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.


Tennessee’s career readiness program expands beyond high school

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks in Nashville in 2015 at a Drive to 55 summit. Launched Thursday, Tennessee Pathways, part of the Drive to 55 initiative, was spearheaded by McQueen and Governor Bill Haslam.

Six years after the state launched Pathways Tennessee, a career readiness effort for high school students, the program is growing and rebranding as Tennessee Pathways.

The program will now serve K–12 students, not just high schoolers, with the goal of encouraging them to pursue post-secondary education — be it a college degree or a trade-school certificate. Tennessee Pathways is part of Drive to 55, Governor Bill Haslam’s initiative to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with postsecondary degrees to 55 percent by 2025.

On Thursday, Haslam issued a press release touting the expansion, into new districts and into grades beyond high school.

“[A]ll Tennesseans deserve the opportunity to pursue a rewarding career, and that includes the education and training to get there,” Haslam said. “Tennessee Pathways provides a key foundation to help us reach this goal.”

Participating schools must provide career advising and opportunities for students to gain work experience or earn college credit. They are also expected to build relationships with community groups and businesses.

Last year, the state Department of Education released reports that tracked Tennessee students after they graduated high school. The first-of-their-kind reports found that 63 percent of graduating seniors across the state were enrolled in post-secondary programs in 2016. In Shelby County Schools, Memphis’ main district, about half of students in the district continue their educations beyond high school.

The expansion of Tennessee Pathways, which is currently in 33 counties, isn’t directly tied to that data, the state department of education spokeswoman Chandler Hopper, said. Rather, it reflects the department’s desire to “ensure the state is on track” to have the majority of its students earn some type of postsecondary education after high school.

“We know that students and families want more options and opportunities after high school, and we want to scale up and align those pathways with regional needs,” she said. “This is happening in pockets now, but we want to make sure it’s happening statewide.”

The state intends to fund this expansion in two ways. First, they’ll invest about $2 million in hiring new regional coordinators to help school systems identify opportunities that align with their needs and resources. Second, they’ll offer grants to participating districts; those grants will be funded by J.P. Morgan’s New Skills for Youth initiative, aimed at strengthening career training.

Samantha Gutter, a workforce readiness director for SCORE, a state education reform group, welcomed the news of Tennessee Pathways’ expansion.

“Parents and employers tell SCORE they are concerned that too many students graduate from high school underprepared for the demands of higher education and the workforce,” Gutter said.

New Tennessee Pathways designations will be awarded to districts beginning in fall 2019. This year, regional coordinators will work with districts to help them adhere to Pathways expectations.

Future of Schools

The future of education reform in Indiana is pushing career-readiness to the forefront

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

After decades of blockbuster education policy changes that have catapulted charter schools, vouchers, and school choice into the national spotlight, the so-called education reform movement is in the midst of a change in identity.

A sector of influential education advocates is shifting its focus solely from the classroom to also emphasize career readiness, a less splashy type of education change than school choice — but one supporters say has the potential for broad and powerful impact.

And reform-minded Indiana, unsurprisingly, could be the proving ground for this national trend.

The state has recently put a laser focus on connecting education and workforce development. Instead of emphasizing college as the only post-secondary option, the state is encouraging schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers, take technical and science-based classes, and pursue internships. The goal is set up non-college-bound students for gainful employment in high-demand areas.

“It has a far greater impact than just focusing on one subset of education reform that is school choice, and it doesn’t divide people as much either,” said P.J. McGrew, who spoke with Chalkbeat when he was the senior education advisor to Gov. Eric Holcomb. “I think it’s something that everyone can rally around.”

The issue of career and technical education is bridging some of the political divides that the past couple of decades of school-choice-focused policy have wrought. But even with that consensus, meaningful career readiness policies still face an uphill battle, and the approach is not without its skeptics. It’s hard to start a movement around policies that require major institutional shifts, lots of planning, and take years to show they’re working.

During this year’s legislative session, workforce development bills were front and center, including initiatives like helping adults complete diplomas or certificates, encouraging internships and school-employer partnerships, and requiring schools to include more “employability skills” into their curriculums.

Funding has also been increased over the years to expand school career and technical education course offerings and incentivize the hiring of teachers transitioning from the workforce — all to fill a “skills gap” Indiana employers say is preventing them from finding the workers they need.

According to a 2015 report from the National Skills Coalition, a group that advocates for training workers to meet employer needs, 58 percent of Indiana’s labor market is made up of jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year-degree. Yet only about 47 percent of workers are trained enough to fill them.

The bipartisan support for workforce initiatives in education mirrors how broadly the issue resonates with Hoosiers. Many Republicans see career development as an extension of school choice policies, designed to allow families to find the school or program that is the “best fit” for their children. Democrats and Republicans alike see economic benefits for their constituents, whether they’re from urban centers trying to find higher-wage jobs or rural communities working to attract employees and keep industry in their region.

