How can NYC help students aspiring to attend college? Recent grads have ideas

FRIDAY, APRIL 9, 2021- Brooklyn, New York: Alandinio Cineas (left) 16, works through an algebra problem with his tutor Chahima Dieudonne, 17, at Brooklyn High School for Excellence and Equity in Canarsie. CREDIT: Gabriela Bhaskar for Chalkbeat
After facing significant disruptions stemming from the pandemic, some New York City students are calling for schools to develop better structures, communication, and support for their graduating seniors who are headed to higher education.  (Gabriela Bhaskar for Chalkbeat)

One college counselor for 500 high school seniors. Lack of communication between school leaders and teachers. And inadequate mental health support. 

These were some of the issues that have made high school seniors’ road to college difficult during the pandemic. 

High school graduates across the U.S. have lost interest in pursuing higher education. The likelihood of high school graduates pursuing a four-year degree dropped from 71% to 51% in the last two years, according to a report earlier this year from the nonprofit ECMC Group. Increased stress and anxiety among students has led to a strong aversion to being in the classroom and is one possible reason behind the rise of chronic absenteeism in NYC public schools

Some students who struggled with stress and anxiety this year ended up having difficulty completing the coursework they needed to graduate. 

After two years of students transitioning between remote and in person learning, some New York students are calling for schools to develop better structures, communication, and support for their graduating seniors who are headed to higher education. 

As the Class of 2023 gets ready for its senior year, here’s what three past graduates say schools can do differently. 

Milena Vilez, freshman at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Manhattan

Milena Vilez grew up in Ecuador until she was nine years old, when she moved to the U. S. Vilez said she had greater access to educational resources and opportunities in the U.S. than in Ecuador. But she didn’t anticipate how hard her senior year would be. 

The college application process at her school was like a “rollercoaster,” said Vilez, who graduated in 2021 from Aviation Career and Technical High School in Queens. 

“I was lost in the whole process and had to seek help,” she said. 

Her school had a graduating class of 500 seniors, but only one college counselor to seek help from. Vilez joined one-hour Zoom meetings with the counselor — along with hundreds of other students who also had questions. So there was no guarantee that her questions would be answered. 

At home, she helped her parents take care of her younger brother who struggled with his online classes. She also cooked for her family while attending her virtual classes. Being on the computer almost all day without social interaction or physical activity, made it “harder to de-stress,” Vilez said. 

She said she would have benefited from mental health resources, but they were not provided to students until the end of the year, and information about the services were not shared unless requested.

A group outside of school gave her crucial help when deciding on her focus in higher education. Vilez has been able to nurture her passion for studying political science thanks to YVote, a youth organization that focuses on inspiring young voters to become civically educated and engaged. 

One key piece of advice from Vilez to high schools: Ensure that each student can rely on — and get access to — the school’s college resources, and provide mental health resources for students early and often. 

Lucas Rosenberg, freshman at Fashion Institute of Technology, Manhattan

As a senior last year at Brooklyn High School of the Arts, Rosenberg had a very “chaotic” experience. 

After being online every day for the past few years, Rosenberg started having painful and frequent migraines that led him to seek help from a neurologist.

“I was so isolated and lonely during the pandemic,” said Rosenberg. “My health was definitely at its lowest.”

Rosenberg felt comfortable applying to colleges, because he said it was similar to the application process for middle schools. If it weren’t for that experience, he would have faced more challenges, he said. Still, being a senior was very difficult.

School administrators put a lot of pressure on teachers who then passed it on students, said Rosenberg. And teachers’ attention was split between those who were excited to return to the classroom and others who wanted to continue online learning, even while they were in person. 

“Nobody knew what was going on, what next week would be like, who to contact for support … just uncontrolled chaos the whole time,” said Rosenberg. “If  you went to the dean to talk about it, he would just be like, ‘I don’t know. This is just how their class is.’ I feel like I was hearing that from everyone: ‘I don’t know, just figure something out.’”

At the same time, “the administration was panicking because grades were low and attendance was low. Suddenly not as many people were graduating [as] were supposed to be,” said Rosenberg. 

Teachers expressed their aggression and frustration at students who were not performing well, instead of having sympathy for struggling students, said Rosenberg. Although he successfully graduated on time, it was discouraging for him to see that lack of care and empathy. 

Rosenberg’s key advice to high schools: Communicate with teachers so they can provide better help for their students, and maintain organization so that teachers and students don’t feel lost.

Binyu Wang, freshman at Baruch College, Manhattan

Most of what Binyu Wang learned regarding the college application process was from her own research and conversations with friends. 

Like Vilez, getting involved in an external organization helped Wang navigate last year’s college application process more than her teachers and guidance counselors did.

Some English teachers offered to edit students’ personal essays, but ended up being “too busy” from their overwhelming classroom workloads to actually help, said Wang. And she struggled to receive help with other parts of her college application at school. So Wang sought help outside of her school. 

She joined Bottom Line NYC, an organization dedicated to helping high school seniors from under-resourced communities earn a college degree, for help with her personal statement and college application.  

One key piece of advice Wang has for high schools: Integrate teachers’ discussions of — and advice about — college resources with students throughout the school year. 

“I expected our regular teachers to give us more support,” Wang said. “I felt like they should have talked more about it, because one of my teachers did go into talking about paying loans and all of that, but it was just one teacher.” 

Elena Johnson is Chalkbeat’s 2022 Community Engagement and Listening Intern.

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