Compare and Contrast

Two states, two free-college programs. New York’s has more fine print and less support

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Josue Flores credits the straightforward path of Tennessee Promise for helping him continue his education after graduating in 2016 from Cordova High School in Memphis.

New York has made national headlines by promising to make college free for all students, but it isn’t the first state to do so.

That honor belongs to Tennessee, which in 2014 announced that all high school graduates in the state could go to community college for free. Since then, more students are heading to college and they are taking on less debt, on average, to do so.

What can New York learn from Tennessee’s experience? The New York Times took a pass at that question this week and concluded that N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo could start by cutting the fine print.

Recipients are … obligated to stay in New York for as many years as they received the awards, or risk having the grant be converted into a loan — a requirement that Tennessee officials and educators worried could be counterproductive.

“I’m not sure that isn’t a solution in search of a problem,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “Fine print is the enemy, and having the fine print say that your grant could become a loan could erode trust.”

It isn’t the first time that the fine print has drawn criticism. “This is a killer,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University who studies college affordability, told Chalkbeat when we revealed the catch in Cuomo’s program last month. “This is something you can’t trust. And you’re bringing back debt, which is the thing that everybody is trying to avoid.”

Another element of Tennessee’s program that New York could emulate: helping students navigate their new options. Cuomo’s plan for the Excelsior Scholarship contains no special advising, something that higher education insiders say is crucial to keeping students who otherwise might struggle from dropping out. In contrast, Tennessee has brought on thousands of volunteers to help students get to and through college — although it has had a hard time finding enough people to do the job.

Despite their differences, the programs are similar in crucial ways. They both aim to fill the gaps that remain after students collect other scholarships — and will require students to seek federal aid before getting state support.

After a major push to get Tennessee students to apply for federal aid, 70 percent now do, compared to 57 percent in New York, the Times reported. A similar push in New York could capture more of the money that students in the state are already entitled to.

And even with fine print in place, the New York program could potentially generate a shift in thinking about college access that Tennessee high schools have reported.

“Once they hear ‘free,’ they perk up,” a counselor at a Nashville high school told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “There are definitely kids who wouldn’t have continued their education” without Tennessee Promise.

back to the future

On display at Automotive High School: A plan to revitalize technical education

PHOTO: Monica Disare
At vocational education panel at Automotive High School

Brooklyn’s Automotive High School has long offered students the chance to learn how to fix a car’s engine or replace its brakes. But a different type of “vocational ed” was on display Thursday, when a neuroscientist, theoretical physicist and artificial intelligence engineer were among those gathered to talk about the future of career and technical education.

They were invited by Kate Yourke, founder of a program called Make: STEAM, which attempts to inspire learning by connecting students with hands-on activities in the sciences and arts.

Yourke says she has seen the demographics of Williamsburg and Greenpoint change and, at the same time, watched Automotive High School transition from a well-respected community hub to one of the lowest-performing schools in the city.

Yourke wants to help the school, in part by offering students the kind of technical education that will energize them. While she hopes to work with several schools in the neighborhood, Automotive is at the top of her list.

“I’ve always had this school in my heart because it’s incredible,” she said. “It’s an incredible place.”

Nationally, there has been a push to redefine vocational education and include career paths like computer science that, unlike traditional vocational ed, require more than a high school degree. (These newer programs, however, are often to difficult start in New York City.)

Yourke hopes that high-quality, hands-on learning will give students a deeper understanding of the world around them, crucial preparation for any career path.

Even complicated topics like theoretical physics can be broken down for students, she added. “There’s no reason why you can’t access this information in a way that they’re going to make meaning out of it,” she said.

To that end, Yourke is running a “Festival of Curiosity” on Saturday at Automotive High School, where students can participate in activities like making hot air balloons or learning to sew.

“I think the school needs to serve the community that it’s in,” Yourke said. “It needs to be a resource for our children.”

