extra support

Indianapolis’ new idea to get kids through college: Stop small stumbles from becoming big barriers

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

To reach the city of Indianapolis’ lofty goal of giving every resident access to college, it’s going to take more than money.

It’s going to take a lot of nudging.

Educators know that many students are capable of college coursework and could qualify for financial aid — but too many of them are failing at the logistics of getting into college and sticking with it until they graduate.

That’s why the city’s new education initiative, a key state scholarship program, and private organizations are all looking to improve those nudges — using a human touch to prepare students for college, encourage them to apply, and push them to graduate. The programs use a variety of approaches, such as text messages from business leaders to high schoolers or “college champions” who cheer students on to graduation.

“Whether you’re a first-generation college student, or you’re someone with a lot of college graduates in your family, the process is complicated,” said Matt Impink, executive director of Indy Achieves. “There’s a lot to know, and a lot of deadlines to hit. We want to give them simple guidance about how to get those things done.”

Indy Achieves, the city’s new education initiative, focuses on this need for a greater network of human support, and identifies where students need more check-ins and guidance, particularly students from low-income families who may face extra challenges along the way.

In addition to expanding financial aid opportunities for students, Indy Achieves calls for additional resources and strategies for school counselors, mentors at the high school level for the transition to college, and more guidance for adults seeking college credentials.

One area of focus will be on the state’s 21st Century Scholars program. Even though the needs-based scholarship program covers tuition at Indiana colleges, it’s hard to get students to sign up — more than half of eligible Hoosier students miss out on the opportunity to have the state pay for college.

And while 21st Century Scholars are more likely to go to college and be ready for college-level courses, they often struggle to stay in school and graduate on time, if they do at all. Less than one-third of 21st Century Scholars graduate in four years, and about half graduate within an extended timeline of six years, according to state data. While that puts them ahead of their low-income peers, they’re still falling behind compared to students overall.

Indy Achieves plans to work with middle- and high-school counselors to increase federal financial aid and state scholarship sign-ups. The initiative will also recruit volunteers from the business community this winter to mentor high school seniors through the college transition with in-person meetings and scripted text reminders.

“They’ll be our eyes and ears on the ground with what students are having struggles with, and what we need to do to help point students toward services,” Impink said.

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education also plans to build similar supports into the 21st Century Scholars program next year, asking students to identify a college mentor or “champion” who will encourage them through college.

The tweak comes in part because of results from the Gallup-Purdue Index, which surveys students to measure college outcomes. The survey found that students with emotional support systems — such as mentors, or professors who they felt cared about their success — were more likely to succeed in college and in the workforce.

In recent years, the state has also placed AmeriCorps members — dubbed “ScholarCorps” — at college campuses to advise, coach, and mentor 21st Century Scholars. The program has boosted retention rates, said Jarod Wilson, the commission’s Director of Postsecondary Outreach and Career Transitions.

“If a student has a flat tire, that could just completely change their trajectory and their ability to complete classes that semester,” he said. “Emergency aid — the 21st Century Scholarship doesn’t cover those things, but we’re able to help them navigate the issues through it. There’s a lot more that happens on the holistic side of the student that’s more than just being able to pay for tuition and fees.”

The city and state programs also rely on a web of partner organizations that provide their own mentoring and support for students, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Center for Leadership Development, 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, Boys II Men, and the Starfish Initiative.

The mentoring programs often try to find ways to work together, seeing themselves as complementary rather than competitive.

At the Starfish Initiative, an Indianapolis nonprofit focused on college access and readiness for low-income students, mentoring pairs are carefully curated to develop one-on-one relationships, which the organization said results in more than 75 percent of its students graduating from college. It’s a much more involved program than what the city and state can offer.

The program is serving more than 400 students this year, selecting high-achieving freshmen in need of both financial and emotional supports to match with volunteer mentors. Throughout high school, students participate in an annual leadership camp, make college visits, and talk regularly with their mentors, who take them out to restaurants, see concerts, or watch sports.

“If you think about investing, we believe these are the kids to invest in,” said Starfish Initiative president and CEO Gisele Garraway. “We think if you have a dollar, or if you have an hour of time, where might you get the best return on investment? We think it’s Starfish scholars.”

Through the program, students learn how to write professional emails, meet sign-up deadlines, and find friends with similar goals. They have someone to talk to about career paths, college choices, first loves, and family losses.

