Pathway to college

For Tennessee high school students, free community college isn’t about the money. It’s about the branding.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Josue Flores credits the straightforward path of Tennessee Promise for helping him continue his education after graduating in 2016 from Cordova High School in Memphis.

Josue Flores credits Tennessee’s free community college program for allowing him to continue his education after graduating from Cordova High School last spring, only three years after immigrating to the United States.

But it wasn’t just the money. The state doesn’t actually pay for Flores’ education because federal grants cover his tuition at Southwest Community College in Memphis.

More important has been the straightforward “promise” of the Tennessee Promise scholarship. The program guarantees that Flores can go to college for two years for free if he follows a simple step-by-step checklist.

High-achieving students across income levels still overwhelmingly opt to attend four-year programs. But state education officials and school counselors say Tennessee Promise has energized the conversation around college for many other students.

“Once they hear ‘free,’ they perk up,” says Ellen Houston, a counselor at Nashville’s Glencliff High School. “There are definitely kids who wouldn’t have continued their education (without it).”

Before Tennessee Promise, free college initiatives existed on a much smaller scale, and were typically privately funded. In Tennessee, the seed was planted by a program called Knox Achieves, started in 2008 when Gov. Bill Haslam was mayor of Knoxville. That attracted more philanthropic funding and morphed into tnAchieves, which served students across the state.

Tennessee Promise launched in 2014 and is still too young for conclusive academic studies. But it’s the first statewide program of its kind and already is viewed as an exemplar as more states, recently including New York, move to increase college access. Research on Michigan’s Kalamazoo Promise, the nation’s oldest free college program, suggests that the promise of free higher education positively changes the culture in high schools.

Unlike the Kalamazoo program, Tennessee Promise only applies to community and technical colleges. It’s a “last dollar” scholarship, meaning that it covers only what federal aid does not, using revenue from the state’s lottery. Of more than 16,000 Tennessee Promise students who graduated last year from high school, 53 percent, including Flores, qualified for Pell grants, which are worth up to $5,082 each year.

There’s no grade cutoff, and the requirements are fairly straightforward. Students must be documented residents of Tennessee. They must meet clear deadlines for attending informational meetings, filling out the federal aid form called the FAFSA, and completing eight hours of community service each year.

The program’s simplicity made it a perfect fit for Flores. When he moved to the United States from El Salvador three years ago, his sole focus was to learn English. Then he started to look at college. But finding a way to pay for it was daunting.

“I started to look for scholarships, and the system was completely different (from El Salvador),” he recalls.

He heard about Tennessee Promise from his classmates. He liked the structure of the scholarship program — and the guarantee of an award if he jumped through all the hoops. “It was a blessing,” he said. “There were definite steps to take so I could definitely get it. This was for sure.”

Because a FAFSA application is required for Tennessee Promise, students who previously might not have known or bothered to complete one are getting it done. That, along with Tennessee’s Hope Scholarship, a last-dollar grant with a GPA requirement, have made Tennessee the No. 1 state in FAFSA completion for two years running.

“Before it was, ‘Hey, fill out this horrible form called the FAFSA. You might get to school for free. Now we can say, if you follow these guidelines, you will get to go for free,” says Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

From the beginning, architects of Tennessee Promise knew that messaging would be almost as important as the actual money, according to Krause, who spearheaded the program as part of Haslam’s Drive to 55 college-going initiative.

So far, Krause and other state leaders consider Tennessee Promise a success. The state’s college-going rate among recent high school graduates has jumped 4.6 percentage points since 2014, to 62.5 percent, and retention rates at community colleges have increased, suggesting that students who start college with the program stick with it.

The true test will be if students like Flores are able to get the kinds of good-paying jobs they want.

Flores, for one, is optimistic. He just started his second semester at Southwest and has set his eyes toward obtaining a nursing degree at the University of Memphis. That would get him one step closer to his childhood dream of working in the medical field.

“Nothing is impossible,” he says, “but without (Tennessee Promise) it would have been a lot tougher.”

opening a path

College in high school: More Denver schools offer students affordable head start on a degree

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students at a press conference to announce the designation of five more early college high schools.

Five more Denver high schools this year were designated as “early colleges,” bringing to seven the number of city schools at which students can stay additional years to take free college courses with the aim of earning significant credit, an associate’s degree or industry certificate.

“Many of our students are first-generation college students and this designation offers them resources to not only access college credit but to receive the support needed to ensure success,” Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College principal Kimberly Grayson said Wednesday.

Grayson spoke in the atrium of the far northeast Denver school beneath a striking black-and-white mural of its namesake and the words, “Your future starts today!” She said when she started as principal five years ago, the school offered three college courses, also referred to as concurrent enrollment courses. This year, she said, MLK will offer 20 college courses.

While the school previously participated in a state program called ASCENT that allows students who meet certain academic criteria to remain in their local school districts for a fifth year and use state per-pupil education funding to pay for college courses, Grayson said the early college designation allows MLK to offer that opportunity to all of its students.

“Our students know early on they have a path to college,” Grayson said.

