prep school

Truman HS principal turns to local college for readiness boost

Truman High School Principal Sana Nasser introduces a program to boost college readiness.

Harry S. Truman High School Principal Sana Nasser started making college preparation a priority long before the city began sounding the alarm about poor college readiness rates. She has encouraged students at her large Bronx school to take college level courses at the nearby Mercy College campus, and invited alumni enrolled in college to meet with current students.

But when the city assessed her efforts in its first release of data measuring how schools are preparing students for college academics, Truman fell short of the city’s already dismally low averages in all three college readiness categories. Just ten percent of Truman’s students scored high enough on advanced standardized tests to be considered “college prepared,” according to the city’s rubric.

So Nasser is trying a different approach. She has joined with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and administrators from Mercy College to create a college readiness initiative that target all students and offer the strongest ones a chance to earn a two-year associates degree by the time they graduate from high school.

“I believe some of you can do high school in two years and take college courses,” she told an assembly of honors students in grades nine through twelve seated in the school’s spiffy, first-floor IMAX theater.

Diaz and Mercy College President Kimberly Cline introduced the initiative at an event this morning, where they lamented some of the challenges facing students who are preparing for college, particularly the financial burdens. The idea, they said, was born from the education summit Diaz held in the Bronx last fall, where educators from around the city discussed the need for more robust college preparations.

The initiative would cut down on college costs for students who earn credits — as many as two years’ worth — while still in high school. It would also partner Mercy and Truman to develop tutoring programs and seminars for parents.

The city has made a push in recent years to open more high schools that partner with city colleges—among them Pathways in Technology Early College High School and the Academy of Software Engineering—to offer college courses and extra certifications, in what is sometimes called a “9-14” pathway.

By 2025 Mercy plans to expand the program at Truman to at least 40 other Bronx schools that graduate less than 70 percent of students from high school in four years—but to do so would require an endowment of $100 million.

Seniors in the auditorium told me they were satisfied with the level of college preparations they received at Truman, though there is plenty of room to do more.

At Truman, where just 62.5 percent of students are graduating in four years, and just 6 percent are “college ready,” according to city data, it’s unlikely that very many students would be able to complete an associates degree in just two years. That option would be in reach Truman’s highest-achieving students, but Nasser said the efforts could also engage the vast majority of middle-of-the-pack students who are not currently taking advantage of the college-level courses on offer at the school and off-campus.

“My mission for this school has been for the past 10 years—and I don’t have any flowery words—that I want to graduate students in four years, without them needing remedial work in college,” she said.

“I think this sounds good. the school does need this,” said Aisha Diallo, a senior who is planning to attend La Guardia Community College this fall and major in biology. “I think it’s going to motivate more kids to come to school more and push more, knowing that they could finish part of college in two years.”

Diallo and other student have taken a college-level psychology class from a Mercy teacher who came to Truman, and students regularly meet with college advisers.

“We’ve met with counselors, we met with students from other colleges, and a lot of people from Mercy College,” Cordell Humbric said. “They went into our classrooms and taught us about FAFSA, how to apply [for financial aid].”

Nasser said the initiative would also take a burden off of parents who may be unfamiliar with the college application process or unable to fully fund a student’s education.

“Going to college is not going to be a mystery—we’re going to show you how to have financial aid, we’re going to take you through the steps with your child,” she said. “I want [parents] to know, ‘my kids are going to get to experience what it’s like to be a college student while they’re still with me.'”

 

headcount

New York City school workforce grows, driven by 40 percent rise in teaching assistants

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A teaching assistant worked with a pre-K student in East Harlem in 2014.

New York City’s public-school workforce grew 8 percent over the past decade, according to a new report, driven largely by the rising number of teaching assistants who work with preschool students and students with disabilities — two populations whose numbers have risen even as overall student enrollment declined.

The education department employed about 131,200 people this June — an increase of 10,200 workers since July 2007, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office released Tuesday. The expansion comes even as student enrollment in district-run schools fell by 1.5 percent, or some 15,300 students, during that same period, the report notes.

While the number of teachers remained basically flat during that time, the department added nearly 8,600 additional teaching assistants, or “paraprofessionals,” as they’re known within the school system — an increase of over 40 percent.

“This is a story about the use of paraprofessionals — that’s the main thing,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior IBO analyst who prepared the report.

The majority of the paraprofessionals who were added during that period work with students with disabilities. Teachers union officials attributed the increase to a citywide effort since 2012 to place more students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their general-education peers, often with the support of a paraprofessional. (An education department spokesman said students are assigned paraprofessionals based on their unique needs.)

Nearly 2,000 of the paraprofessionals hired over the past decade work in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which are required to have both an assistant and a teacher. The number of assistants spiked after 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio rapidly expanded the city’s pre-K program.

Full-time paraprofessionals with a high school degree earn a starting salary of around $22,000. While the number of paraprofessionals focused on special-education and preschool students grew during this period, those assigned to general-education classrooms declined by roughly 1,100.

At the same time, the ranks of other school workers expanded 22 percent during this 10-year period. Those more than 2,200 additional employees include nurses, occupational and physical therapists, and “parent coordinators,” who answer families’ questions and help organize school events.

The number of teachers, principals, and assistant principals barely budged over that period, adding just over 500 additional workers. Union officials noted that there was a teacher hiring freeze from 2009 to 2014, but said that in recent years any new hires were essentially balanced out by teachers who retired or chose to leave the system.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement: “We’re focused on recruiting and retaining talented staff that meet the needs of New York City students and families.”

A Whole New World

Strict rules, Snapchat, and eerie quiet: A first-generation college student adjusts to life on campus

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Daviary Rodriguez, a freshman at the University at Albany.