Catalina Lua wasn’t sure what to think when her son told her about the Starfish program. Hardly anyone she knew was familiar with the program, and she was wary of trusting her child to a stranger.

But her son, Alejandro, a 14-year-old freshman at Lawrence North High School, wanted to participate, and he was excited to go to the leadership camp and meet the older Starfish scholars. The Luas don’t have extended family living nearby, and Catalina worries about 14 being a tough age.

Alejandro had been playing football for years, but all of a sudden, this year he didn’t want to go. Catalina asked why, and all Alejandro said was that he was losing interest and wanted a break.

They met his mentor, an older man named Dave, who reminds Catalina of a grandpa and who has mentored before. He has stopped by the house to spend time with Alejandro’s family, and taken Alejandro out to restaurants.

He calls Alejandro to ask about school and his interests. They talk about wrestling, the sport that Alejandro got into when he stopped playing football.

“Sometimes I ask him, how was school? And he says just a few words. He doesn’t talk much,” Catalina said. “But I notice when he talks on the phone with Dave, I see he talks more. He says more. So I’m hoping maybe my son will be more comfortable speaking with him.”

food fight

As government shutdown drags on, New York City vows to protect school food program

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer served lunch at P.S./I.S. 180 in Harlem on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned that federal funding for school food could end in April if the government shutdown drags on.

The historic partial government shutdown could soon threaten New York City’s school food program, which serves about a million students breakfast and lunch.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is drafting plans to keep school cafeterias open if the shutdown drags on, calling food for children “the number one thing we’re going to try to address.”

“In terms of drawing on some of our reserves, that would be a priority,” he said Thursday at a press conference to discuss the impact of the longest-ever shutdown.

The federal government provides about $43 million a month to pay for school meals in New York City, and right now the city has money on hand that would last until April.

School food is lifeline for many families. About 75 percent of New York City students qualify for free or reduced price lunch — to meet that threshold, a family of three would earn about $33,000 a year, said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, an organization that fought to make school lunch free for all city students.

“The real threat of [the meal programs] not being available lays bare some very real suffering,” Accles said. “The impact is pretty scary to think about.”

Other school districts are already beginning to feel the effects. One North Carolina school district recently announced it would scale-down its school lunches, cutting back on fresh produce and ice cream. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, one school district is hoping to recruit furloughed workers to fill in as substitute teachers.

The shutdown has dragged into its fourth week with no resolution in sight. President Trump and Congress are at an impasse over the president’s request for $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

De Blasio’s media availability about the shutdown’s impact comes as he appears to be trying to bolster his national reputation. His State of the City speech last week focused on larger issues of income inequality and was followed up by appearances on CNN and “The View.”

De Blasio said it’s unclear whether the city would be eligible for reimbursement if it taps its own money to fund school food programs. And he warned that it would be impossible for the city to make up for all of the federal spending on programs that help poor families, which totals about $500 million a month.

“It is a dire situation, there is no other way to say it,” de Blasio said. “It will overwhelm us quickly.”

There are other ways the shutdown could be felt by students in the country’s largest school system, with funding for rental assistance and food benefits also in the balance. New York City is already struggling with a crisis in student homelessness: More than 100,000 lack permanent housing. Payments for food assistance are expected to stop in March, de Blasio said. An estimated 535,000 children under 18 years old benefit from that program.

Such out-of-school factors can have profound effects on student achievement. Cash benefits and food stamps have been linked to boosts in learning and students’ likelihood to stay in school. In New York City, the average family receives $230 in food assistance a month, according to city figures.

“The stress that the families are under, worrying about work and when they’re going to get paid, the children sense it. They hear it. They feel it,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the union that represents school administrators. “We see the impacts of that.”

chronically absent

One in four students are chronically absent in Tennessee’s state-run district. Here’s what educators are doing about it.

PHOTO: (Lance Murphey, Memphis Daily News File Photo)
About 25 percent of students at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School were chronically absent last year, a drop of 6 percent from 2017.

More than one in four children in Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district were chronically absent from school last year. Until recently, Armani Fleming, an eighth-grader in Memphis, risked being among them.

Armani struggled with attendance until a student support specialist with Communities in Schools, a Memphis nonprofit focused on wrap-around services for children, worked with him to identify and resolve barriers keeping him from class at Humes Middle School, apart of the Frayser Community Schools charter network.

“I realized Mr. B really cared about me, and he’s helped me make sure I come,” Armani said of the support specialist, Cadarius Buckingham. “He’s more of a counselor to me. I come and talk to him about everything, he’s the person I come to when I need help … and me coming to school has gotten a lot better.”

