Head Start

Meet the Staten Island elementary school determined to start college-readiness in kindergarten

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Zubaidah Bhello, Joselyn Quinteros and Jade Johnson attend the grand opening of P.S. 21's college center.

Zubaidah Bhello has visited colleges, decided New York University is her top pick, and plans to become a dermatologist.

And she’s only 10 years old.

Bhello is part of a bold new experiment at a Staten Island elementary school that attempts to prepare students for life after high school as soon as possible even as early as kindergarten. The school, P.S. 21, has built college preparedness into its curriculum and launched its new college and career center on Thursday.

“It helps you with college and getting ready for the next grade,” Bhello said. “And it helps you pick what you want to be when you grow up.” (Bhello determined, for instance, that dermatology is “less disgusting” than some other medical jobs.)

The new center, a first floor room adorned with college pennants and bean bag chairs, is meant to be a hub of college-related activities. Students may come to take a virtual tour of Harvard, or meet with students from nearby Wagner College.

While even the youngest learners are expected to participate in college activities, students at different ages will have different tasks, Principal Anthony Cosentino said. Kindergarteners design college pennants, while fifth graders create digital portfolios that explain their background, goals and what it will take to get there.

The purpose of the center is twofold: Energize students about their futures and use that excitement to help them stay on track academically. For instance, if a student decides she wants to become a mechanical engineer after visiting the center, she will work harder to master fractions and ratios, reasons Cosentino.

“The world is too complex and diverse of a place where a kid should just be told, ‘You just need to do it for a test.’” Cosentino said. “That’s unacceptable. Kids need to know what are they learning, why are they learning it, and how this will impact them down the road.”

The early focus on college is a new attempt to solve an old problem: By the time many students leave high school, they have often been falling off-track for years. Only about 64 percent of New York City graduates are considered “college-ready,” or are qualified to avoid remedial classes at CUNY colleges. Students at P.S. 21 may be particularly at risk for falling behind. Last year, 100 percent of students at the school were in poverty.

P.S. 21 staff work with a local middle school, high school and Wagner to make sure the program is as relevant as possible. A staff member from Wagner College visits P.S. 21 on Thursdays to coordinate college-related activities, such as a research project about the college, tours of campus, and tickets to basketball games. And students from the college, high school, and the middle school mentor the elementary school students.

“This is about helping young people see real pathways from one part of their education, to another part of their education, to their futures as adults,” said Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg, who attended the center’s grand opening on Thursday.

Jade Johnson, a fifth-grade student at P.S. 21, nodded vigorously when asked if she enjoyed the college field trips. Johnson, who wants to be an emergency medical technician, said they helped her picture what it will be like to attend college someday.

“We can see other kids, how they’re working hard and stuff,” Johnson said. “When I see that, I want to be just like that.”

If students change their mind about their dreams and aspirations, that is perfectly natural, Cosentino said. The idea is to give education a purpose so students will have something to strive for in school, he said.

“It’s not just about college,” Cosentino said. “It’s about kids setting goals for themselves.”

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The non-profit United Way chipped in another $200,000. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Future of Work

Trump’s education department merger plan echoes Indiana priorities under Pence, Holcomb

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Then-Gov. Mike Pence speaks at a school choice rally at the Indiana statehouse in 2016.

President Trump’s proposal to merge the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Labor might sound familiar to Hoosiers.

The education and workforce development rhetoric hearkens back to some of Vice President Mike Pence’s education priorities as Indiana’s chief executive, as well as those of his predecessor and successor.

“This sounds very Indiana,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “This sounds very Gov. (Mitch) Daniels, Gov. Pence, Gov. (Eric) Holcomb-like, in terms of the last 12 to 15 years here in our state.”

It’s not really surprising that Indiana and the federal government again share education policy goals — U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has repeatedly pointed to Indiana’s charter school and private school voucher systems as models for the nation.

Across the country, connections between workforce and K-12 education have been increasingly emphasized, and Indiana has been legislating in this vein for years. As governor, Pence expanded the state’s career and technical education programs, an accomplishment he still touts. It also bears similarities to the efforts of Indiana’s current Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has followed in previous governors’ footsteps by prioritizing workforce development and how it connects to education in his 2018 legislative agenda.

And though some local education advocates cheer the federal push to link K-12 education and workforce, to others, it’s troubling.

When she saw the news of the merger proposal, Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, felt a rush of deja vu: “Oh here we go — and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”

When Pence ran for governor in 2012, he said the state was too focused on getting students to college — there was too little effort on getting them up to speed for heading directly into the workforce. There were plenty of jobs, he said, that paid well and didn’t need a four-year degree.

As soon as he got into office, Pence successfully pushed through two bills creating regional works councils and a state career council that would help the state better understand job needs and develop relationships between schools and local employers.

And the career-focused influence has continued even after Pence left office in 2016. The state’s new graduation pathways system, passed last year, redirects the Core 40 diploma’s more academic focus toward one that more equally weighs job-related post-secondary plans.

Wiley said Indiana, under Holcomb, has made even more progress in this arena by consolidating efforts into a workforce cabinet and pushing for an appointed state schools chief. While the state still has a ways to go, she said, it serves as an example, and she applauds the Trump administration for making the proposal.

“What is trying to be done, again, is to figure out how to be more efficient and effective as the federal government, and better serve the customer, be it either the K-12 level student or the adult in terms of workforce training or development,” she said. “Those are admirable goals.”

Meredith, though, said the efforts to make schools a pipeline for the workplace seem short-sighted.

“What is the purpose of K-12 education? Is it to prepare individuals to go into a job that exists right now, or is it to teach them about a love of learning and give them the skills to be able to adapt?” she said. “I would argue that’s what we ought to be doing — giving them creative thinking skills, giving them basic life skills, teaching them how to navigate the world.”

As Chalkbeat has reported, the merger itself likely faces an uphill battle to congressional approval — if it even stands a chance at. So far, efforts to scale back or get rid of the federal education department have failed.