College-bound

How one Memphis charter school’s ACT scores jumped 2.6 points in one year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A graduating senior speaks during an Academic Signing Day ceremony for Freedom Preparatory Academy, a Memphis charter school whose entire first graduating class is headed to college. Banners were on display to represent the schools they'll attend.

When Roblin Webb launched Freedom Preparatory Academy in 2009 with a class of sixth-graders, she made a promise to their parents: College would be a reality for their children.

Now, as those students and others make up the Memphis charter network’s first graduating class, all 50 are heading to college.

Helping the students get there was a remarkable 2.6-point boost in the group’s average ACT composite score — from 16.7 to 19.3 in one year. That’s considered below college-ready, but the score is higher than average for Shelby County Schools and other high schools in the low-income neighborhood served by Freedom Prep.

“Our results tell us that although we still have work to do to ensure our students are highly competitive nationwide, our success locally and statewide lets us know that we are on the right track,” said Webb, a former lawyer and a graduate of Rhodes College. “We expect this success to continue next year and beyond!”

Chief Academic Officer Lars Nelson traces the boost to integration of ACT prep last fall into classes for English and math; three required practice tests throughout the year; and adding a third counselor for the school of 315 students.

The school’s small size helped, too. Most Memphis schools have more seniors and fewer counselors.

But Nelson also emphasizes the foundational learning that happened in the charter network’s elementary and middle schools, as well as an emphasis on teacher development and being an early adopter of the Common Core academic standards, which began in Tennessee in 2012.

“The way to truly prepare students is to see them through 12th grade,” Nelson said. “It’s not just one year of phenomenal teaching. It’s year after year, and then kids are ready for college.”

Like other Memphis schools, Freedom Prep has to manage a high student mobility rate. Freedom Prep had 96 students in its first sixth-grade class, 70 by 11th grade and 50 in their senior year. A spokeswoman said the network does not recruit students to its senior class.

The four schools in the Memphis-based network are considered some of the most successful in the city. Among charter schools overseen by Shelby County Schools, Freedom Prep is the top performer in English and Algebra I and the second highest in biology, according to the district’s latest charter report.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Elijah Tyler speaks at the school’s academic signing day.

But it’s Freedom Prep’s culture that attracted students like Elijah Tyler, a senior who has attended since sixth grade and earned a 27 on his ACT.

“You know for a fact if you need something, you can go to a teacher; not just academics but social issues,” said Elijah, who got a full scholarship to Rhodes College. “Everyone knows coming into Freedom Prep that the goal is to get into college and get that 4-year degree.”

The high school culture is grounded in a three-week teacher orientation every summer. During the school year, it’s not unusual for Principal Kristle Hodges-Johnson to pop in a classroom up to 10 times a week to give teachers quick pointers that “help them hone their craft at a greater rate,” Nelson said.

Vivek Ramakrishnan, a first-year high school teacher, said the overlap between ACT math and Bridge Math curriculum made integrating ACT prep a natural fit.

“Our leadership recognized how integral writing is to college academic success and prioritized writing in all content areas. Our history and (language arts) teams have pushed kids to writing college-length research papers,” he said. “…We also shifted towards making students interpret and justify their mathematical solutions in writing.”

Though Common Core isn’t perfectly aligned with the ACT, findings from the test company’s national survey helped inform its development in 2009. So, Freedom Prep leaders set out to adapt their classroom instruction early and provided time in the school day for students to prepare, especially since many don’t have access to the internet at home.

“This is a really hard shift for adults to make; it’s hard for students too,” Nelson said of Common Core, which is the basis for the state’s newly revised academic standards that will reach Tennessee classroom this fall.

The charter network focused on bite-size changes over time to help teachers teach differently and ask students more evidence-based questions. When it got hard, teachers reminded students that perseverance is key to the ultimate educational goal: graduating from college.

“We don’t try to insulate kids from that frustration and that’s an important lesson to have,” Nelson said. “We connect the transition with what they came here to do… (which) matters so much more than a standard.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about student mobility.