Future of Schools

Could this charter network’s ‘College Bot’ help more Chicago students complete college?

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot / Chalkbeat
Sarah MacCallum, director of college counseling at Noble Academy on Chicago's Near North Side checks on students using the College Bot.

Can a robot help Chicago students graduate from college?

Perhaps not in the obvious sense — the College Bot deployed by the Noble charter network doesn’t write papers or help cram for exams. But the Bot — actually an algorithm developed by the network’s chief college officer — aims to steer students toward college success by helping them find colleges they’re more likely to complete.

Noble introduced its College Bot during the 2012-13 school year, and in its five years of operation it has spurred Noble students to select colleges whose graduation rates are 10 percentage points higher than they were selecting previously — 52 percent compared with 42 percent.

Getting kids into college is the mantra of dozens of programs up-and-running in Chicago schools — and the district credits such groups as the college readiness outfits OneGoal and Thrive for helping boost college enrollment figures, like these released last week. But Chicago, like many cities with high percentages of poor students, struggles to keep students in two- and four-year colleges.

Noble Network is 98 percent African-American and Latino, and in 2016, the most recent year for which four-year college data is available, 80 percent of Noble graduates matriculated directly to four-year colleges, compared with 42 percent for Chicago schools’ students overall.

The College Bot’s premise is simple: By comparing a list of college admissions and performance data with a student’s grades, standardized test scores, and ethnicity, the Bot spits out a list of top-ranked schools where the student is likely to be admitted and to receive an attractive financial aid package, and also rates the schools based on their track record of graduating students.

The computerized lists “are incredibly predictive,” said Matt Niksch, the College Bot’s creator, and thus effective in helping students zero in on schools that are likely to admit them and offer financial aid. But the College Bot’s real magic is in suggesting a broader pool of colleges than Noble’s students would otherwise consider, and in encouraging students to strongly consider college graduation rates in their decision-making.

The broader pool matters because Noble’s students often default either to local colleges with poor graduation rates or to state schools with big-name sports teams.

Using the Bot, “students are accessing schools that they may never have considered before, such as small liberal arts colleges,” said Sarah MacCallum, director of college counseling at Noble Academy, a Noble high school in Lincoln Park.

Dakota DeVore, a senior at Noble Academy, said that before using the Bot, she had heard of only a handful of colleges — certainly not Lafayette College, a liberal arts school of about 2,500 students that sits on the Delaware River in a small town near Allentown, Pennsylvania. But the Bot suggested it, and after talking it over with a college counselor at Noble, DeVore has the school atop the list of those she’s considering.

The College Bot “really helped me to figure out what I wanted in a college, and also just what’s out there,” DeVore said.

It can seem like a jolt for city kids such as DeVore to consider small, rural colleges, but often those schools make for good fits.

“Small liberal arts colleges in the middle of nowhere frequently are schools that have tons of support and are actually going to work really hard to help students deal with challenges,” Niksch said.

That, in turn, points to Noble’s emphasis on a college’s track record of graduating students — especially minority students. That focus is well-founded, according to research conducted by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research.

“If you take relatively similar colleges, and one has a higher institutional graduation rate, that has an impact on your likelihood of graduating that is on par with your own academic qualifications going into college,” said Jenny Nagaoka, the consortium’s deputy director.

Noble doesn’t yet have data on how that affects its students’ likelihood of college success, but is beginning to study that, too, now that the tool has been in use long enough to track a graduating class through four years on campus.

Noble has deployed the College Bot throughout its network of 17 high schools, whose 12,000 students account for about 11 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ high-school students. But Niksch doesn’t see it as a proprietary advantage, and shares it freely with other schools; about a dozen charter networks nationwide use it.

Niksch also stresses that the College Bot is meant to complement, not replace, each counselor’s insight and each student’s decision-making.

“Kids aren’t bots; they have hopes and dreams and preferences,” Niksch said. “We try to guide them where they’re likely to be successful, while still giving them plenty of freedom and plenty of choice.”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.