college knowledge

‘They don’t realize how special they are’: How one guidance counselor defines college readiness

PHOTO: Ron Link
James Giordano sits with his students at TAPCo.

James Giordano, a college counselor at a high school in the Bronx, has a secret for making all of his students college-ready: He creates a personalized definition for each of them.

Instead of relying on the city and state definitions, Giordano pores over data sets of students’ standardized test scores and grades, creating large, colored spreadsheets that show patterns of success. He learns their life stories and finds out what motivates them to come to school.

Low-income students do not struggle to attend college because they miss a benchmark set by CUNY based on Regents exam success, Giordano said. It’s that they are burdened by a complex system that fails to recognize their strengths.

As the director of the Design Your Future Program at TAPCo, a high school focused on performing and visual arts in the Bronx where all students live in poverty, Giordano helps draw out students’ achievements and navigate the tricky process. His role — which helped propel almost all of the school’s 64 graduates to college this fall — does not exist at most schools, where college guidance comes from counselors with a wide range of responsibilities.

We sat down with Giordano to learn about his job, some of the students he has helped navigate roadblocks, and why he thinks spreading his school’s model could be an uphill battle. (The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.)

What is your secret to helping graduates go to college?

Giordano: I start off with the assumption that every student is extraordinary in some way or another. If you were to look at my students, if I were to give you a bunch of transcripts, you would think you have some average kids here, you have some kids that are above the fray, but most of them are below average GPA and SAT scores. So what I do is collect an enormous amount of data beginning in the sophomore year. I make a picture of all their academics and I try to see if there are students that stand out academically from the crowd. That could be Regents scores, PSAT scores, that could be a GPA, that could be a student that does really well in math or history.

As they get older and they progress, then I really start to putting the picture together on the other side. It’s who the students are. They’re graduating at a higher rates [than peers at other schools], they are going to college at a higher rate, so I try to figure out what about the kids is keeping them in school and keeping them going. I start to working with them on their college essays in their junior year and that’s when I figure out what their story is really about.

The hardest part about these kids is they don’t realize how special they are. They don’t realize how different they are from the rest of the country. They reside in the poorest congressional district in the country and they don’t get it.

What do you think about formal definitions of college-readiness? These definitions are increasingly used to track progress on city initiatives and communicate to students whether they are likely to succeed in their first year.

This girl in NYU’s nursing program, on paper her SAT scores were so far below what they’re looking for and she is finishing up her first year at the top of her class. How can you say these metrics are completely accurate? How well you do on a Regents exam and how well you do on an SAT, all of those things, yes, they do have an impact on how well a kid will do. But you have to look in between the lines.

You can’t put these kids into a bottle, they’re so different. Every one of them is so unique, to say that those criteria that CUNY sets forth, and the state sets forth, it’s so blind. It’s not looking at the kids as individuals. It’s just looking at the kids as a big gigantic group that’s all the same. So that’s the secret sauce. It’s is breaking all that stuff down and figuring out who these kids are on a much, much deeper level.

How do students fare when they get to college?

It’s hard for them because they are behind academically. Their first semester is always really hard and I warn them. It was hard for me too. I almost went home. I tell them just get through that first semester, or that first year, and you’ll see it turn around around.

But they’ll make it. I know they will because I see in them the potential that they have. It’s just an amazing thing to watch when you have these kids who, on paper, should never succeed at the University of Rochester and they get there and they just skyrocket and blossom. It should be enough to keep the critics quiet, but unfortunately it’s not.

How do you help with the process?

Sometimes I know the rules better than the schools themselves. A lot of the schools, they want a certain type of student and they don’t want another type of student. I’ll give you a quick story. I had a student who was conditionally accepted to the SEEK [a program for four-year CUNY schools that supports financially disadvantaged students] program at John Jay. She took the CUNY assessment and failed, so they sent her a letter that said she was not going to be able to go there. The truth of the matter is the rules are different. There’s a way for her to go there with SEEK and still be able to attend and graduate on time. So I wrote a letter. I called the school, and she got accepted.

Doing that with one kid is one thing. Doing that with 60 kids is another. So it just becomes a matter of knowing the rules like the back of your hand and really being willing to fight for these kids, because they really need someone to fight for them. It’s really a mountain they have to climb and doing it alone is devastating. I know the rules and I know how to maneuver the system.

What other obstacles do students face?

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say for the EOP program [a program that helps economically disadvantaged students at SUNY schools]. If somebody had a tax return, had income and they fall just under the income requirement, all they have to do is provide proof of that. Say they don’t have any income. That’s actually harder to prove.

