Starting early

Efforts spur college readiness dialogue in Washington Heights

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez speaks to a crowd of Washington Heights parents about college readiness Wednesday evening.

A Washington Heights politician who has been trying to get local parents talking about college readiness might have bitten off more than he can chew.

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez has adopted a novel response to the daunting statistic that only about 13 percent of the city’s African American and Latino students are graduating from high school prepared for college: He has put together a working group of principals to get families talking about the path to college starting in kindergarten.

But at a forum Wednesday evening at I.S. 143, the first public event to come out of the working group’s suggestions, parents among the audience of 60 families, educators, and elected officials spoke mostly about more immediate concerns.

Most of the parents who spoke during the question and answer session prefaced their questions about college readiness with complaints about high class sizes and administrative problems at their schools, which drew the meeting off topic.

“There are 35 kids in our classroom and only one teacher,” one mother said. “What are the things we can do about that?”

Still, many of the parents at the meeting, which was held in Spanish, told me they wanted to begin learning about the college admissions process early, even though their children attend elementary schools in Districts 5 and 6.

Last month Rodriguez held a preliminary meeting with eight principals and a handful of parent coordinators and Parent Teacher Association representatives from local schools to outline the collaboration and discuss how workshops could benefit these parents. At this week’s parent meeting, he emphasized the urgency of the problem, highlighted by the city’s new college readiness measurements and Common Core Standards, that few students graduate prepared for the rigor of college level courses, if they have the resources to apply to college at all.

College readiness was the subject of a City Council hearing last month that focused on the persistent disjuncture between what city high schools require for graduation and what the City University of New York expects from new students.

Dionicio Rodriguez, a parent who is applying to kindergarten for his daughter this year, said he came to the meeting when he heard about it from a friend because he believes parents should start informing themselves about the path to college as early as possible. But he is also worried that the school choice options in District 6, his district, would be subpar, so he has applied to a dozen charter schools with kindergarten admissions.

“I want my daughter to get the best in her future, and a good school is the way to be successful in college,” he told me. “The school she is supposed to go to, if you go online the percentages on tests are low, so I don’t want her to go to that school. I want the best for her.”

Jacqueline Jones, whose son attends Urban Assembly School for Media Studies, speaks at a town hall meeting on college readiness.

Cecilia Angelero, a parent coordinator at I.S. 143, said she attended the meeting to stress the importance of parents’ role in preparing students for high school graduation and college.

“The schools give some information, but we really have to do our own research,” she told the group. “This [college readiness push] should have been done years ago — the communities need to be informed.”

Angelero said her son’s high school, Urban Assembly School for Media Studies, could be doing more to prepare him for college. He has already received some materials related to the college process in 10th grade, but she said she would still like to see the support increase further.

Jacqueline Jones cautioned the elected officials to remember that they are speaking to only the most involved parents who can make it to evening meetings.

“This plan needs to help and include parents who want to participate, but don’t know how,” said Jones, who sends two children to Amistad Dual Language school in Inwood. She recalled how her mother could not help her study for the SATs when she was in high school because she had never heard of them: “I truly believe this has to be early — it took my mom way too long to learn this.”

Two principals who attended the meeting told me afterward they have increased their emphasis on the pathway to college this year and hope to share best practices with other school leaders in meetings Rodriguez may hold in the future.

“These parents who come to these meetings are part of our active PTA, and they want to feel reassured that they’re getting support from the leadership in the community. It has to be a collaborative effort,” said Wanda Soto, the principal of P.S. 5. “We’ve always had standards, but now we’re looking at how we have to start from an early age if we want our children to succeed.”

“We have a very hardworking PA, we have parent coordinators, we have workshops. But I came here to get more information, to hear how to get parents more involved,” said Cindy Arndt, principal of the Mott Hall School, a middle school. She also touted a new, mandatory college readiness class that is tied in with new curriculum standards, known as the Common Core.

“There’s no cookie cutter. The college readiness classes that we have can’t be done the exact same way in another school, but they can get the concepts,” she said.

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

Revisiting CTE

Workforce training programs may soon look different in Memphis schools

Health care and information technology are among the career pathways that likely would be emphasized under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis students would get more opportunities to earn job certifications before graduation under a proposed revamp of career and technical education in Shelby County Schools.