Ultimately, even fierce political opponents agree that students need options so they can be successful after high school.

And these policy debates haven’t been “as burdened down by blame” as past ones, said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education.

Lubbers and others attribute the lack of friction to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s demeanor and political approach. Indiana isn’t new to conversations about combining workforce and education, but Holcomb and his administration have made them the state’s central focus.

In trying to address the state’s opioid crisis and concerns from rural areas where industry has declined, Holcomb’s administration has said additional education opportunities for adults and better-prepared high school graduates can make a difference.

Because Holcomb has pursued a more moderate political agenda compared to his very socially conservative predecessor, then-Gov. Mike Pence, other politicians have been more likely to sign on to his workforce vision, even if they had opposing views on other issues.

For instance, he’s found common ground on the workforce issue with Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick, a former public school educator who shared many of her education policy views with her Democrat predecessor Glenda Ritz despite being a Republican.

McCormick has come out strongly in support of more ways students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math, and set goals to update the state’s career and technical education courses.

And unlike Pence and Ritz, Holcomb and McCormick haven’t clashed as frequently — or as publicly.

The calmer political climate during the past two years has been far more conducive to a reform movement that requires a lot more collaboration between politicians and state agencies.

Prioritizing policies that create political unity not only reduces the spectacle of previous administrations, it primes the state for another controversial move lawmakers finally cemented in 2017 — making the elected state schools chief an appointed position, much like current agency heads for workforce development and higher education.

That cohesion, some believe, is what could lead to the most change.

“If you’re going to try and make a major push in the education and workforce space, you need alignment,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “Having a separately elected official makes that more difficult. We certainly saw that under Gov. Pence.”

It’s a less splashy type of education reform, said former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who led many of those school choice reforms himself under Gov. Mitch Daniels. But workforce initiatives are still rooted in many of the same principles that drove the choice movement, such as innovation and individualization.

“There is a lot of room for big policy movement in that area,” Bennett said. “I just hope that the traditional reform community sees that as as powerful as we saw the things that we pursued.”

Bennett touches on a potential hurdle that has current Indiana policymakers concerned about this new path: Supporters believe workforce-oriented reform efforts could end up having more impact than their choice-focused predecessors — but they’re harder to create, slower to implement, and take longer to post results.

Creating a sense of urgency around these issues, said McGrew, who in May took a new job as director of policy for the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, could be challenging.

But directing too much attention to work-based learning could have drawbacks, some education advocates say. And because Indiana has barely gone a year without changing some aspect of its education system, there’s fatigue for educators, students, and parents on the ground.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, worries the increased focus on education and workforce is redefining the purpose of education.

“That’s the debate that’s about to happen,” Meredith said. “What is the real role of public education? Is it to create bots to work in plants … or is it to create adults in a functioning society?”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said workforce programs should be careful not to fall into the old traps of traditional career technical education — namely tracking students and pushing them into the programs.

“As long as it’s not old fashioned voc ed,” she said. “This is really giving kids choices and different pathways … it has to be the kind of pathways that are interesting and exciting to kids.”

Even ardent supporters of the state’s career-readiness push, such as Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican lawmaker who has been at the helm of many of Indiana’s biggest education overhauls, want the state to think even bigger.

It’s not enough to increase career and technical education classes and funding, or even to encourage more work-based learning, he said. He wants Indiana to look at other models for education, such as those in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, where apprenticeships and career training are very integrated into K-12 education but it’s still possible to pursue higher learning.

“I think unless you are willing to really dig down to how we deliver education and how we should be innovative and change our system from early childhood to post-secondary and beyond, I think we’re just tweaking at the edges,” Behning said.

It’s likely the state will continue to see workforce issues driving education policy, and the proposals could be even grander with the availability of state funding during the next budget-writing year.

But even as the reform strategies shift, in Indiana and across the nation, the days of more controversial education policy aren’t necessarily over. A new budget also means school funding decisions are on the table, a major factor in heated debates over how school choice is affecting districts across the state.

Newer, more complicated policies like Education Savings Accounts have failed to gain much ground in Indiana, but there are still many advocates pushing for the voucher-like program that could direct more dollars away from the state’s traditional school funding system.

Local education advocates don’t expect the same kind of dramatic 2011-era policies that established the state’s voucher program and expanded charter schools to crop up anytime soon, but there’s still plenty of runway for Indiana to stay in the education reform spotlight on innovation schools and vouchers.

“I don’t see us dragging our feet on anything,” Lubbers said. “It’s certainly true in K-12 with reform, and it’s certainly true in higher education reform, that we are a leading state, not a lagging state.”