To and Through

At this KIPP high school, a new tactic for getting students to college: bringing college to them

PHOTO: Nanette Blake, KIPP New Orleans Schools

It’s common for high school students to head to college campuses for classes. It’s much rarer for a college to set up shop on a high school campus.

But that is what’s happening at a KIPP high school in New Orleans this year. Bard College, a New York-based private liberal arts college, is enrolling half of KIPP Renaissance’s juniors in a two-year program designed to end with them earning both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

It’s a new tactic in the national charter network’s push to get its students to and through college: combining the start of college with high school in a way that makes higher education feel attainable — even unavoidable.

“This partnership helps us not just kind of guess what it would take getting kids to get into college,” said Towana Pierre-Floyd, the principal at KIPP Renaissance, which held a ceremony Tuesday for students entering the program. “Working with Bard [helps us] see how it actually would shake out for students when they start taking college courses full-time and have to navigate time management and rigor in different ways.”

Early college programs, which can cut down on the time and money needed to earn a degree and expose students to the style and pace of college work, are growing in popularity as an option to help students from low-income families and communities of color.

Most of those programs, though, have students earn credits at community colleges during part of the school day. The KIPP-Bard partnership is unique because it’s full-time, housed completely on a high school campus, and operating in conjunction with a charter school. (Bard operates several of its own early-college high schools across the country, but none inside other schools.)

KIPP’s program will work by enrolling students who have completed the majority of their Louisiana high school requirements at the end of sophomore year, school officials said. (The other half of KIPP’s students will follow a different academic program.) Ten Bard staffers, including six professors — some from Bard, others hired locally — will teach courses on KIPP’s campus.

“Bard is not hurting for applicants,” said Stephen Tremaine, the college’s vice president of early colleges. “For Bard, the upside is that the way that higher education in America identifies and searches for talent is incredibly criminally limited to one kind of student that’s one age and often in one neighborhood. We think that colleges miss out on real talent by not being willing to open that up.”

Douglas Lauen, a public policy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who co-authored a study examining early college high schools, estimates about 300 early college campuses dot the country, with 80 alone in North Carolina. He says the model gained steam in the state after an injection of money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, supplemented by public funding. (The Gates Foundation is also a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

A small but growing base of research has found the model generally helps students from low-income families — increasing high school graduation rates, boosting associates degree completion rates, and raising four-year-college enrollment, one study out of North Carolina found, though that college enrollment increase was at less selective schools.

“There appears to be a causal effect” of the program on a student’s chances of making it to and through college, said Lauen.

Adding college classes to high school is still a tricky proposition. Some have raised questions about the value of the associate’s degree students leave with and about whether the the courses students take in early-college programs are truly at a college level.

“We have to be thinking, are we giving them a credential for the sake of it, or are we giving them something useful for the job market eventually?” said Nathan Barrett, Lauen’s co-author. Barrett is now an associate director at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University, about seven miles from KIPP Renaissance.

Still, Barrett and Lauen see real benefits. An associate’s degree can keep students on the path to a higher-level degree, helping them avoid the cost of some college credits. KIPP officials also said they hope the program gives students the confidence to apply to more selective universities than they otherwise would.

“KIPP arguably may have more structure than students will get when they go to college, so perhaps this will get them in a place where they will be pretty much ready to go in the world and persist in college and with a career,” Barrett said.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.