Manual High School, High Tech Early College, the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, and West Early College were designated along with MLK by the Colorado State Board of Education as early college high schools this past spring. West Early College last year narrowly staved off a district recommendation to close the school for low performance.

Two other Denver high schools were previously designated as early colleges: CEC Early College, in 2015, and Southwest Early College, a charter school, in 2009.

Early colleges are part of an effort in Colorado and nationwide to make postsecondary education more accessible and affordable, especially for historically underserved students. They were created by state lawmakers and are defined as high schools that offer a curriculum designed so students graduate with an associate’s degree or 60 college credits.

Students also can earn industry certificates in fields such as graphic design or accounting.

Many high schools offer free concurrent enrollment classes, but giving all students the opportunity to stay until they earn 60 credits or an associate’s degree is what sets early colleges apart. According to Misti Ruthven, the Colorado Department of Education executive director of student pathways, students can stay enrolled in early college high schools until they’re 21.

The Colorado Department of Education website lists a total of 20 early colleges statewide, including the seven in Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district.

Alondra Gil-Gonzalez is a sophomore at CEC Early College. She said she was nervous when she took her first college class, a computer keyboarding course, as a freshman. But Gil-Gonzalez, who wants to be a surgeon or a lawyer, said she got over her apprehension.

“You just have to apply yourself,” she said.

Keilo “Kenny” Xayavong is taking his first college class, in math, this year as a sophomore at High Tech Early College. A fan of criminal justice shows, Xayavong also hopes to practice law.

“I am interested in college courses because it’ll help me prepare for college when I transfer and understand what professors will expect of me,” said Xayavong, who added that so far, his class is “pretty easy.” “My parents won’t have to pay so much money for me to go to college, as well.”

funding dance

City plans to slash funding from Young Adult Borough Centers — a last resort option for students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School has a Young Adult Borough Center in the building.

Evening programs that offer students who struggled in high school another chance to graduate may soon face steep funding cuts from the city’s education department.

Education officials plan to reduce funding directed to the city’s 23 Young Adult Borough Centers by an average of $254,000 each, and will shift the money to transfer schools, which also help students who have fallen behind in traditional schools.

The funding in question is used to hire counselors who help keep students engaged in school, offering career and academic support, and to pay students to complete internships. City officials are planning to shift funding so that more transfer schools — serving more students — can get those benefits.

But the move could leave schools that serve some of the city’s most vulnerable students with fewer resources to get them to graduation, some observers said, all while Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to increase the city’s graduation rate to 80 percent. Several agencies that provide those services in schools argue the funding shift will have dire consequences for YABCs.

The cuts will be “devastating [and] would fundamentally change the program,” said Michelle Yanche, director of government and external relations at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit organization that helps run the program in a dozen YABCs. “It shouldn’t be taken from Peter to pay Paul.”

Young Adult Borough Centers, which serve about 4,800 students citywide, are night programs rather than standalone schools. Transfer schools, meanwhile, are actual schools that run classes during the day, serving about 13,000 students. In both, students who have fallen behind in high school work toward high school diplomas.

The funding stream the city plans to shift from YABCs to transfer schools is dedicated to a program called Learning to Work. Education officials are actually increasing the amount of money on that program by $3.7 million. But because the city is planning to expand it to 18 more transfer schools, the average transfer school will see about a $7,000 bump, while YABCs each lose roughly $250,000.

City officials said the exact changes in funding will depend on student enrollment and need, and stressed that the funding changes are estimates. Overall, the changes are a positive, they said, since they provide more funding and will reach more students.

“Expanding Learning to Work to all eligible transfer schools is what’s best for students and families, and will support approximately 5,000 more high-needs students on their path to college and careers,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

Helene Spadaccini, principal of a transfer school in the South Bronx, said her school has used the program to place students in internships in fields like retail and construction.

“It’s been extremely powerful in working with our students, which is why I’m really glad it’s spreading,” Spadaccini said.

But the shift will mean YABCs lose about a third of their current funding, and will result in staffing reductions. The staff-to-student ratio at YABCs is expected to balloon from one staff member per 34 students to one per 55, according to a Department of Education document obtained by Chalkbeat.

The change in staffing levels could have a major effect on the program’s quality, multiple providers said. “What makes the difference for our students is if they have individual adults who are like clams holding on to them, who know if they are going to school every day, and reach out if they don’t,” Good Shepherd’s Yanche said. “That relationship is the most pivotal factor.”

Sheila Powell, who has two children who graduated with the help of YABCs, has seen that firsthand. In the YABCs, unlike in larger high schools, teachers ensured her children didn’t slip through the cracks, Powell said. They also called her multiple times each week to check in.

“They loved my daughter, they loved my son,” Powell said. “They were really concerned, genuinely concerned, about my kids and they didn’t give up on them.”

Several providers and advocates said they supported the expansion of Learning to Work into more transfer schools — just not at the expense of other programs that serve the city’s most vulnerable students.

“New York City continues to see increased graduation rates, and the range of programs [for over-age and under-credited students] are a big reason why,” said Lazar Treschan, director of youth policy at the Community Service Society. “Moving any funding out of YABCs seems very short-sighted.”