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Report urges next chancellor to focus on college preparation

The city’s next schools chancellor will soon have to determine his or her ultimate goal: for every student to graduate from high school? To be “college or career ready”? To graduate from college?

report released yesterday illustrates just how complicated those last two can be, as only a fraction of those who graduate from city high schools actually enter college and earn a diploma. Researchers embedded in 14 high-needs middle and high schools found a litany of roadblocks that originate before students graduate, from the limited number of advanced college-preparatory courses available to a lack of trained counselors to help students through necessary paperwork.

“What happens to our students in New York City, particularly in low-end communities, is they don’t have all of the traditional tools that middle class and upper class families do in terms of academic and social supports to actually make it through college,” said researcher Kim Nauer of the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “As more and more students have been told that they can, and should, attend college, too many of them get to college and just fall off a cliff.”

A lot of the report’s content was previewed in a panel discussion held last June. But after four years of firsthand observation, the center is recommending an action plan for the next administration.

“The next chancellor is going to have a lot of tough financial decisions to make,” Nauer said. “If college readiness is genuinely part of the goal, they’re going to have to think about how to support students in school for this process.” Some of their recommendations:

Hold schools more accountable for preparing students for college: The researchers credit the Bloomberg administration with beginning to hold schools accountable for what happens to their students after they leave, through the “college and career readiness” grade now included in school progress reports and Where Are They Now reports for principals. But even though the college-going population has jumped, many students aren’t academically ready to take—or their schools do not offer—classes that prepare them to do college work.

A Center for New York City Affairs analysis of 2011–12 Progress Report data revealed that only 28 of 342 high schools analyzed had students taking Regents exams for Algebra 2, Chemistry and Physics. Most schools offered only one or two of these courses for possible advanced Regents credit in that year—and 46 schools appeared to offer none. That said, most high schools offer at least a few advanced or college-level courses. And taking even just one course can improve the probability of success in college.

Still, Progress Reports are set up to emphasize measures that show whether students pass Regents exams that determine graduation. One teacher phrased it this way: “Too much energy is spent on short-term passing—and not enough energy on long-term college planning.”

While no one wants to see the graduation rates erode, it is important that the department move toward a more balanced set of incentives. A good first step will be to increase the value of the Progress Report’s College and Career Readiness score, which measures important things like college matriculation and the number of students with access to college prep courses.

Offer more trained help for students: The study’s analysis of data from the teacher’s union showed a 1 to 316 ratio of students to licensed guidance counselors from kindergarten to grade 12 in city schools, excluding charters. There are no standards for how many guidance counselors schools need, or a direct budget line for them.

The researchers acknowledge that there are a few schools of thought on who can best provide college guidance—the city and many principals say outside providers and teachers can do the job well. Still, the report notes significant gaps in the counseling process for many students, and recommends either a full-time trained college counselor or outside help with enough resources to really reach students.

Center researchers also observed that the College Ready Communities schools were usually thinly staffed and heavily reliant on outside nonprofit help. Over the three years we observed these schools, we saw several occasions where applications of an entire senior class were put at risk when a guidance counselor left on maternity leave or when there was a major change in school leadership. Even though nonprofit partners and other school staff stepped into the breach, there was a remarkable degree of instability in college guidance in many of these schools.

The department’s Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky has said that hiring full-time college counselors for every school would be impossible financially, though.

Support the nonprofits that are filling those gaps: At Flushing High School, a single college counselor was available for more than 3,000 students. The focus there has been on getting as many students over the bar to graduate, especially since the Bloomberg administration has tried to close the school for low performance. The organization Asian Americans for Equality helps some students fill out financial aid forms and search for scholarships, support that the school’s counselor, Maria Berber, has said is vital:

“I’m under the impression that AAFE will stay, if they didn’t, it would be a nightmare, I really, really hope they stay, because it will be at least some continuity for these kids and a face that’s familiar.”

A revealing note: For nonprofit organizations that do provide students with counseling help, there are difficult and often uncomfortable decisions to be made about how to allocate limited resources.

“If a student is a junior in high school with a GPA of 70 and has never written a research report, there are real ethical questions about exactly what colleges he should go to or if he will even get into one,” a former Cypress Hills Local Development Cooperation staffer. “Is it really fair to send this student to college if he may not be able to even pass out of remediation?”

Thus organizations face a Hobson’s choice: Try to help students catch up academically or give up on college and help them find a different post-secondary pathway.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.