Daviary Rodriguez, who goes by Davi, sat in the back of his calculus class at the University at Albany on a recent afternoon, taking notes as his professor sprawled math equations across the board.

When she told the class to work on problems, Davi, 18, grinned he had already finished a couple questions while she was talking.

“I think it’s pretty easy,” he said, smiling.

As a freshman at the university, which is part of the State University of New York system, Davi is confident, excited about his newfound independence, and enjoying his classes. Still, as a first-generation college student from a working-class family in the Inwood neighborhood in New York City, Davi will have defied the odds if he makes it to graduation.

In New York City, officials have pushed to get more students like Davi to enroll in college and it seems to be working. But a major hurdle remains: helping students persist once they get there. Less than 30 percent of students from average-income neighborhoods in the city graduate college in six years, and that number drops to 16 percent for those from the poorest neighborhoods, according to a recent NYU study.

With that grim statistic in mind, nonprofits, colleges, and even high schools are working to help students get to and through college. Davi is relying on several such programs to help push him across the graduation finish line.

With Thanksgiving days away and finals around the corner, we spoke with Davi recently about the highs and lows of his first semester in college.

Davi during his calculus class at the University at Albany.

A summer of strict rules and study hours

Davi got an early start on college — five weeks early, to be exact.

This summer, he took part in an intensive college-prep course through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a 50-year-old program that provides academic and financial support to students from low-income families at public colleges across New York.

While his middle-class peers spent the waning days of summer bidding farewell to old friends, Davi was sitting through hours-long orientation lectures and silent study hours each night. In fact, the popular program — which enrolls motivated students who don’t meet SUNY’s typical admissions requirements — enforces a dress code during the summer orientation, bans cell phones outside of residence halls, and forbids participants from interacting with students who aren’t in the program, according to program rules obtained by the campus newspaper.

Maritza Martinez, the university’s Educational Opportunity Program director, said the strict rules are necessary to cram the basics of college life and academics into a brief summer course.

“We don’t have the luxury of not having a structured program,” she said. While low-income students typically are less likely to graduate than their peers, Martinez noted that the graduation rate among EOP participants is actually higher than the university’s overall rate.

During the summer crash course and throughout the school year, the program helps students develop study habits, apply for financial aid, and tend to their mental health. Davi was required to clock eight hours of library time each week, meet with counselors, and write an essay about stress management.

In addition to the academic guidance and money to help cover non-tuition expenses like textbooks and supplies, the program also provides a support network of peers from similar backgrounds. Davi, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Upper Manhattan, said it’s reassuring to be surrounded by students who can relate to one another.

“The thought of college kind of scared me because I thought I was going to be surrounded by white people,” he said. “But that’s not the case now.”

A high school teacher who’s only a text away

When Davi’s group took a trip to the mall this summer, and later when a fellow participant was booted from the program, Davi shared the news via text message and Snapchat with a trusted confidant — his high school English teacher.

“The way I see my role is just to hear them out,” said Valerie Hennessy, who taught at Academy for Software Engineering in Manhattan. “They vent or tell me what they’re going through.”

Davi and Hennessy have kept in touch through a program at OneGoal, a national nonprofit focused on college readiness. (Hennessy now works for OneGoal coaching other teachers.) The program trains high school teachers to have frank conversations with students about picking and attending colleges, and then helps them stay connected with their former students through their first year of college to help troubleshoot problems.

It’s a response to statistics showing that a large proportion of low-income students don’t make it beyond the start of college, said Nikki Thompson, the executive director of OneGoal in New York City.

“In the first year of college, many, many students drop out for a variety of what we were argue are preventable reasons,” she said.

Davi said more high school teachers should keep in touch with students who are transitioning to college, since their former teachers can be a calming influence.

“College is a big place and not everybody can get help there,” he said. Students “should get help from the people they know more, from high school.”

An expensive investment

Even before stepping on campus, college was foreign territory for Davi.

Like many other first-generation college students, he relied largely on his high school to help him figure out where and how to apply. His parents supported his decision, but had scant advice to offer since they hadn’t gone through the process themselves.

“They didn’t really have input on what college I should have gone to,” Davi said. “My dad said that’s my own choice.”

Once he was accepted to college, the next hurdle was paying for it.

Though state and federal grants cover his tuition expenses, Davi still expects to rack up about $30,000 in debt, mainly to cover the cost of housing. (Like most low-income students, he did not qualify for the state’s new “Excelsior” scholarship, which targeted middle-income families.)

Kristin Black, a research fellow at New York University, noted that the high-school graduation rate for New York City students who are low-income, black or Hispanic is starting to get closer to that of their white, Asian, and higher-income peers. But the graduation gap widens when those students reach college.

Difficulty affording college tuition and all the expenses that come with it could be part of the problem, along with being unprepared for college-level work, said Black, who wrote a report on the graduation gaps but did not investigate the causes.

“The number of black and Latino students graduating from high school and all of that is great,” she said. “But we don’t necessarily see them maintaining those gains as they go through college.”

Getting used to the quiet

As his first semester winds down, Davi is slowly adjusting to college life.

He loves the free time between class, participating in the school’s marching band, and playing piano in the college’s rehearsal rooms.

But he’s still getting used to other aspects of campus — in particular, its location in a sleepy upstate city that feels nothing like the bustling metropolis where he grew up.

“I’ve been out in the night with friends and it’s really quiet, it’s really dark out,” he said. “When I’m in the city, hanging around, I see people, there’s lights everywhere, Times Square. For me, it’s just normal…But here, it’s just quiet.”