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For almost half of Memphis graduates, formal education ends after high school

Just over half of 2016 graduates from Shelby County Schools went on to some sort of college training, according to a new report spotlighting whether Memphis students are preparing for the work of the future.

In all, 56 percent of the district’s 6,905 graduates enrolled in post-secondary education, compared to 63 percent statewide. And the percentage of students going on to community college — a big push under the state’s free tuition initiative known as Tennessee Promise — was 9 percentage points lower than the state’s average.

Here’s the breakdown for Shelby County Schools:

  • 38 percent went on to a four-year college or university (compared to 35 percent statewide);
  • 16 percent went to community college (statewide was 25 percent);
  • 1 percent went to a technical college (statewide was 3 percent)

The data was shared by the Tennessee Department of Education in its first-ever district-level reports on where students are going after graduating from high school. The reports were distributed recently as part of the state’s Drive to 55 initiative to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025. Currently, that number stands at 40 percent.

Scroll to the bottom for the full reports acquired by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

“This was actually pretty revolutionary – it was not something that districts necessarily ever knew, or at least not in any comprehensive, data-driven way,” said spokeswoman Chandler Hopper of the department’s new reports.

“We think this data can help districts and the state learn more about how to better support students on their journey to post-secondary, particularly in targeting support for key groups of students, and how to better partner with higher education institutions so that ultimately students are successful.”

The information is a welcome resource for Terrence Brown, a former principal who recently became director of career and technical education for Shelby County Schools. Brown called the data “surprising,” especially that only 1 percent of 2016 graduates went on to technical college.

In his new role, Brown is helping to develop the district’s new academic plan with a focus on career readiness.

“We track (students) until the day (they) graduate, and after that it becomes a matter of state tracking,” Brown said. “So, this data is helpful. … We need to make sure students first of all have a good plan and vision for where their best skill set lies and start to put in pipelines early for them. We can use (the data) to backmap and inform how we do this.”

The percentages for post-secondary enrollment were lower for the Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools. In all, just over 40 percent of 2016 ASD grads went on to college training, up from 31 percent in 2015. (The report for the state-run district is based on data from only two of its four Memphis high schools, since the Pathways alternative schools did not have enough students to graduate, according to state officials.)

For the 227 graduates of Fairley and Martin Luther King Preparatory high schools:

  • 29 percent went to a four-year college or university;
  • 11 percent went to community college;
  • 1 percent went to technical college

“(The report is the) first time we’re seeing a comprehensive and contextualized set of results about post-secondary opportunities in Memphis,” said Sean Thibault, a spokesman for Green Dot Public Schools, which operates Fairley as a charter school.

Most of Fairley’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, and Thibault noted that the school outpaced the state average for students in that category. “We are proud of the rate at which our graduates are heading to four-year universities,” he said.

PHOTO: Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal
Gov. Bill Haslam visits Southwest Tennessee Community College in 2015. According to a new state report, 16 percent of recent graduates of Shelby County Schools went on to community college.

For both Shelby County Schools and the ASD, the most popular in-state option was Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis. The reports also break down the districts’ graduates by individual high school, ACT score, subgroup and opportunities for early credit, such as Advanced Placement courses or dual enrollment.

The district-level reports come on the heels of this year’s statewide report on bridging the gap between high school and college. It was based on months of interviews with high school students who said they aren’t receiving adequate resources or guidance to set them on a path to college or career.

That report recommended more support for high school guidance counselors, as well as ensuring that more schools have college credit-bearing courses like dual enrollment or advanced placement classes, or have vocational programs that fit with industry needs.

District-level reports are below:

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.”

Fact check

To back up claim that schools must change, DeVos cites made-up statistic about the future of work

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a remarkable claim: “Children starting kindergarten this year face a prospect of having 65 percent of the jobs they will ultimately fill not yet having been created.”

This statistic bolsters DeVos’s view that schools need to radically change to accommodate a rapidly evolving economy.

But there’s a problem: that number appears to have no basis in fact.

A version of the 65 percent claim has been percolating for some time, across the world. After a number of British politicians repeated some iteration of the statistic, the BBC investigated its source.

That report found the claim gained popularity in a 2011 book by Cathy Davidson, a CUNY professor; this in turn was cited by a New York Times article. But attempts to track that claim back to an actual study have failed, which Davidson herself now concedes, saying she no longer uses the figure.

Others making the claim offer an even flimsier citation. For instance, a report released by the World Economic Forum says, “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types,” and simply cites a series of popular YouTube videos (which doesn’t even appear to make that precise claim).

Some even say the number is higher: A Huffington Post headline said that “85% Of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet.” The piece links to a report by Dell, which bases the claim on “experts” at a workshop organized by a group called Institute for the Future.

In short, no one has pointed to any credible research that lands on the 65 percent figure. When asked for a source for DeVos’s statistic, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the 65 percent figure “might be an underestimation,” pointing to the Dell report, which offers no specific sourcing.

Of course, making predictions about the future of work is inherently tricky. But a recent report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated areas where the most new jobs would be created between 2016 and 2026. The positions included software application developers but also personal care aides, nurses, fast food workers, home health aides, waiters, and janitors — and though that’s less than 10 years in the future, these are mostly jobs that have been around for some time.

Sweeping, unsourced claims like this about the future economy are not uncommon — and seem to be a driving force behind some policymakers’ approach to education. The fact that DeVos’s go-to number isn’t backed up by evidence raises questions about the foundation of her view that schools need dramatic overhaul.

After citing the 65 percent figure, DeVos continued, saying, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”