a season of searching

A dream to leave Brooklyn, play football, and go to college — with applications in the way

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Jamal Trotman, a senior at Eagle Academy for Young Men II in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, finishes a study hall period where he works on college applications.

Jamal Trotman is a star at Eagle Academy for Young Men in Brooklyn.

He made the All-State football team and was a team captain. He wants to be a journalist, and he’s interned at NBC and at the investment firm Blackstone. His counselors say he’s a dedicated student and selected him to be his school’s spokesman at a college fair last fall.

But his college options could be limited by a misunderstanding: He didn’t realize he needed to answer most of the questions on the SAT.

The mistake could have been a small one. (Like many students, he eventually retook the exam after preparing more seriously.) But the SAT trouble, and a series of other recent setbacks, might have significant consequences. Though he still has time, months into the search process, he hasn’t sent off many applications, overwhelmed by his long list of schools.

“This process is more of a nightmare rather than an experience to me,” he said.

We first met Trotman, who was born in Guyana and lives in Flatbush, at a college fair this fall. He agreed to let Chalkbeat check in throughout his college search — and his story illustrates just how many opportunities there are during the application process for students to get tripped up.

Oct. 23: The college fair

Eagle Academy II, a small, all-boys public high school that serves mostly black and Hispanic students, is focused on helping its students get to college. The school had a 95 percent graduation rate last year and has a dedicated college counselor.

At a college fair at Eagle Academy’s other campus in the Bronx, Trotman explained that he already had a dream graduate school in mind: Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. But he was still unsure where he wanted to go first, though some applications would be due in a few months. The end of football season would mean more time to look into schools, he said.

Trotman has a B average and a passion for writing. But when he was younger, Trotman thought he would attend a trade school and enter the construction industry.

“After I found my love for writing, it just made me want to go to college,” he said.

The college adviser's office at Eagle Academy for Young Men II.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The college adviser’s office at Eagle Academy for Young Men II.

Nov. 2: A massive list

By November, the college search had taken on a life of its own.

Trotman’s dream to study journalism had spawned a confusing list of about 50 potential schools — and he had no idea how to pare it down. Northeastern, Syracuse, and University of New Hampshire were under consideration. If it weren’t for football, he said, he’d think about Brooklyn College.

He knew he wanted a school with a good journalism program and low tuition bill. He also hoped to move out of state — and to play football. Still, schools made his list when family members or advisers suggested them, and he had trouble deciding which would best match his résumé and need for financial aid. This confusion lasted well into his college application process.

“The minute I try to take a school off my list then I realize, oh, I put that school there for a reason,” he said.

Trotman isn’t on his own as he works toward his goals. His three older brothers went to college, an aunt went to Rutgers, and he has mentors from his internships. Eagle Academy provides a college counselor and a host of other advisers to students. (Citywide, 79 percent of high school students said someone at their school was helping them plan for after high school, according to the city’s survey, but many high school counselors are stretched thin.)

Trotman’s grateful to have the help, but sometimes it can be overwhelming.

“It’s just everyone,” he said. “‘Hey, you should check out this school, you should check out that school.’”

Hefty tuition is about the only reason Trotman had removed a school from his list. He’s doesn’t want to apply to schools that cost more than $35,000 each year out of fear that he would end up with the bills.

Monteka Maddox, the school’s college counselor, says that’s a misconception about financial aid that a lot of students come to her with.

“There are plenty of guys here who graduated last year who aren’t paying anything,” she said.

Nov. 28: The offseason arrives

For the second year in a row, the Eagle Academy football team made it to a city championship game. Playing in the championship with his “brothers” was a milestone Trotman had worked toward for years.

In the third quarter, Trotman was blindsided by an opponent from Frederick Douglas Academy. His foot slammed into the ground and his body twisted in the opposite direction.

“At first I thought it was just a cramp in my calf,” he said. “Then I realized I couldn’t get up.”

His team won the game. But Trotman began the offseason — the time he had waited for to select schools and finish applications — at the latest possible date, with two torn ligaments and and a torn meniscus. He scheduled surgery on his knee and began walking with a brace and cane.

Eagle Academy for Young Men II senior Jamal Trotman talks to Wallace Niles, the school's operations director, about his college application process.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Eagle Academy for Young Men II senior Jamal Trotman talks to Wallace Niles, the school’s operations director, about his college application process.

Dec. 16: Waiting for his SAT scores

Trotman hobbled into his college adviser’s office on Dec. 16.

He still hadn’t applied to SUNY or CUNY schools, and he still had about 40 schools on his list. He was also deep into the 800-page “Ultimate Scholarship Book.”

“This is even more effective than FAFSA to me,” he said, referring to the basic federal financial aid form, “because I can just look through the book, skim through it real quick, and apply.”

Trotman hadn’t applied to schools yet because he was waiting on his SAT scores, he explained. He took the test in May 2015, and was under the impression that he could reach his goal of scoring a 1,000 on the reading and math sections combined by answering only about half of the questions. (It was a strategy he acknowledged later — with his typical good-natured attitude — was “kind of stupid.”)

He ended up with an 890. That’s 20 points below the average score in New York City for the reading and math sections in 2015, and 97 points below the national average.

Determined to boost his score when he took the test again in early December, Trotman enrolled in an SAT prep class. He had studied hard, sometimes skipping homework to complete practice questions. He knew the new scores would be released soon.

“I know it’s going to be better,” he said.

Dec. 21: Expecting SAT scores but getting something else

Trotman stayed up until midnight on Dec. 21 to check his scores. When he logged on, he faced an unwelcome surprise: His scores didn’t exist.

Confused, he called the College Board, which administers the SAT. No one could provide answers because staff members were out for the holidays. The next Monday, Trotman had surgery on his knee.

News arrived just three days before the Jan. 1 application deadline for some colleges. His test was under review, which his counselor said was likely because his score increased so much.

College Board officials told Trotman that he’d have to wait until mid-January to receive his scores. In the meantime, he will miss a few early January college application deadlines. (College Board did not respond to questions about the reason for Trotman’s delayed scores to protect his privacy. They said scores can be delayed for a number of reasons.)

The questions almost certainly won’t prevent Trotman from going to college. Plenty of colleges have rolling admissions or later deadlines. After he gets the scores, he’s hoping to get his applications sent out quickly.

But in the meantime, he’s waiting to take the next step.

”It’s kind of a setback,” he said. “This right here is my make-it-or-break-it for my future.”

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.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.