Beyond College-Ready: Top Charter Schools Support Graduates In College

Beyond College-Ready: Top Charter Schools Support Graduates In College

7:15am Jun 08, 2015
Students from a Harlem Children's Zone school visit Hunter College in New York. College visits are one way schools encourage students to attend college after graduation; now, a growing number of schools are working to help students succeed in college as w
Students from a Harlem Children's Zone school visit Hunter College in New York. College visits are one way schools encourage students to attend college after graduation; now, a growing number of schools are working to help students succeed in col
Courtesy of Harlem Children's Zone
  • Students from a Harlem Children's Zone school visit Hunter College in New York. College visits are one way schools encourage students to attend college after graduation; now, a growing number of schools are working to help students succeed in college as w

    Students from a Harlem Children's Zone school visit Hunter College in New York. College visits are one way schools encourage students to attend college after graduation; now, a growing number of schools are working to help students succeed in col

    Courtesy of Harlem Children's Zone

  • Erica Martinez-Close struggled in college after graduating from a KIPP charter school. But continued support from KIPP helped her get back on track and graduate from City University of New York.

    Erica Martinez-Close struggled in college after graduating from a KIPP charter school. But continued support from KIPP helped her get back on track and graduate from City University of New York.

    Dan Bigelow / Courtesy of Dan Bigelow Photography

It's high school graduation season, when many students are celebrating the end of their high school career. But some schools are deciding that their job doesn't end with the granting of a diploma — or even a send-off to college.

Top charter schools can often boast of sending virtually all of their graduates to college, even when the majority of their students are low-income or are the first members of their families to pursue post-high school educations.

As it turns out, many of those students don't earn a degree.

Some of the best charter school networks — places like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) or Harlem Children's Zone — are working to change that. They are not only helping their graduates get into college, but are also counseling them once they are on university campuses. The idea is to boost the number of graduates who earn bachelor's degrees.

For KIPP, the wake-up call came when the organization did an audit of graduates of two of its middle schools in 2011. They found that just one-third had completed a bachelor's degree 10 or more years after graduating.

As it turns out, KIPP's graduation rate is actually impressive, given that 90 percent of their students are low-income. The college completion rate for this socio-economic group is a mere 9 percent.

The rate for the highest income students is 75 percent. That's what KIPP wants to see for its graduates. The fact that they were falling so short of that goal was sobering, says Jane Martinez Dowling, head of KIPP NYC Through College. "We realized how hard this work is," she says.

Dowling's office is charged with raising college completion figures. Her team of counselors work with hundreds of KIPP graduates on the East Coast. They keep in regular touch with KIPPsters (as graduates are called), mentoring them on their study habits and course selection and meeting with their advisers.

Erica Martinez-Close struggled in college after graduating from a KIPP charter school. But continued support from KIPP helped her get back on track and graduate from City University of New York.

Erica Martinez-Close struggled in college after graduating from a KIPP charter school. But continued support from KIPP helped her get back on track and graduate from City University of New York.

Dan Bigelow/Courtesy of Dan Bigelow Photography

CUNY is one of 59 colleges and universities that KIPP has partnered with to help usher their graduates through graduation. And Dominic Stellini, executive director of Student Engagement Initiatives at CUNY, sees the impact KIPP counseling has on its graduates.

"They learn to be assertive, without being aggressive," he says, "so they can push and get what they need, because they are doing it in the right way."

Stellini describes himself as a "pit crew" for KIPP Through College. When KIPPsters run into issues at the university, he helps troubleshoot.

At CUNY, KIPP also regularly convenes its graduates for lunches. On a Thursday afternoon just after the end of classes, 10 KIPPsters met off campus at a Mexican restaurant to celebrate.

One KIPPster in attendance, Erica Martinez-Close, had a rocky start at CUNY. She dropped out after her first year. Telling the news to her old KIPP advisors was tough.

"It was extremely awkward," she says, "because if anything, it's like a parent." In her case, that's literally true: her mother, Carol Martinez, is the assistant principal at a KIPP middle school in New York. But KIPP counseled Martinez-Close during her 18 months out of school. She's just graduated and has plans to go to law school.

