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.

look up

Memphis high school’s prized planetarium still needs upgrades, but students are already fascinated by what it can do

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Principal Tisha Durrah, left, inspects a part of the planetarium that projects constellations and planets onto the large white dome screen at Craigmont High School.

Keshawn Glover remembers hearing his dad talk about field trips to Craigmont High School’s planetarium decades ago, but last week the high school senior got to experience the school’s crown jewel for himself.

Sitting back in chairs built in the 1970s, Glover leaned back with his class to watch a video that took them deep into the inner workings of a plant cell on a large immersive dome-shaped screen that spreads out above and around them.

“It feels like you’re in a roller coaster,” said Glover, a senior. “I was just amazed because it was my first time seeing it work full speed.”

The planetarium, nestled behind a door near the school’s gymnasium, shut down in 2010 after a longtime instructor retired. The equipment languished, but last week, $100,000 in restorations were completed. The work still isn’t done — a stronger audio system and better lighting are still needed. In addition, some of the features are still analog and not digital, and the huge screen desperately needs cleaning. But the school’s prized possession is up and running.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Craigmont High School senior Keshawn Glover, left, with science teacher Wayne Oellig at the planetarium’s control center.

The planetarium is more than just a nice feature, educators say. It helps garner student interest in careers they might not have known about before, such as astronomy and aerospace engineering.

“I don’t feel like our kids are exposed to all the opportunities out there for them,” said Wayne Oellig, a science teacher at Craigmont High School who has been the school’s point person on finding ways to connect curriculum to the planetarium.

“The space industry is really growing now,” he continued. “I tell my students, ‘You might be able to have a job in space when you’re older.’”

Paying for the project has been a collaborative effort. Shelby County Schools covered the startup operational costs from money allocated to school board members to fund projects of their choice. Teresa Jones, whose district includes Craigmont High, also galvanized other board members to use some of their school project money. Finally, alumni of the Raleigh-area high school continue to raise money to cover the nearly $25,000 needed to bring the theater up to 21st-century standards.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Planet rotation around the sun are projected through here to the large white dome screen.

Oellig compared the planetarium experience to the 1990s cartoon TV show “Magic School Bus,” where a class of students learned from experience — from venturing inside a human body to understand a cold, to traveling to the Amazon River to study frogs. “It’s kinda like Ms. Frizzle, but all around you.”


From our archives: With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students


Oellig said the planetarium’s benefits extend far beyond science. History teachers can show videos designed for the giant screen that take students onto a historic battlefield as if they were there. A Spanish teacher wants to show what the night sky would have looked like to ancient Mayans and how those constellations informed culture.

And that matters to students like Glover.

Usually, “we’re either looking at a textbook or a presentation on a projector,” he said. “But to get out of the classroom but still be in a learning environment would really capture our attention, whatever subject it is.

“It will make students even more interested in it. And the more interested we are in it, the better our grades are and we’ll do better on tests,” he said.

Are Children Learning

Chicago is sending more high schoolers to college — but how to get them to graduate?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Janice Jackson, and other city officials convened at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the Austin neighborhood to announce the latest college enrollment statistics.

Senior Tanariya Thompson, 17, said she and her friends at Michele Clark Magnet High School are constantly asking each other about where they want to go to college. But they’re not just talking, they’re doing their research, too.

“In a lot of our seminar classes I see more kids on the computers applying for colleges instead of just sitting there looking or saying, ‘I ain’t going to college,’” she said. “We’re serious: We want to go to a college so we can become somebody. Next week, I will have my top three.”

Chicago Public Schools released data today showing that more students than ever before are enrolling in college. The mayor and district officials announced the encouraging figures on the West Side, at Michele Clark High School, where students said they’ve seen more energy, excitement and urgency among their peers around the idea of enrolling at college.

The data shows that 1,000 more Chicago Public School graduates from the Class of 2017 enrolled in college compared with 2016, a 4.8 percent increase and the biggest one-year jump in nearly a decade.

Chicago still has a problem with public school graduates staying in and completing college. In 2016, just 18 percent of ninth graders were projected to attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation, and four-year college graduation rates have remained pretty stagnant since 2009, according to a fall 2017 report by the UChicago Consortium on School Research. (The report didn’t calculate two-year degree attainment).

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the latest enrollment data “an incredible statement about where Chicago Public School students are,” adding that nearly 90 percent of high school freshmen were on track for graduation.

“Every time they walk around and say, ‘not those kids, not from that school, not that background, not that ZIP code, not that family’ — you come here to Michele Clark and you tell these kids that,” Emanuel said, knocking on the wooden podium before him for emphasis.  “You guys have proved them wrong every step of the way.”

From 2010 to 2017, the college enrollment rate increased from 53.7 percent to 64.6 percent, according to the school district.  Officials credited everything from partnerships with OneGoal and other organizations focused on getting kids to and through college, to a summer text messaging campaign to nudge graduates toward completing action items along the enrollment path, and scholarships to city colleges for students who attain a B average or higher.

They also noted a shift in perspective.

“I think it’s because people have become more serious,” said Michele Clark Principal Charles Anderson. “I’ve seen it in action with people doing more college trips, people getting out to scholarship fairs, students having a different mindset.”

From 2016 to 2017, college enrollment rates for African-American and Latino students improved by 2.3 percentage points and 7.2 percentage points, respectively, according to the school district. The African-American college enrollment rate increased from 55.4 percent in 2016 to 57.7 in 2017, and the Hispanic college enrollment rate leaped from 59 percent in 2016 to 66.2 percent in 2017, according to district data.

Flanked by Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson and City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado, Emanuel said, “it used to be as a system, we were done just getting you to high school graduation, and our responsibility was over,” but now it’s different. The mayor added, “the biggest transformation is the mindset not just of our kids, but of the system.”

“It’s why we’re also making sure we set a goal that by 2019, every child has a plan for what comes next,” Emanuel said, alluding to a new CPS graduation requirement that demands every student “has a meaningful planning conversation with an adult, and graduates with a plan to map out their future.”

The data indicate more students are enrolling at City College of Chicago.

The district said 5.8 percent more students enrolled at city colleges in 2017 compared with the previous year. Of district graduates who attended two-year colleges in 2017, 84.5 percent enrolled at city colleges compared with 78.7 the previous year, according to the district. City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado praised the mayor and schools chief’s leadership, saying CPS’ gains were strong steps toward officials’ goals of “a more inclusive economy,” in Chicago.

“We also want to make sure that each of you has in a role in this economy, whether it’s downtown, or in our health-care centers, or at a logistics company, or engineering or manufacturing company or a tech company,” Salgado told the students. “This city will have a place for you.”

Officials said the climbing college enrollment rate mirrored the increasing number of district students earning high school diplomas, and also reflected district students’ overall strong academic progress. Yet the percent of students who enrolled in college in 2015 and were still enrolled the following year, 72.3 percent of graduates, is actually down slightly compared with 2010, when it was 72.8 percent.

That — and the low rates of Chicago Public School students who eventually graduate with a two- or four-year degree — are worrisome figures.

Furthermore, African-American and Latino students and students with disabilities still graduate from high school, enroll in and graduate from college at lower rates than the general population. It’s a sobering reminder of inequities in the school system.

Officials acknowledged that work remains to get more students to and through college.

That point that wasn’t lost on Michele Clark senior Naquanis Hughes, 17, who wants to study business in college but is still undecided on where. Hughes said staff, students, and even alumni offer this encouragement about getting through the hard knocks that some students encounter in higher education:

“If you come to a hard place, don’t just fall down, don’t just give up, keep pushing yourself.”