Future of Work

Beyond dinosaurs and rocket ships: New Children’s Museum program aims to help neighborhood families

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The Children's Museum of Indianapolis held a school fair this fall.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is largest children’s museum in the world, attracting visitors from across the country who shell out as much as $82 for a family of four.

But this gem sits in the midst of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where just one in four adults has a college degree and nearly half of families with children live in poverty.

That’s why museum leaders decided that they needed to do more to help kids close to home, said Anthony Bridgeman, who runs community programs for the museum. Kids in the surrounding neighborhoods already get free admission but now the museum has launched a program called Mid-North Promise that aims to help neighborhood families further their education and achieve their goals.

Among the 33 families currently participating are a man who needed help finding a new school for his grandchildren, a mother who needed a job that would reimburse her college tuition and a woman who needed childcare so she could complete her pharmacy technician training. But the museum is particularly focused on one group: Teens who were part of the state’s 21st Century Scholars program, which provides qualified high school graduates with free tuition to Indiana colleges and universities.

“We have a very transitory neighborhood in general,” Bridgeman said. “I would like to see … more young people from our neighborhood engaged in seeing a future … a big, bright future that those folks say, ‘Hey, you know what, there’s something really good happening here, and I’m going to plant roots and stay in the neighborhood.’ “

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The neighborhoods served by Mid-North Promise.

Thousands of Indiana students have benefited from the lucrative 21st Century Scholars program but some eligible students don’t know about it. Others have struggled to meet application requirements.

The state reported last spring that the vast majority of students in the program were in danger of missing out on scholarships because they were not meeting new requirements, but Mid-North Promise staff are determined to make sure that eligible students in the neighborhoods around the museum are able to get the scholarships they deserve.

Caseworker Tremayne Horne is now working with 26 high schoolers who are eligible for the scholarships, including Stacia and Simone Clemons.

When the Clemons sisters signed up to become 21st Century Scholars in middle school, their mother Dennicka Kendall assumed they were set — stay out of trouble and keep a high GPA, and they would get the scholarship.

But when Horne met with the girls — Stacia is a senior and Simone is a junior at Crispus Attucks High School — he discovered that they were behind on meeting requirements such as personality tests that need to be completed and community service projects that must to be fulfilled.

“A lot of the requirements were kind of sent to me … later,” Kendall said. “I didn’t even know that they had so many requirements.”

Now that they’ve joined Mid-North Promise, Horne has helped both sisters get back on track toward earning the scholarship. He also is working with Stacia Clemons, a senior, on her plans for college and the future, helping her make sense of applications and financial aid deadlines as well helping her think through her decisions about where to apply.

When she and her mother got into an argument because Clemons was unsure what she wants to do for college or a career, it was Horne who she called.

“I was kind of freaking out,” Clemons said. “He made me feel a lot better.”

In addition to helping teens get 21st Century Scholarships, the Mid-North Promise program will also offer $2,500 scholarships for families, Bridgeman said.

The Mid-North Promise is currently funded by grants from the Lumina Foundation and Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and sponsored by Old National Bank. The museum is looking to raise nearly $4.6 million to support the program longterm. That includes $3 million for a scholarship fund and nearly $735,000 to pay for family education and caseworkers like Horne.

The program is modeled on efforts like the Kalamazoo Promise, which offer free college tuition to graduates of Kalamazoo public school. That program has spawned copy cats across the country in cities like Syracuse, New Haven and Detroit.

But while most Promise programs are focused on money for college, the museum is also working with parents to help achieve their goals.

Horne is helping Kendall, the Clemons’ mother, finish her college degree and prepare to buy a house, for example.

“A lot of people come to the program solely focused on their kids and how to basically make a better life for their kids,” Horne said. “For them to be able to sit down and go over their goals and how they want to better themselves, I think has really been a big impact for them.”

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?’”