prep school

Truman HS principal turns to local college for readiness boost

Truman High School Principal Sana Nasser introduces a program to boost college readiness.

Harry S. Truman High School Principal Sana Nasser started making college preparation a priority long before the city began sounding the alarm about poor college readiness rates. She has encouraged students at her large Bronx school to take college level courses at the nearby Mercy College campus, and invited alumni enrolled in college to meet with current students.

But when the city assessed her efforts in its first release of data measuring how schools are preparing students for college academics, Truman fell short of the city’s already dismally low averages in all three college readiness categories. Just ten percent of Truman’s students scored high enough on advanced standardized tests to be considered “college prepared,” according to the city’s rubric.

So Nasser is trying a different approach. She has joined with Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and administrators from Mercy College to create a college readiness initiative that target all students and offer the strongest ones a chance to earn a two-year associates degree by the time they graduate from high school.

“I believe some of you can do high school in two years and take college courses,” she told an assembly of honors students in grades nine through twelve seated in the school’s spiffy, first-floor IMAX theater.

Diaz and Mercy College President Kimberly Cline introduced the initiative at an event this morning, where they lamented some of the challenges facing students who are preparing for college, particularly the financial burdens. The idea, they said, was born from the education summit Diaz held in the Bronx last fall, where educators from around the city discussed the need for more robust college preparations.

The initiative would cut down on college costs for students who earn credits — as many as two years’ worth — while still in high school. It would also partner Mercy and Truman to develop tutoring programs and seminars for parents.

The city has made a push in recent years to open more high schools that partner with city colleges—among them Pathways in Technology Early College High School and the Academy of Software Engineering—to offer college courses and extra certifications, in what is sometimes called a “9-14” pathway.

By 2025 Mercy plans to expand the program at Truman to at least 40 other Bronx schools that graduate less than 70 percent of students from high school in four years—but to do so would require an endowment of $100 million.

Seniors in the auditorium told me they were satisfied with the level of college preparations they received at Truman, though there is plenty of room to do more.

At Truman, where just 62.5 percent of students are graduating in four years, and just 6 percent are “college ready,” according to city data, it’s unlikely that very many students would be able to complete an associates degree in just two years. That option would be in reach Truman’s highest-achieving students, but Nasser said the efforts could also engage the vast majority of middle-of-the-pack students who are not currently taking advantage of the college-level courses on offer at the school and off-campus.

“My mission for this school has been for the past 10 years—and I don’t have any flowery words—that I want to graduate students in four years, without them needing remedial work in college,” she said.

“I think this sounds good. the school does need this,” said Aisha Diallo, a senior who is planning to attend La Guardia Community College this fall and major in biology. “I think it’s going to motivate more kids to come to school more and push more, knowing that they could finish part of college in two years.”

Diallo and other student have taken a college-level psychology class from a Mercy teacher who came to Truman, and students regularly meet with college advisers.

“We’ve met with counselors, we met with students from other colleges, and a lot of people from Mercy College,” Cordell Humbric said. “They went into our classrooms and taught us about FAFSA, how to apply [for financial aid].”

Nasser said the initiative would also take a burden off of parents who may be unfamiliar with the college application process or unable to fully fund a student’s education.

“Going to college is not going to be a mystery—we’re going to show you how to have financial aid, we’re going to take you through the steps with your child,” she said. “I want [parents] to know, ‘my kids are going to get to experience what it’s like to be a college student while they’re still with me.'”

 

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.