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.”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”

On the brink

Denver teachers union leaders vote to call for a strike vote if pay negotiations fail

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Teachers watch a master contract bargaining session between Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union on June 22.

The Denver teachers union’s board of directors voted Tuesday to ask its members to strike if the union and the school district fail to reach an agreement Wednesday on teacher pay.

It’s the first time Denver Classroom Teachers Association leaders have taken such a vote since the 1990s, said Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director. He said Denver teachers are fed up with the district and inspired by the recent actions of teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma.

“Teachers don’t think the district is taking them seriously,” Kern said.

Since November, the union and the district have been negotiating an overhaul of Denver Public Schools’ pioneering pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. The current agreement expires at midnight Wednesday. Kern said the union’s preference is “to get a deal done,” but its directors were clear that “if that doesn’t ultimately happen, they will ask for a strike vote.”

Kern said he didn’t know when a strike vote would be held, but it probably wouldn’t happen immediately.

Denver Public Schools officials said in a statement Tuesday they “are committed to reaching an agreement.” If the sides can’t agree Wednesday, the district pledged to continue with the current pay-for-performance system to ensure teachers get their expected pay.

The union has offered a proposal that would pay teachers with a doctorate and 20 years or more of experience a base salary of $100,000.

The current salary schedule goes up to $74,130 for teachers with a doctorate and at least 11 years of experience. Under ProComp, teachers can earn bonuses and incentives on top of that. In 2015-16, the average second-year teacher earned an extra $5,599, according to the district.

In August the district and the union signed a new five-year master contract that included increases in base pay – which the district said were the largest raises in the metro area – and an additional $1,500 for teachers who work in high-poverty schools.

This round of negotiations is for the ProComp agreement, which is separate from the master contract. The district first piloted pay-for-performance in 1999. Voters in 2005 approved a tax increase to fund it. Those taxes will generate about $35 million this year, according to district officials. The last significant redesign of the ProComp system happened in 2008.

The union’s proposal calls for higher base salaries and reduces the size of the incentives teachers can earn for working in hard-to-serve schools or hard-to-fill positions. Union leaders have said teachers want a more predictable pay structure that relies less on bonuses, which can vary year to year.

The district, meanwhile, has suggested increasing some incentives as a way to attract and retain teachers. The district has also suggested providing teachers who earn four years of “distinguished” evaluations with base salary increases equivalent to what they would get for earning a master’s degree.

The union’s proposal to raise the maximum base salary to $100,000 would require more than twice as much money as taxpayers pay into ProComp each year, a district spokeswoman said.

The two sides are set to return to the negotiating table Wednesday morning.