College checklist

Memphis FAFSA drive seeks to build city’s college-going culture

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Kirby High School senior Kimberly London hopes to attend the University of Memphis with financial aid. She recently completed her FAFSA form during the city's second annual FAFSA drive.

Kirby High School senior Kimberly London is the vice president of her class, president of the school’s honor society, and active in numerous extracurricular activities. But even she needs help overcoming the burdensome task of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to secure financial aid for college.

“If I didn’t have this help, I probably wouldn’t have applied for financial aid,” says Kimberly, who finished her forms last month with support provided through a Memphis-wide FAFSA campaign. “If anything, I would think I just needed to work and struggle to be able to pay for college.”

Kimberly’s apprehension isn’t unique. That’s why community leaders are behind the push to help area high school seniors complete their FAFSA applications this month. The goal is to create a college-going culture in a city where building a college-trained and career-ready workforce is an ongoing challenge.

The city’s FAFSA campaign launched in early January and culminates this weekend with events in libraries, churches and schools to provide hands-on assistance. While the FAFSA deadline varies for different post-secondary schools, Feb. 15 is the cutoff for completion to remain eligible for Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam’s initiative to provide eligible seniors with two free years of tuition at a community or technical college.

Last year, the first year of the Memphis FAFSA campaign, a network of more than 100 community organizations and high school counselors assisted more than 7,000 graduating seniors. Their work increased the city’s completion rate from 60 to 88 percent in Shelby County, according to leaders of Memphis Talent Dividend, an action initiative of Leadership Memphis.

Nationwide during 2015, the first year of eligibility for Tennessee Promise scholarships, Tennessee accounted for more than 40 percent of the increase in FAFSA completions

Opportunities after high school are especially critical in Memphis, where one in every five youth ages 16-24 are neither in school nor working, according to a 2015 study from Measure of America, a nonprofit organization that gathers data for social science policy. That makes Memphis the No. 1 large city in America for “disconnected youth,” the study says.

The FAFSA push also aligns with Shelby County Schools’ strategic plan known as Destination 2025, which aims for 80 percent of its seniors to graduate college- or career-ready, and to help 100 percent of those students enroll in college or other post-secondary opportunities.

But helping youth access funding is only part of the equation in pursuing a post-secondary education. The other challenge is making sure that parents complete the necessary financial information required under FAFSA, says Alton Cryer, coordinator for the Memphis campaign.

“The fact that they have to hand over their tax information, something that is really private, is unnerving,” Cryer said.

There are also social barriers. Many parents are caught up in systemic poverty and have little experience with government documentation outside of welfare applications or arrest records.

“If the system has let them down in many ways, then documentation is sometimes intimidating,” said the Rev. Eugene Gibson, senior pastor for the Olivet Fellowship Baptist Church, a Memphis congregation that is helping to spread the word about the city’s FAFSA drive.

The FAFSA process has been criticized as needlessly complex by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. The Tennessee Republican and former governor has introduced federal legislation that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

Until then, the FAFSA process likely will remain intimidating to many students, even high-achieving ones like Kimberly, who wants to study business marketing at the University of Memphis. She says assistance like her city’s FAFSA campaign will make a difference for seniors navigating the process.

“Scale of 1 to 10, the need for this is a 10,” she said.

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.