College Access

Low-income Indiana students could qualify for college scholarships — but most don’t even apply

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at a middle school managed by Phalen Leadership Academies, the company that will run the new Trix Academy in Detroit.

Decatur Township educators know 21st Century Scholars, a state-funded college scholarship program, can be life-changing for their students, many of whom come from poor families.

To encourage students to sign up by the deadline at the end of eighth grade, Decatur Middle School staff send parents letters, emails, and automated phone messages. They host school events and help families fill out the application, said Chris Duzenbery, director of college and career readiness for Decatur.

But the district’s sign up rate is still dismal: Only a quarter of Decatur eighth-graders who were eligible for 21st Century Scholarships signed up last year, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. That’s down 12 percent from 2014, when 37 percent of eligible students enrolled.

Decatur has the lowest participation rate in Marion County, but schools across Indianapolis and the state struggle to sign students up. In Marion County, just 52 percent of eligible eighth graders registered for the program in 2017. Statewide, about 46 percent of eligible students signed up.

In other words, last year, more than half the Indiana students who were poor enough to be eligible for the scholarships missed out on the opportunity to have the state pay their college tuition.

Eighth-grade students signed up for 21st Century Scholars in 2017

Source: Indiana Commission for Higher Education analysis using free and reduced price meal eligibility data from the Indiana Department of Education. (Image by Sam Park)

Funded by the state, 21st Century Scholarships pay for up to four years of college tuition — which could add up to more than $40,000. To get that money, students must come from low-income families (with a maximum income of $45,510 for a family of four) and they must meet a host of eligibility requirements, such as maintaining a 2.5 GPA. Those requirements begin in middle school when students must sign up for the program by June 30 of their eighth grade year. If they miss that deadline, they lose the chance to participate.

For Decatur staff, the low signup rate is a bit of a mystery. “It baffles me to tell the truth,” Duzenbery said.

One challenge for the district is simply staffing. Decatur Middle School, which has nearly 1,000 students in seventh and eighth grades, has two guidance counselors. With so many students to work with, those counselors are stretched thin, Duzenbery said. That’s also common in Indiana, where schools have an average of 559 students per counselor, according to state data.

In recent years, most Marion County districts have seen increases in the number of students signing up for the 21st Century Scholar program. In Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, about 46 percent of eligible eighth graders had signed up in 2014. Four years later, the number of students enrolled rose to 65 percent.

The scholarships are also at the center of Indy Achieves, a sweeping new initiative from Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett that aims to make college more accessible to the residents of the city. The program includes a new focus on working with school districts to ensure students take advantage of existing scholarship money.

“While it can certainly be a challenge to connect with eligible students for the 21st Century Scholars program, many of our middle and high school partners in Marion County have seen improvement in terms of Scholar enrollment recently,” said Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers in a statement.

For many of the children, getting the scholarship can be life-changing. That’s why staff at the James and Rosemary Phalen Leadership Academy were so excited when every eligible student in the class of nearly 40 eighth graders registered for the program.

Each year, the charter network that runs the school takes students on college visits around the state, said principal Nicole Fama. But since more than 90 percent of students at the middle school on the far eastside of Indianapolis qualify for free lunch, many of them know their parents cannot afford the steep sticker price for college.

Once students learned about 21st Century Scholarships, college “became a lot more real,” Fama said. “That makes those college visits so much more credible.”

Phalen, a charter school in its first year, had a small class of eighth-graders. But it still took months of work to get students signed up, said Fama. Like Decatur, the school told parents about the program through letters, emails, and personal calls. Teachers talked about it with students, and children brought the news home to their parents.

“Little by little, people would start calling, like, ‘Hey, my son’s making me crazy about filling out this really big application.’ We’d say, ‘come on in, and we’ll help you with it,’ ” Fama said. “That’s what we did. I mean, we literally walked people through it.”

All that work can have a huge payoff for families. Dietra Vaden, a parent who also works as a behavior dean at the Phalen middle school, said she had heard of the scholarship before, but she didn’t entirely understand how it worked or that it would be an option for her son, a rising-eighth grader. As a single mother, Vaden said, she thought she wouldn’t be able to afford college for her son. The prospect of 21st Century Scholarship changed that.

“We didn’t think we were gonna have this privilege,” she said.


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.