college prep

How one program is using frank conversations to help students choose the best college

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Dennique Khanns, 16, talks with a fellow Fordham High School for the Arts junior after their OneGoal class.

When Samara McLendon looked at a list of colleges recommended for someone with her mix of grades and test scores, the 16-year-old didn’t see many that she recognized.

The private Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs was included, along with the University at Buffalo. So was SUNY Geneseo, which has a student population that is 74 percent white. The student population at McLendon’s Bronx high school is 2 percent white.

As the high school junior stared at the list of school names, she wondered aloud if she would fit in.

“How is the social aspect going to affect my learning?” McLendon said. “How does that play into the college that I choose?”

Her questions were prompted by an organization called OneGoal, a college-readiness program that provided McLendon with her list of schools. That program, which is now in eight New York City schools, recruits educators to teach a course that covers everything from how to get financial aid to how to choose where to apply to college.

English teacher Casey Goodson leads a discussion with students during their OneGoal class at Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
English teacher Casey Goodson leads a discussion with students during their OneGoal class at Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx.

But the teachers dive deeper than explaining the Common Application. They also have frank discussions with students about what it will be like to on campus, which might involve any number of challenges for those moving out of the city. Some of those talks touch on tricky subjects like race and class.

“It’s not enough to get students into college,” said Nikki Thompson, the executive director of OneGoal in New York City. “Once they’re there, how do they survive?”

Research supports the idea that making students comfortable socially in college is key to ensuring that they graduate, said Gregory Wolniak, the director of the Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes at New York University. That is particularly crucial for students from low-income communities, where only 9 percent of students typically graduate from college by age 24, according to a recent Pell Institute study.

That’s why teachers working with OneGoal tackle the topics head-on. They encourage students not to attend schools where a large percentage of students of color do not graduate. They also start discussions about what it might be like if the students choose schools where they are minorities for the first time.

“They don’t even think about race, or like racial tension, or racism, or prejudice. For some of them, they’ve never experienced it,” said Jennifer Blalock, one of OneGoal’s teachers at Fordham High School for the Arts. “And so it’s thinking, how do we get them prepared for an environment where they’re most likely going to come across that at some point?”

Dennique Khanns, a junior at Fordham High School for the Arts, had already started thinking about how much her choice should hinge on college demographics. She wants to attend Spelman College, a historically black college in Georgia, but wonders if narrowing her search to schools that serve mainly students of color will cut her off from other good options.

“I want to be in my safe zone,” she said. “And then I’m just like, but opportunities are open for predominantly white schools too. So it’s like, I’m still iffy about that.”

Fordham High School for the Arts junior William Carrasquillo, 16, talks about summer job and internship opportunities during his OneGoal class.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Fordham High School for the Arts junior William Carrasquillo, 16, talks about summer job and internship opportunities during his OneGoal class.

OneGoal encourages students to consider schools, like those in the SUNY system, that are both affordable and have better graduation rates than CUNY schools. (Among students who entered CUNY in 2006, only 30 percent of students had earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree after six years. At SUNY, 64 percent graduated in six years.)

But SUNY schools are varied, with some in the suburbs, upstate cities, or small rural towns. Almost all have a very different look and feel to New York City, which means students will have to get acclimated to a different culture in an unfamiliar area.

One of those adjustments will likely be in the school’s racial diversity. Though state schools tend to be more diverse than other colleges, they still won’t look like the Bronx, said Risa Dubow, a counselor at BottomLine, another program that helps students through the college application process.

“A diverse SUNY is still not going to look like New York City,” she said.

Teachers can only hope their lessons about college life will help students once they get to school, but sharing information about the application process can make a quick and tangible difference in where students apply to college.

OneGoal is there to fill in the gaps in student knowledge about everything from tuition costs and to realistic academic expectations. Students with 2.0 grade-point averages sometimes want to attend Ivy League schools. Others, like McLendon, don’t realize that in-state tuition is cheaper than out-of-state tuition.

“For a lot of them, the messaging is just ‘get to college,’ but the conversation doesn’t go past that,” Blalock said. “The conversation doesn’t go to, ‘OK, but what’s the pathway? How do I get there?’”

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.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.