study says...

A $24 million New York City program was supposed to prepare more black and Latino men for college. But a new study found it didn’t.

PHOTO: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the Expanded Success Initiative in 2012, he hoped to address a problem that had vexed policymakers: How can schools get more young black and Latino men not only to graduation — but also ready for college?

With just 10 percent of male students of color graduating “college ready” at the time, city officials hoped to boost that number by giving extra money and support to schools that already made strides getting those students to graduation. With extra resources, the theory went, those same schools might be able to nudge young men of color into college while the city studied and replicated their approaches.

But after four years and $24 million, the program has not lived up to its promise, according to a report released Wednesday by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools. Schools in the program turned out to be no better at preparing young men of color for college or helping them enroll than a group of similar schools that didn’t receive extra support.

“The aspirations were very high,” said Adriana Villavicencio, the lead author of the study, which, like the initiative itself, was funded by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. “[The initiative] was not able to move the needle on a number of student outcomes — in particular college readiness and college enrollment, which were the primary goals stated at the outset.”

The Expanded Success Initiative, launched as part of a broader effort to aid black and Latino young men across the city, included 40 high schools that had strong graduation rates among young men of color, but still struggled to meet the city’s new college readiness metrics.

Those schools received $250,000 in one-time funding, ramped up academics, added college counseling and career preparation programs, and were asked to implement some combination of mentoring, tutoring, and leadership opportunities. Schools were also encouraged to promote culturally responsive education — such as studying texts featuring protagonists of color — and less strict approaches to student misbehavior.

Exactly how the program was implemented at each school varied considerably: Some schools created small advisory groups for students to talk about academic challenges or offered SAT prep sessions. Others focused on expanding AP classes or offering workshops for parents on college financial aid.

About 16 percent of black and Latino male students at the participating schools were found to be college ready, compared to 18.6 percent of the same group of students at comparison schools, the report found, though the difference was not statistically significant.

So why didn’t the program lead to better academic outcomes for young men of color?

One possible reason, the study notes, is that the program looked different at every school that participated, making it difficult to hold schools accountable for completely buying in or picking high-quality programs (a frustration some of the program’s managers expressed).

Second, the effort included a broad range of initiatives designed to make schools more welcoming for students of color, including different approaches to discipline, but did not always drill deep into college preparation. (The program did not improve student attendance or reduce suspensions.)

“Those of us who have seen a lot of educational evaluations show essentially no effect — I think we were anticipating this would be really hard,” Villavicencio said.

The third potential reason the program fell short, researchers found, was the $250,000 funding boost was designed to phase out just after the halfway point of the four-year program, which made schools less faithful to the initiative.

At Manhattan’s New Design High School, for instance, Principal Scott Conti used the program to take students on a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit colleges and museums, add a counselor who helped students with academic or life issues, and train staff members in culturally responsive education. But after the funding dried up, Conti lost the counselor he had hired.

“It’s a great initiative,” he said. But, he added, “They opened up and tried to get to 100 miles per hour then closed very quickly.”

Despite some lackluster results in boosting academic outcomes, the effort has produced other significant benefits. Students at Expanded Success Initiative schools were more likely to receive college advising, go on college trips, and participate in mentoring programs.

And based on hundreds of interviews and surveys, the researchers found that students were more likely to feel a sense of “fair treatment” and belonging at school and were also likelier to talk with adults about their plans after graduation (though they were no more likely than students at similar schools to apply to college).

“Students can feel so alienated when they come into school buildings,” said Villavicencio, who helped conduct interviews at schools in the program. “To hear them talk about their schools in such a positive way signaled a shift in the school environment for boys of color.”

But the researchers point out that the improvements in school culture were supposed to also improve college access. “These patterns suggest that we cannot assume, as [the program’s] theory of action does, that greater participation in these activities, more college-focused support, and a greater sense of belonging in high school will promote college access and success — at least not on their own.”

Josh Thomases, a top education department official during the Bloomberg administration and one of the program’s architects, also pointed to other less tangible ways the Expanded Success Initiative has made an impact. He said the effort helped make boosting college readiness for black and Latino young men a higher priority that was “less siloed” in the education department.

It also helped raise awareness around culturally relevant education “in a way that was entirely absent five years ago,” he said.

Still, Thomases acknowledges the program didn’t pan out as he hoped.

“We never thought 40 schools were going to break the ceiling and figure it all out,” he said. “I’d be lying to say I wasn’t hoping for more.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.