I push them through the entire process. We’re talking copies and faxing and do you know what a budget letter is? Some schools will take a copy of that and some schools won’t. The students and parents have to go into social services and get proof for all of this stuff. They are often times told by the people working there, ‘sorry we don’t do that.’ It’s a really long process and I’m doing that with the students and not with the parents. Parents, they’re so confused by all of this, that they’re not involved too much. It’s mostly the students and it’s really a lot of stress for them.

What about the cost of college?

It gets very complicated because the parents, for the most part, are first generation who have not graduated from college. They’re coming from a whole different place, and the information they’re getting is different than the information that I’m giving to students. But the students know from their junior year that if they want to go away to school, it’s going to cost them money. I want them to know if they want to go to SUNY they have to take out a $5,500 loan [each year]. For some of them, it’s difficult to come to terms with it. Some of their families don’t make that in an entire year.

The parents when they see $5,500, for the most part they discourage their children from going that route because you can go to CUNY for free. For them it’s just about dollars. Don’t go anywhere that’s going to cost you any money. I have to teach them when that’s OK and when it’s not OK.

Do you talk to students about race and culture at college?

One of the first questions they ask is how white is the college. Is there diversity there? Students address those types of worries and it’s difficult for a lot of our students once they get there. They do face a lot of racism and discrimination once they get there.

But they’ve been there before and they rise through it. For the most part they end up loving it. They end up meeting people they would have never met. For the white people in college, they have never been exposed to any diversity as well. So these two meeting, they’re changing each other and they’re changing the school in the process

Do you think there’s a way to spread this model? What about the Single Shepherd program, a de Blasio initiative that will give counselors to students in two high-needs districts?

We have an amazing guidance counselor at our school. At a normal school, he would also be expected to do what I do, which is a joke.

I think [Single Shepherd] is a start. The problem with a lot of those programs is they’re young counselors going in there. You kind of need war-torn counselors, and those guys tend to understand it on the surface. You could train these counselors all you want, you don’t learn it until you’re in it. A lot of people hate it, they hate doing what I do because it’s so complex. I don’t know if there’s an answer to how do you get people to stick with it and to focus on it. You have a lot of people like me who work in suburbs, but I don’t think you have a lot people like me who are where I am.

Revisiting CTE

Workforce training programs may soon look different in Memphis schools

Health care and information technology are among the career pathways that likely would be emphasized under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis students would get more opportunities to earn job certifications before graduation under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Details of the overhaul are still under wraps, but Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin wants to make sure the district’s offerings align with the region’s most sought-after jobs. That may mean more classes focused on hot career fields like health care and information technology.

The school board is expected to get a first look at the proposal later this month.

Career and technical education, or CTE, is getting renewed attention under a state and federal push to prepare students for jobs of the future. And it’s especially important to students in Memphis because nearly half of graduates from Shelby County Schools don’t enroll in any formal education after high school and 21 percent aren’t working either — the highest rate in the nation.

Meanwhile, business leaders are talking with school leaders about improving education pathways to equip graduates for work in high-demand jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

“We need our students to have work-based learning experiences and residencies and then [businesses] don’t even have to train them,” Griffin said. “They’ll come out with a license; we’re going to pay for it. They’ll come out with a license ready to work.”

Currently, the 27 traditional high schools in Tennessee’s largest district offer a total of 207 classes that explore 16 career paths ranging from finance to advanced manufacturing. About 20,000 students participate.

Hamilton High students tour Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co. in Memphis on National Manufacturing Day in 2016.

But of about 400 participating seniors who are eligible to gain job certification, less than half did so last school year. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that has got to change.  

“The point of revamping our CTE program is we don’t really have true effective career paths right now,” Hopson told school board members last week. “We spend $20 million on CTE, but its not designed to say that when I finish this program, I’ve got something I can go out to an employer and say ‘I’m skilled and I’m ready for this job and I’m certified.’”

Shelby County Schools has incentives to revamp its CTE programs. In response to a new federal education law, the Tennessee Department of Education will grade schools in part on how well they prepare students — not just for college, but for directly entering the workforce.

“It’s about making sure you can map and track and document and assess and quantify whether or not something is working,” said Terrence Brown, who co-directs CTE for the district. “And all of that has been on the college-bound, academic part of the house, not in trade and industry and skills and training. [Now] the age of accountability has now come to career and technical education.”

To measure a “ready graduate” under its new plan, Tennessee will look at how many students earned industry certification, took dual enrollment or Advanced Placement classes, passed military entrance exams, or earned a 21 or higher on the ACT. The metric accounts for 20 percent of school and district scores under a new grading system being rolled out later this year.

