hands-on learning

With powerful backers, new Colorado apprenticeship program seeks to build ‘middle class of tomorrow’

PHOTO: Denver Public Schools
Denver student Quang Nguyen works at an internship this past summer.

A youth apprenticeship program set to launch next fall aims to connect 250 Colorado high school students with paid job training in its first year, providing students with an immediate path to middle-income jobs and helping businesses cultivate the skilled workers they need.

Called CareerWise Colorado, the program is being launched with the help of $5.5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, founded by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In addition, JPMorgan Chase is contributing $4 million to Denver Public Schools to expand its current career exploration program. DPS is one of four school districts that has pledged to take part in the new CareerWise Colorado initiative.

Under the apprenticeship program, participating 11th- and 12th-graders will spend up to half of their time working and the other half in class earning a diploma and credit toward a two-year college degree. They will spend an additional year post-graduation getting more work experience and earning more college credits.

“We are in the process of building a real pipeline of talent that goes from the school, the campus directly to the workplace,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at a kickoff event Wednesday morning at the downtown highrise headquarters of DaVita Healthcare Partners.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez was among the dignitaries at the event. He called the state a nationwide leader in youth apprenticeship, which he joked is “the other college, except without the debt.”

“What you’re doing through these investments is not only building the workforce of tomorrow,” he said. “You’re building the middle class of tomorrow.”

CareerWise Colorado came together after business leaders — led by Denver-based Intertech Plastics founder Noel Ginsburg — education leaders and state government officials, including Hickenlooper, visited Switzerland in 2015 and early 2016 to study that country’s popular apprenticeship program, in which 70 percent of high schoolers participate.

Ginsburg said what he saw there inspired him to push for a similar program in Colorado.

“We really believe this can be transformational — not just for our students, but for our businesses, as well,” said Ginsburg, who is chairman of the CareerWise Colorado board.

Several Colorado employers have committed to working with apprentices, including DaVita, Intertech Plastics, Pinnacol Assurance and Mikron, a Swiss manufacturer with a location in Englewood. In fact, Mikron has already taken on three apprentices this year.

Selena Elekovic, a senior at Cherry Creek High School, is one of them. Addressing the crowd at Wednesday’s event, she said the experience has helped solidify her desire to become an engineer.

“They showed us how concepts I learned about in class come to life,” Elekovic said.

CareerWise Colorado backers hope to see 20,000 Colorado high school students participate in youth apprenticeships by 2027, a goal they admit will require more funding.

Several local organizations also have donated, including the Daniels Fund, the Mile High United Way and the Walton Family Foundation. The state of Colorado has also contributed. (The Walton Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

CareerWise Colorado would also like more school districts to get involved. Thus far, Denver, Cherry Creek, Jeffco and Mesa County Valley School District 51 have pledged to take part.

Meanwhile, Denver Public Schools plans to use its $4 million grant to expand its existing CareerConnect program from 6,000 students to 9,000 students over the next three years.

Students can start taking foundational classes in 9th grade in one of several “pathways,” including business, technology, creative arts and healthcare. They can also attend a career exploration event — for example spending half a day at a hospital, hearing from doctors, exploring the inside of an ambulance and even doing a dissection experiment.

In 10th grade, students continue taking classes and have the option of connecting with a mentor who works in the field they’re interested in. In 11th grade, they can do an internship. And starting next fall, 100 DPS students will get a chance to participate in the apprenticeship program.

Thus far, DPS’s CareerConnect program has been funded with help from a $7 million federal grant the district won in 2014. But that money will eventually run out, which is why funding to continue and expand CareerConnect is included as part of a proposed $56.6 million mill levy override the district is asking Denver voters to approve in November.

Dozens of DPS students attended today’s event dressed in matching navy blue polo shirts. Quang Nguyen, a senior at Lincoln High School, had a paid summer internship at the Colorado Department of Education, where he worked with the technology team to test the department’s data collection system for potentially devastating errors.

Nguyen, who is in the process of applying to study engineering at a Colorado university next year, said the most important thing he learned was “how to communicate with people, how to know about deadlines and how to tell people you need help.”

Juan Garcia, a Lincoln High junior, interned with the city’s technology services department, updating and replacing computers at Denver libraries. He encouraged other students who might be considering getting involved in the CareerConnect program to take the leap.

Asked what he wants to do after high school, Garcia didn’t hesitate.

