools that serve struggling students tend to offer few courses beyond the basics — potentially preventing the state’s new rules from helping the students who could most benefit.

State education officials say they never expected the policy change to pay off everywhere right away.

“Right now those are the choices we have, and we’re just going to do the best we can,” Regent Roger Tilles said.

Some of the 70 newly approved options are within reach for many city students. According to a 2013 report, 85 percent of city high schools offered earth science, which culminates in an exam that can now count toward graduation. The city is also expanding access to Advanced Placement courses, whose exams can now be swapped in, although students taking them are likely to be on track to graduate already.

All together, the city says 97 percent of schools offered two non-required math or science Regents courses to at least 15 students. (The city did not explain which Regents courses the schools offered, or whether the students who took them were otherwise on track to graduate.)

But many schools — especially those serving students who have fallen behind before getting to high school — offer only a minimal set of non-essential offerings, limiting students’ options for how to cross the last hurdle before graduation. Small high schools can’t easily adjust their lean staffs and budgets to create new courses, and transfer high schools in particular have zoomed in on preparing students for the exams required for graduation.

At Wildcat Academy, which serves students who have repeated grades, students can take a geometry class. But principal Ron Tabano said it covers less material than will appear on a Regents exam in the subject, taking that option off the table for students struggling to graduate.

Introducing new technical training for students who struggle on academic exams is even harder. Schools often have limited space and staff to launch those programs — and getting a new course approved is a time-consuming process.

In other parts of the state, districts with larger high schools and, in some cases, fewer high-needs students might already have expanded course offerings. But the only way many New York City schools can make the alternative options real for students is with more money, school leaders say.

“In theory, these additional pathways are amazing and honor the different experiences and learning encounters that show mastery,” said Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, principal of the Bronx Academy Of Letters. “Still, they will only work if there are funding streams.”

But so far, the state hasn’t offered any additional funds. But Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown and other members of the Board of Regents said they know that expanding graduation options, particularly in the arts and career and technical education, will require them to ask the legislature for more school funding.

“You don’t change a program from a mandatory 5 to a 4+1 and have everybody fall in line immediately,” Brown said. “It is something that needs to be funded.”

The tension is in part why principals are paying such close attention to another new graduation option — a work-skills credential used until recently only for students with disabilities. Students can earn that by passing a work-readiness exam or by completing a program that includes practical experience.

State officials say they aren’t finished approving new ways for students to earn their diplomas. As they do so, Brown said they want to make sure that all students have access to the new graduation options.

“There’s a lot of students in our most vulnerable districts that are perhaps struggling the most,” Brown said. “If they are not able to take advantage of 4+1 but other school districts are … then we will have missed out on a tremendous opportunity.”

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.