In the Achievement School District, getting kids to show up at school matters. Recent research has shown that when students have more “familiar faces” around them in class, they’re less likely to be chronically absent. Which is why nonprofits like Communities in Schools are sending staff members into local schools to connect with students like Armani.

Tennessee created the Achievement School District in 2012 to fix its lowest-performing schools by turning them over to charter organizations, but it has struggled to move the needle. Last year, 27.4 percent of the district’s students were chronically absent — representing a 2.4 percent drop from the previous year, but still alarmingly high. Now composed of 30 schools, the district faces higher rates of student mobility and poverty, contributing to its challenges with absenteeism.

Statewide, more than 13 percent of students are chronically absent, defined as having missed 10 percent of the school year, which is typically 18 or more days, for any reason (including excused absences and suspensions), but the average rate was significantly higher, 21 percent, for students who live in poverty.

The stakes are high for improving attendance numbers. Chronic absenteeism is now a major part of Tennessee schools are held accountable by the federal government. And research shows that children who are chronically absent from school are often academically below grade-level, more likely to drop out of school, and more frequently involved in the criminal justice system.

Communities in Schools is now in 19 Memphis schools, eight of them state-run. Those schools have seen, on average, a 5 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism, according to Michael Russom, the group’s director of operations and communications.

One school, Cornerstone Prep Denver Elementary, saw even more dramatic results: an 18 percent drop in chronic absenteeism year-over-year. Last year, just 13.7 percent of the school’s students were chronically absent.

What made the difference? Capstone Education Group, the charter school operator that runs Cornerstone schools, has a staff member dedicated to improving attendance and a partnership with Communities in Schools, said Drew Sippel, executive director of Capstone, which runs two state-run schools in addition to Denver that also had low absenteeism numbers.

“Whenever a parent expresses some concern related to regular attendance, [Patricia] Burns works to resolve impediments to consistent attendance,” Sippel said of the school’s Manager of Student Information and Business Systems. “These impediments range from transportation, homelessness, and inability to purchase school uniforms.”

Untreated health issues is sometimes another factor.

Denver Elementary’s principal also worked with Capstone staff to increase the number of meetings with parents, and therefore, to pinpoint the root causes of students’ absences.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape’s staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

“There’s often an assumption or judgment with parents, ‘Why don’t you just make your kids go to school?’” said David Jordan, CEO of Agape, a Christian nonprofit that has also seen success in reducing chronic absences in Memphis schools. “We keep data on this, and it’s not that parents don’t care. There’s a lot of issues that can prevent students from making it to class.”

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout Memphis — and all students they work with are now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of the group’s goal for Agape students: to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For its part, Communities in Schools hopes to expand onto additional Memphis campuses, but for now, the focus is the schools they are already serving. And they have added additional staff to some of the highest-needs schools.

One such school is Fairley High School, an Achievement District school run by the charter operator Green Dot Public Schools. There, about 56 percent of students were chronically absent last year, a 19 percent increase from 2017. Russom said they placed two full-time support specialists within Fairley earlier this school year.

Last year, absences spiked at Fairley amid a change of leadership at the school, and it took time for the new principal to gain students’ trust, said Zachary Samson, Green Dot’s area superintendent.

“That’s one huge piece of chronic absenteeism that’s hard to quantify,” Samson said. “It makes such a difference when a student walks in the door, and I as a school leader am able to greet them by name. I know their mom. It’s students feeling seen and appreciated.”

To improve attendance, Samson said his staff is working with Communities in Schools to create an incentive program for students, in which students who meet their attendance goals can attend school parties. He added that they are also focusing on their communication with parents, as many parents may not be aware their children are chronically absent or of the consequences.

Samson said he’s confident attendance can improve at Fairley because he’s seen it happen at another Green Dot school – Wooddale Middle School. About 15 percent of students were chronically absent at Wooddale last year, a drop of 3 percent from the previous school year.

Communities in Schools has a full-time staff member at Wooddale, and that has made an enormous difference, Samson said, noting: “For schools where budgets are very, very tight, having another passionate educator in your school whose big focus is to address attendance and behavior with students – that’s a huge help.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the state defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of attended school days, which is typically 18 or more days for the school year.

Correction: This story has been corrected to say that one in four students in the Achievement School District were chronically absent last school year, not one in three.