“Solve all the world’s problems,” he said.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

Test case

New York’s free-college program comes with a big catch: Students who fall off track risk losing their scholarships

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

With thousands of college students about to finish their first semester under New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship Program, advocates, critics and researchers will be looking closely at one crucial question: How did they do?

The new scholarship — which provides free college tuition at state public schools to students whose families make less than $100,000 a year — is the first program in the nation in which a state offers free tuition at four-year colleges. But the program has also been criticized for its many restrictions, including strict credit requirements and an obligation to live and work in the state after graduation.

One early sign of the program’s effectiveness will be whether students can keep up with their classwork. The scholarship banks on the idea that students will not fall behind over the course of a year. The penalty for failing to complete the required credits by year’s end are substantial: Students must pay back a semester’s tuition and forfeit future funds.

Tracking the number of scholarship students who fail to complete courses in this first semester of the program will provide one indication of how many students may struggle to meet the requirements, experts said.

In the next two to three years, once there’s a lot of numerical data, we’re all going to have a much better sense of how this program is faring and what specific issues may arise that need to be ironed out,” said Arthur Ramsay, spokesman for the SUNY Student Assembly, which represents students throughout the State University of New York.

The state intends to expand the income eligibility for the program by 2019 to include families who make $125,000 or less a year.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the scholarship last spring, critics jumped on the requirement that students complete 30 credits a year — the average course load required to graduate on-time — since many students struggle to finish in two or four years. But Cuomo argued that it will encourage more students to graduate faster, and that dragging out college makes it less likely students will ever complete a degree.

Eric Neutuch, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern who is studying financial aid, said that he could potentially see the credit requirement having both positive and negative effects. It is possible more students will sign up for extra credits in order to keep their scholarship, but losing a scholarship may throw off students who otherwise would have graduated, he said.

“There is potential that students will lose Excelsior, not regain it, owe money back to their college and throw their hands up and say, ‘I’m done with college,’” Neutuch said. More scrutiny is necessary to figure out what the result will be, he said.

The scholarship’s rules leave some wiggle room, but not a lot. If students fall behind, they can attempt to make up a class the next semester. Students are also allowed to count summer classes, though they are only eligible for the scholarship during the school year. Some students may also be granted hardship waivers for the death of a family member, health problems, or parental leave.

But the credit requirement may be particularly onerous for students not quite ready for college-level work. They must take a full course-load in addition to any remedial classes, which may be required for students in associate’s degree programs. Only 46 percent of New York City students meet the benchmark to avoid remedial classes at the City University of New York.

If history is any indication, college students from New York City will struggle with this set of rules. According to a CUNY report, only about 32 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees completed 30 credits in 2014. (CUNY is now using a separate metric focused on freshman to track credit accumulation.) In associate degree programs, less than 10 percent of entering freshman in 2015 finished 30 credits in their first year.

State officials argue part of the scholarship’s goal is to improve that metric.

“The Excelsior Scholarship is designed to help as many students as possible attend college tuition-free while boosting on-time completion and reducing student debt,” said Elizabeth Bibi, a spokesperson from the governor’s office. “Most importantly, in its first year alone, the scholarship is already helping thousands of New Yorkers attend college with zero tuition-costs—something to be celebrated.”

But for many students, taking 30 credits each year is simply not possible, said Stephanie Fiorelli, the postsecondary success manager at Urban Assembly, which supports 21 small public schools in New York City. She said many students who graduated from Urban Assembly schools are working between 15 and 20 hours a week on top of attending school. They have family obligations, run into problems paying for transportation, and struggle with a myriad of obstacles out of their control.

“These kids want to be in school full-time.” she said. “It’s not feasible at all.”

Other complications could play into students’ ability to reach the 30-credit requirement. Natan Nassir, a sophomore at Binghamton University, started his year with the state’s Excelsior scholarship, but ran into trouble when he decided to switch majors.

For his new major, he was encouraged, but not technically required, to take a computer science course. However, since he does not need that class in order to graduate, it does not count towards his 30 required credits, he said. (State officials said that all credits must count towards a student graduating and getting a degree.)

He will be one class shy of what he needs (even though he is taking a full course load) and he plans to attend summer school to make up the extra class.

“I was very surprised, honestly, when she told me about this requirement,” Nassir said, “I had no idea that it existed. I kind of thought, ‘Well now what?’”