As part of its stepped-up commitment to workforce training, Shelby County Schools already has introduced a major change to one of its most historic high schools. East High began this school year to transition to an optional school focused on transportation logistics, engineering, and technology in partnership with several businesses such as global engineering manufacturer Cummins.

But the goal is to get a quarter of students districtwide participating in CTE by offering courses at more high schools. And the focus will be on equipping students for high-demand jobs that offer living wages in the Mid-South. More than 100 jobs fit that bill and not all require a college degree, according to a report from the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee. Those fields include electricians, machinists, medical record technicians, and computer support specialists, all of whom earned at least a median income of $40,000 per year in 2016.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has promoted the importance of career training by visiting schools with robust CTE programs such as one in Murfreesboro that she toured last November during her first stop in Tennessee as education secretary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who helped author the new federal education law, told Politico recently that updating how federal funds are allocated for CTE is one of his top priorities this year.

But some educators and advocates worry that CTE will become a second-tier track for students viewed as incapable of going to college — or that their advantage in a fast-changing workforce will be short-lived.

“We want to make sure we’re not doing what we use to do with (vocational-technical education),” said Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center. “My dad would tell me that, as a black male, they funneled him to vo-tech because you’re a black male.”

A 2015 Stanford University study of CTE programs in 11 countries showed short-term employment gains for students. However, the researchers also found that those students lacked the skills to adapt to changes in the economy later in life compared with peers with a more general education.

Brown said Shelby County’s redesigned program will focus on higher-wage jobs that students can get certified for during high school or can train for in technical schools after graduating. That could boost business prospects when big companies consider locating to Memphis — such as the city’s recent failed bid to land an Amazon headquarters.

“One of the things we believe Amazon was looking for was (information technology) people who could come off the bat and write code and set up cybersecurity,” Brown said. “If you have an IT certification, you’re going to be in demand.”

Change agent

Education group that started in a Memphis classroom up for national Renewal Award

Students participate in Let’s Innovate Through Education, a nonprofit organization that develops young entrepreneurs in Memphis. The group is a 2018 recipient of the national Renewal Award.

A Memphis education group started by a former teacher is among 25 nonprofit organizations named as finalists for a national award for helping to renew their communities.

Let’s Innovate Through Education, or LITE, was chosen among 3,000 nominees across the nation to compete for the 2018 Renewal Award. The annual competition, now in its third year, was created by The Atlantic and Allstate to recognize local organizations for their work.

The finalists now go head-to-head for votes to see which five groups will receive prizes of $20,000 each, while five runners-up will get $10,000. The public can vote here through Feb. 21 for the organization that they believe is creating the most local change.

LITE was created in 2013 in the classroom of Hardy Farrow, a former teacher at Power Center Academy. The group seeks to close the racial wealth gap by helping young entrepreneurs of color launch businesses through an eight-year training model that equips students with capital, networks, and coaching.

More than 2,000 Memphis students have worked with LITE, and 90 percent are on track to finish college.

“When people from around the nation see us on this list, I hope they take away that age shouldn’t be a deterrent from pursuing entrepreneurship and location shouldn’t be a deterrent,” said Farrow, who now serves as the group’s executive director. “A lot of people don’t view Memphis as a place for new businesses to grow, especially businesses launched by young people. We’re changing that.”

LITE starts with a six-month high school program for students who pitch their ideas and work on projects to improve their communities. In college, they receive competitive internships with local employers such as Choose 901, Regional One Health, and the Memphis Education Fund.

So far, more than 2,000 Memphis students have worked with LITE, and 90 percent are on track to finish college.

LITE is the only Tennessee organization up for this year’s Renewal Award, but it’s not the first time for LITE to receive national attention. In 2016, the Memphis group was named one of the 20 ideas that can change the world by Forbes Magazine. And in 2013, Teach For America called it one of the five most innovative ideas in teaching.

“For students in our program who go on to apply for jobs or internships, saying you’re a part of this nationally honored program helps you get in the door,” Farrow said of the latest award. “It gives you confidence in launching a business, to say that you were picked for this program, you finished high school, and no you can go out and do this.”

Jada Newsom, a graduate of Ridgeway High School and sophomore at Middle Tennessee State University, is among those students. She spoke with Chalkbeat last summer about the work experience she was gaining as an intern at Imagine U, a local entrepreneurship program where she and other interns were developing a system to help college students manage their money better.

“I like how working as a team gives me a different perspective,” Newsom said. “ We can combine our ideas to make something bigger.”

Chalkbeat reporter Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.