Jerome Barrett, 17, a senior at the High School for Youth and Community Development at the Erasmus campus in Brooklyn, hangs a star on the wall marking colleges where Bottom Line, New York City students have applied.
This fall, Orlando Geigel used his hour-long D train commute from the South Bronx to Brooklyn to practice math problems from a review sheet to prepare for his first set of college finals. The answers were written on the back, but he waited until the end of each ride to check his work.
Geigel, a 2011 graduate of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, rarely studied in high school, and he didn’t think much about it in college, either — until he failed his first midterm in October.
That’s when Geigel turned to Bottom Line, New York City, a branch of a 14-year-old counseling program in Boston that aims to address the challenges that lead many low-income, first-generation college students to drop out.
Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years. The City University of New York reports that just 24 percent of its full-time students — mostly graduates of city high schools — receive degrees within six years of entering college for the first time.
The striking statistics have prompted city and state officials to argue for the first time that schools should be judged by their students’ ability to succeed in college. They have also prompted a constellation of nonprofit groups to try to ease the transition from high school to higher education.
Some of those groups place privately funded counselors inside schools. Others outsource counseling entirely — in Bottom Line’s case, to an office in Downtown Brooklyn where high school and college students come for individual guidance about applying to college and adjusting to its demands.
This year, Bottom Line is working with 125 high school seniors and 20 college freshmen. Those numbers are set to rise to 800 high school students and 850 college students in 2016.
Amid mounting criticisms that charter schools do not serve the neediest students, the state's charter school authorizers are making a push to approve more charter schools that make those children a priority.
This week, the Board of Regents gave its stamp of approval to several schools that describe their mission as serving high-needs students, such as children with special needs, who are homeless, or who are over-age for their grade.
The schools include a school run by the Children's Aid Society, which plans to serve students in the high-poverty South Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania. That school was authorized by the State University of New York earlier this year, along with several other schools that will target their recruitment and services to high-needs students.
SUNY also approved two ROADS charter schools, which say they will enroll students who are over-aged but lack the credits needed to graduate. Those join several other recently approved or opened schools that SUNY selected for their commitments to underserved children.
Cynthia Proctor, a SUNY spokeswoman, said the new schools would still be held accountable for their academic performance, even though high-needs students tend to fall short more frequently on test scores and some other measures of success.
"It is important to understand that the two goals are not mutually exclusive," she said.
As a Bronx elementary school principal, Drema Brown routinely encountered students who were struggling to complete schoolwork without adequate health care, a stable address, or even electricity.
Challenges like those held Brown back from boosting academic achievement. Even worse, she said, she couldn't solve the problems wrought by poverty, either.
“I might take it for granted that I can just take my daughter to an eye doctor’s appointment and I have insurance that is going to get her that $300, $400 pair of glasses. But sometimes in a school something as simple as that could languish for an entire school year,” said Brown, who headed P.S. 230 in the South Bronx's District 9 from 2003 to 2007.
Now a top official at the Children's Aid Society, the 158-year-old social services provider, Brown is leading an experiment in integrating health and social services into a school setting. Children's Aid is set to open its charter school in the Morrisania section of the Bronx next fall. The Board of Regents formally approved the school's charter earlier today.
Plans for the school have been in the works since 2009, when Richard Buery became Children's Aid's president and CEO. Buery, who has a background in law and education non-profit management, asked CAS staff who worked with community schools to think about how a community school operated by CAS could have a longer-term impact than the agency’s usual school partnerships.
The group already works with city schools to deliver social services and connect after-school programs. And since 2000 the group has run a full clinic in Morrisania, offering preventive services and a meeting place for families whose children are in foster care. But the new project marks Children's Aid's first venture into school management.
The clinic “is a visible presence in the community with lots of welcoming faces," Brown said. "Our mission now is to a establish a school that feels the same way for kids and their families so that education becomes more attractive and a welcoming experience."
That's a sentiment that hasn't always been present in the South Bronx, which has a longstanding reputation for poverty, crime and lackluster public schools.
The state organization commonly cited as a national model for approving and overseeing charter schools is facing quietly proposed cuts that would slash its budget by nearly 70 percent.
The State University of New York's Charter School Institute (CSI), which oversees charter schools from the union-run UFT School to the popular KIPP schools, is slated to lose $1.7 million of its $2.4 million budget under budgets proposed by both the Assembly and the Senate.
CSI is one of the groups that are the prime oversight bodies for the state's charter schools. Known as "authorizers," the groups are responsible for reviewing proposals for new charter schools, monitoring the schools they approve, and closing charters they deem under-performing. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has praised CSI for its rigor and willingness to shutter schools that don't live up to high expectations.
"All of that takes real human resources," said Jonas Chartock, the agency's executive director.
The cuts are a serious threat but far from a done deal. The institute has historically been a target of political efforts, often supported by the teachers union, to weaken its authority to open charter schools. But the union is not supporting these cuts. Rather, the proposals appear to be more prompted by the state's financial duress.
A bill introduced in Albany last week could limit The State University of New York’s (SUNY) power to certify charter schools, empowering the Board of Regents to veto the university’s recommendations for which schools should be allowed to open. New Board of Regents head Merryl Tisch is leading the charge for the change, and United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told GothamSchools today she supports the bill.
"SUNY as an entity is not sensitive to issues in the communities here," Tisch told the Daily News. (A call to Tisch's office has not yet been returned).
Currently, the state's Board of Regents, which is one of three boards that can authorize city charter schools, reviews SUNY’s authorizations but cannot prevent the SUNY-approved schools from opening. The Board has disagreed with SUNY's charters two thirds of the time since 2007. While the Regents can't block those schools from opening, they do have the power to revoke the charters of SUNY schools that drop below their standards.
The bill was introduced by Assembly Education Chair Catherine Nolan last week and is described as a way to standardize and streamline the chartering process. Critics of the bill argue that SUNY's charter schools outperform other charters and that consolidating the power to authorize charters would mean fewer charter schools in the city. It's unclear how much of a chance the bill has to pass, though charter advocates say they plan to work vigilantly to prevent it from becoming law.
United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten defended Nolan's and the Regents' stance, even though SUNY is the UFT's charter authorizer.
"If you really want to have top to bottom and bottom to top accountability you should have one statewide entity authorizing charters, not two," she said. "We are always looking for ways to save money and be more efficient and having one statewide authorizer is probably best."