Details of the overhaul are still under wraps, but Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin wants to make sure the district’s offerings align with the region’s most sought-after jobs. That may mean more classes focused on hot career fields like health care and information technology.

The school board is expected to get a first look at the proposal later this month.

Career and technical education, or CTE, is getting renewed attention under a state and federal push to prepare students for jobs of the future. And it’s especially important to students in Memphis because nearly half of graduates from Shelby County Schools don’t enroll in any formal education after high school and 21 percent aren’t working either — the highest rate in the nation.

Meanwhile, business leaders are talking with school leaders about improving education pathways to equip graduates for work in high-demand jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree.

“We need our students to have work-based learning experiences and residencies and then [businesses] don’t even have to train them,” Griffin said. “They’ll come out with a license; we’re going to pay for it. They’ll come out with a license ready to work.”

Currently, the 27 traditional high schools in Tennessee’s largest district offer a total of 207 classes that explore 16 career paths ranging from finance to advanced manufacturing. About 20,000 students participate.

PHOTO: SCS
Hamilton High students tour Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co. in Memphis on National Manufacturing Day in 2016.

But of about 400 participating seniors who are eligible to gain job certification, less than half did so last school year. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson says that has got to change.  

“The point of revamping our CTE program is we don’t really have true effective career paths right now,” Hopson told school board members last week. “We spend $20 million on CTE, but its not designed to say that when I finish this program, I’ve got something I can go out to an employer and say ‘I’m skilled and I’m ready for this job and I’m certified.’”

Shelby County Schools has incentives to revamp its CTE programs. In response to a new federal education law, the Tennessee Department of Education will grade schools in part on how well they prepare students — not just for college, but for directly entering the workforce.

“It’s about making sure you can map and track and document and assess and quantify whether or not something is working,” said Terrence Brown, who co-directs CTE for the district. “And all of that has been on the college-bound, academic part of the house, not in trade and industry and skills and training. [Now] the age of accountability has now come to career and technical education.”

To measure a “ready graduate” under its new plan, Tennessee will look at how many students earned industry certification, took dual enrollment or Advanced Placement classes, passed military entrance exams, or earned a 21 or higher on the ACT. The metric accounts for 20 percent of school and district scores under a new grading system being rolled out later this year.

As part of its stepped-up commitment to workforce training, Shelby County Schools already has introduced a major change to one of its most historic high schools. East High began this school year to transition to an optional school focused on transportation logistics, engineering, and technology in partnership with several businesses such as global engineering manufacturer Cummins.

But the goal is to get a quarter of students districtwide participating in CTE by offering courses at more high schools. And the focus will be on equipping students for high-demand jobs that offer living wages in the Mid-South. More than 100 jobs fit that bill and not all require a college degree, according to a report from the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee. Those fields include electricians, machinists, medical record technicians, and computer support specialists, all of whom earned at least a median income of $40,000 per year in 2016.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with students during a 2017 tour of career and technical education programs at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has promoted the importance of career training by visiting schools with robust CTE programs such as one in Murfreesboro that she toured last November during her first stop in Tennessee as education secretary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who helped author the new federal education law, told Politico recently that updating how federal funds are allocated for CTE is one of his top priorities this year.

But some educators and advocates worry that CTE will become a second-tier track for students viewed as incapable of going to college — or that their advantage in a fast-changing workforce will be short-lived.

“We want to make sure we’re not doing what we use to do with (vocational-technical education),” said Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center. “My dad would tell me that, as a black male, they funneled him to vo-tech because you’re a black male.”

A 2015 Stanford University study of CTE programs in 11 countries showed short-term employment gains for students. However, the researchers also found that those students lacked the skills to adapt to changes in the economy later in life compared with peers with a more general education.

Brown said Shelby County’s redesigned program will focus on higher-wage jobs that students can get certified for during high school or can train for in technical schools after graduating. That could boost business prospects when big companies consider locating to Memphis — such as the city’s recent failed bid to land an Amazon headquarters.

“One of the things we believe Amazon was looking for was (information technology) people who could come off the bat and write code and set up cybersecurity,” Brown said. “If you have an IT certification, you’re going to be in demand.”