Playing catch-up

Thousands of low-income Indiana students are in danger of losing college scholarships

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
College acceptance letters in the main entrance at Tindley Accelerated School.

Thousands of low-income Indiana high school students who are eligible for a lucrative college scholarship are in danger of losing out on four years of paid tuition if they don’t meet a host of new requirements.

New data from Indiana Commission for Higher Education show that just 20 percent of eligible students in the Class of 2017 have completed requirements so far for the state’s 21st Century Scholar program, such as registering online and watching a video about paying for college. That means that more than 14,000 needy students might have trouble catching up in time to use the scholarship after they graduate.

The problem is even more severe in Marion County, where only 13 percent of high school juniors in the program are where they should be in meeting the new requirements.

The problem stems from changes to the 25 year-old program that were mandated in 2011 when the Indiana General Assembly heaped on requirements and raised the GPA threshold from 2.0 to 2.5. Lawmakers wanted to ensure that students awarded the scholarships were prepared for college. This year’s high school juniors are the first graduating class that will be held to the new standards, which include a checklist of activities during their four years of high school.

“The first class is always the tough class,” said Jason Bearce, associate commissioner for higher education. “We are really significantly changing what the expectation is for students. We don’t just want students to go to college, we want them to graduate.”

There are 12 activities total that students are responsible for completing and tracking. To finish the program, students also must earn the state’s default Core 40 diploma, stay away from drugs, alcohol and crime and commit to taking 15 college credit hours per semester once they enroll in college.

The activities range in difficulty: Freshmen must sign up to use the state’s information tracking website and watch a “Paying for College 101” video, while seniors must report that they’ve submitted college applications and filed for federal student aid.

The scholarship goes to kids from families who meet certain income levels. For example, a family of four must earn less than $44,863 annually, as well as meeting other criteria.

Stephanie Wilson, the commission’s spokeswoman, said it’s likely that many kids might have completed the required tasks but just haven’t updated the state on their progress.

“A lot of these are things that we kind of have an inkling that students have done or schools have coordinated, but people don’t know they actually have to go in and affirm these activities,” Wilson said.

Part of the problem is a breakdown in communication, said LaMont Rascoe, a guidance counselor in charge of the 21st Century Program at Perry Township’s Southport High School.

Rascoe said his school takes on the bulk of the work pushing students to keep up with the 21st Century Scholar activities because they know parents at home aren’t always able to. Parents might not know what’s required. They might not have access to a computer. At Southport, more than 90 percent of juniors are on-track to graduate with their scholarships according to state data.

“We make the kids take ownership over the program,” said Rascoe, who’s been working with 21st Century Scholars for about a decade. “We don’t want any kid to not have an opportunity based on something we didn’t do.”

The state expects that once kids and schools are alerted to the fact that there is work they need to do, more students will get on-track. Wilson said she’s seen the percentage of juniors who have completed their requirements jump from 8 percent to 20 percent in just the last few weeks.

Almost 18,000 students are expected to graduate in the scholarship program in 2017. The program began in 1990 said Teresa Lubbers, the Commissioner for Higher Education, and the Class of 1992 was the first to use the funds.

Lubbers said the program has changed lives.

The scholarship “changed the culture and the mindset of a population who, for the most part, thought college was out of reach for them,” Lubbers said. “We think it has the potential to actually be the biggest contributor to closing the achievement gap.”


Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.