Early College

‘Doors open because of this’: How one Newark high school is closing the college degree gap

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Hannah Olaniyi (center) and Gabriel De Oliveira take a college-level biology class at East Side High School.

After the final bell rang at Newark’s East Side High School on a recent afternoon and students surged toward the exits, Hannah Olaniyi hustled to her next class.

By 3 p.m., she was copying down the distinctions between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells among 13 other seniors who had elected to take a college-level biology course after their normal school day.

Before long, she would have to rush in an Uber to her evening job selling sneakers at KicksUSA, then return home to cook dinner for her siblings and finish her homework. But for the next hour, her only concern was taking notes so she could pass the course to earn the credits that would lead to a college degree.

“It’s not that I want, I need to get a degree,” explained Olaniyi, who said her commitment to education came from her mother, a Nigerian immigrant who died of cancer last year. “Failure is not an option.”

Olaniyi is not alone in her quest for a college degree. On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students enroll in college right after high school, a rate that has grown over time, according to a new report. Yet only 23 percent of Newark high school graduates earn a degree within six years of leaving high school, the report found, leaving them ill-equipped for an economy where decent-paying jobs are increasingly reserved for college graduates.

The early-college program that Olaniyi is part of at East Side, like those at a handful of other Newark schools, is an effort to close the degree gap by allowing students to earn college credits even before they have high-school diplomas. Through a partnership with Essex County College, a Newark-based community college, East Side students who qualify by passing a required exam can earn up to 64 college credits and an associate’s degree by graduation — a benefit offered by only 7 percent of programs like this in the U.S., according to federal data. And, unlike many programs, the cost of transportation, books, and tuition is free to students.

Such partnerships, often called dual-enrollment or dual-credit programs, have gained popularity across the country as a way to increase students’ odds of completing college by exposing them early on to college-level work and expectations and reducing the time — and cost — of earning a degree. Not only are dual-enrollment programs more prevalent in high schools than college-level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, according to federal data, but they also have been found to serve a broader range of students than AP courses, which are more narrowly targeted to the highest-achieving students.

Some skeptics question whether college-level classes taught in high schools like East Side match the rigor of traditional college courses and have raised concerns that some colleges may not accept credits earned through dual-enrollment programs. But because New Jersey’s public universities must accept community-college credits, East Side officials say their early-college graduates, most of whom attend state schools, have saved thousands of dollars through the program.

“Hard work pays off,” said Principal Michael West, repeating a mantra he tells his students. “And doors open because of this.”

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
After completing East Side’s early-college program, Erika Baque was able to earn a degree from Montclair State University in just two years. Her brother, Freddy, is now in the program.

Erika Baque, now a 22 year-old addiction counselor, found that to be true.

In 2012, she was a junior at East Side, Newark’s largest and most diverse traditional high school, when West launched the early-college program. Her parents, Ecuadorian immigrants who were adamant that their three children attend college, insisted that she apply.

At first, Erika was reluctant. Other students and even faculty members advised against it, saying AP classes were safer than a new program promising credits that colleges might reject.

“There was a lot of pushback from a lot of folks,” said West.

Still, Baque sat for the program’s entrance exam and interview and was admitted. Then the work started.

Each day, early-college participants take two roughly 80-minute liberal-arts courses in subjects such as sociology, art history, and biology. Most are taught by a qualified East Side teacher or adjunct professor at the school, which sits in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood across from Independence Park. Usually one class per semester meets at Essex County College’s downtown campus, which East Side students ride to in a yellow school bus.

Overwhelmed by the burden of college courses in addition to their high-school classes, more than half of the 30 students in Baque’s cohort quit the program. West called those who stayed “The Fearless Fourteen.”

“I wanted to drop out like 50 million times,” Baque recalled. “I would go home and kick and scream and cry.”

Instead, she completed the program and, after graduating from East Side, enrolled at Montclair State University as the equivalent of a junior. Her experience at East Side had prepared her for the demands of college, she said, allowing her to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology in just two years.

Now, she is earning a master’s degree in counseling while working at a residential addiction-treatment center in Newark. Meanwhile, her brother Erik, who completed East Side’s early-college program this spring, is studying civil engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, while her youngest brother, Freddy, is a junior at East Side who has just started the program.

Erika still remembers West telling her, “It’s going to be worth it in the end,” she said. “And it was.”

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
East Side Principal Michael West founded the early-college program.

Dual-enrollment programs are one answer to the problem of Newark students who enroll in college only to be tripped up by classwork, campus culture, or money, and drop out. Research has shown that dual-enrollment participants not only enroll in college at higher rates than non-participants, but they also tend to have smoother transitions to college, get better grades, and are more likely to graduate.

East Side requires incoming early-college students to take a “college success seminar,” which is being held at Essex County College this fall. Students learn about the financial risks and rewards of college, the basics of writing research papers, and “soft skills” like time management and teamwork.

This year, a total of 97 juniors and seniors are in the program — including, for the first time, 27 students who are still learning English, most of them Spanish-speaking immigrants from such countries as Columbia, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic. (Another 32 students are taking some college classes but not the full load.) Essex County College waives tuition fees for the early-college participants, but East Side still pays about $3,200 per student, mainly for the cost of adjunct professors, out of its $16.6 million annual budget (based on 2016-17 figures).

West’s dream is to expand the program to include all 2,035 East Side students — a model employed by Bard High School Early College, a selective magnet school in Newark where all students can earn associate’s degrees from New York’s Bard College. But East Side’s program is limited by funding, which comes out of the school’s operating budget.

“We want to scale this and offer it to everybody,” he said. “The question is: How do we pay for that?”

Help may be on the way. Mayor Ras Baraka and a coalition of colleges and corporations has set a goal of increasing the share of Newark adults with college degrees from 19 to 25 percent by 2025. Reginald Lewis, the executive director of that coalition, called the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, said one strategy will be to expand the city’s dual-enrollment programs.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Judith Zeta is a senior at East Side.

At East Side, it’s not hard to find students who would cheer that expansion. After a film studies 101 class one recent morning, three seniors explained why they believe the rewards the early-college program promises are worth the sacrifices it demands.

Gabriel De Oliveira said he had struggled in grade school. In the fourth grade alone, he recalled being suspended 10 times. But at East Side, with the encouragement of a ninth-grade English teacher, he began to take school more seriously, enrolling in an AP course, then the early-college program. Last year, he counted 60 nights when he stayed up past midnight completing coursework.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “But I feel like I’m stronger.”

Judith Zeta said the program has meant parting ways with friends when they go to hang out at a local cafe after school and doing homework on the train after her nightly 5:30-to-10 p.m. shift at a Hoboken restaurant. But she knows that when she earns her associate’s degree this spring and begins college ahead of schedule, it will ease the burden on her parents, who immigrated from Peru and work in construction and at a local hospital.

“They’ve made so many sacrifices for me and my brother,” she said. “This is the one thing I want to give back.”

And Hannah Olaniyi, the student who is helping to raise her siblings, said she decided after her mother died last year to transfer from a charter school to East Side solely for its degree program.

“That’s the whole point of me coming to this school,” she said. “If I don’t commit to this, if I don’t give it 110 percent, then I failed myself.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”