Starting early

Efforts spur college readiness dialogue in Washington Heights

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez speaks to a crowd of Washington Heights parents about college readiness Wednesday evening.

A Washington Heights politician who has been trying to get local parents talking about college readiness might have bitten off more than he can chew.

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez has adopted a novel response to the daunting statistic that only about 13 percent of the city’s African American and Latino students are graduating from high school prepared for college: He has put together a working group of principals to get families talking about the path to college starting in kindergarten.

But at a forum Wednesday evening at I.S. 143, the first public event to come out of the working group’s suggestions, parents among the audience of 60 families, educators, and elected officials spoke mostly about more immediate concerns.

Most of the parents who spoke during the question and answer session prefaced their questions about college readiness with complaints about high class sizes and administrative problems at their schools, which drew the meeting off topic.

“There are 35 kids in our classroom and only one teacher,” one mother said. “What are the things we can do about that?”

Still, many of the parents at the meeting, which was held in Spanish, told me they wanted to begin learning about the college admissions process early, even though their children attend elementary schools in Districts 5 and 6.

Last month Rodriguez held a preliminary meeting with eight principals and a handful of parent coordinators and Parent Teacher Association representatives from local schools to outline the collaboration and discuss how workshops could benefit these parents. At this week’s parent meeting, he emphasized the urgency of the problem, highlighted by the city’s new college readiness measurements and Common Core Standards, that few students graduate prepared for the rigor of college level courses, if they have the resources to apply to college at all.

College readiness was the subject of a City Council hearing last month that focused on the persistent disjuncture between what city high schools require for graduation and what the City University of New York expects from new students.

Dionicio Rodriguez, a parent who is applying to kindergarten for his daughter this year, said he came to the meeting when he heard about it from a friend because he believes parents should start informing themselves about the path to college as early as possible. But he is also worried that the school choice options in District 6, his district, would be subpar, so he has applied to a dozen charter schools with kindergarten admissions.

“I want my daughter to get the best in her future, and a good school is the way to be successful in college,” he told me. “The school she is supposed to go to, if you go online the percentages on tests are low, so I don’t want her to go to that school. I want the best for her.”

Jacqueline Jones, whose son attends Urban Assembly School for Media Studies, speaks at a town hall meeting on college readiness.

Cecilia Angelero, a parent coordinator at I.S. 143, said she attended the meeting to stress the importance of parents’ role in preparing students for high school graduation and college.

“The schools give some information, but we really have to do our own research,” she told the group. “This [college readiness push] should have been done years ago — the communities need to be informed.”

Angelero said her son’s high school, Urban Assembly School for Media Studies, could be doing more to prepare him for college. He has already received some materials related to the college process in 10th grade, but she said she would still like to see the support increase further.

Jacqueline Jones cautioned the elected officials to remember that they are speaking to only the most involved parents who can make it to evening meetings.

“This plan needs to help and include parents who want to participate, but don’t know how,” said Jones, who sends two children to Amistad Dual Language school in Inwood. She recalled how her mother could not help her study for the SATs when she was in high school because she had never heard of them: “I truly believe this has to be early — it took my mom way too long to learn this.”

Two principals who attended the meeting told me afterward they have increased their emphasis on the pathway to college this year and hope to share best practices with other school leaders in meetings Rodriguez may hold in the future.

“These parents who come to these meetings are part of our active PTA, and they want to feel reassured that they’re getting support from the leadership in the community. It has to be a collaborative effort,” said Wanda Soto, the principal of P.S. 5. “We’ve always had standards, but now we’re looking at how we have to start from an early age if we want our children to succeed.”

“We have a very hardworking PA, we have parent coordinators, we have workshops. But I came here to get more information, to hear how to get parents more involved,” said Cindy Arndt, principal of the Mott Hall School, a middle school. She also touted a new, mandatory college readiness class that is tied in with new curriculum standards, known as the Common Core.

“There’s no cookie cutter. The college readiness classes that we have can’t be done the exact same way in another school, but they can get the concepts,” she said.

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.