Maintaining a connection with students post-graduation is becoming more common among elite charter schools. The Harlem Children's Zone, which operates two highly regarded schools in New York, recently expanded its college success office.

On an afternoon this spring, college adviser Dione Mosley spoke with Ramona Williams, a graduate of one of the Harlem Children's Zone's charter schools, about a community college class she's enrolled in.

"You told me you were struggling here," Mosley says to Williams. She asks Williams to think about strategies she could employ to successfully complete the course.

"Well, I moved to the front row," Williams responds, "so I can see the notes that [the professor] writes."

Williams spent a year at Medgar Evers College before dropping out. Part of what caused her to leave was dealing with a personal trauma. Her brother had been killed in a random shooting when Williams was a sophomore in high school.

The emotional fallout didn't really hit Williams until she was out of the nurturing environment of the Harlem Children's Zone high school. She says that made for a tough transition to the more impersonal world of college.

Harlem Children's Zone CEO, Anne Williams-Isom, worries that sometimes the school can go too far in holding students' hands.

"We were like, we were going to put a safety net around them," she says. "If you missed a test, we were like, 'OK, we're going to get you to make it up.' Some of that is good. But we've got to find safe ways to let them fail."

But Brian Gill, an education analyst at Mathematica Policy Research, says it's a balancing act. He points out students from low-income households, who are often the first members of their families to go to college, need additional supports. "It's more likely the support they get early on is preparing them to do better later," he says.

The efforts to boost college completion rates seem to be having an effect. KIPP's latest figures show that 45 percent of their middle school graduates go on to earn college degrees.

Harlem Children's Zone hasn't done the same kind of audit of its graduates. But they believe their efforts are bearing fruit. The organization hired Ramona Williams in its administrative office. As Mosley, her adviser, points out, that offers advantages.

"We can work a study schedule around your work schedule," she tells Williams, "because I know your employer."

The support is already paying off for Williams. In the fall, she plans to enroll in a four year college.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Let's take a look now at charter schools that serve low-income students. Here's the good news - those at the top are able to send almost all of their graduates to college. The bad news is most of those students don't earn a degree. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Codeswitch reports on what can be done to change that.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: It's the day before the end of classes at City University of New York or CUNY. A group 10 CUNY students have gathered at a Mexican restaurant near campus to celebrate.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Can I get the California quesadilla?

STARR: The students are all graduates of the Knowledge is Power Program or KIPP schools. KIPP is regarded as one of the best charter school networks in the country. The organization helps alumni as they navigate college.

Erica Martinez-Close is a KIPP middle school graduate who had a rocky start at CUNY. She dropped out after her first year. Telling the news to her old KIPP advisors was tough.

ERICA MARTINEZ-CLOSE: It was extremely awkward, because if anything, it's essentially like a parent.

STARR: And one of her parents - her mom - is the assistant principal at a KIPP middle school in New York. But KIPP counseled Martinez-Close during her 18 months out of school.

MARTINEZ-CLOSE: I went back to City College and advocated for myself in an immense way to get to where I'm at right now.

STARR: She's just graduated and has plans to go to law school. KIPP started hiring more counselors for students like Martinez-Close four years ago. That came after a review of KIPP middle school graduates who are post-college age. It found that only one-third had earned a bachelor's degree. Jane Martinez Dowling is head of KIPP NYC Through College.

JANE MARTINEZ DOWLING: And I do think it was a pretty sobering moment for the organization, and we realized how hard this work is.

STARR: KIPP's graduation rate is actually impressive given that almost 90 percent of KIPP students are low income. Only 9 percent of all poor college students earn a bachelor's degree. The rate for the highest income students is 75 percent. Dowling say that's what KIPP wants to see for its own alumni.

DOWLING: We just got much, much more intentional about the work once students left our schools.

STARR: So KIPP has launched more high schools. And Dowling's team is currently working with hundreds of KIPP graduates. Maintaining a connection with students post-graduation is becoming more common among elite charter schools. The Harlem Children's Zone, which operates two highly-regarded schools in New York, recently expanded its college success office. On an afternoon this spring, college advisor Diane Mosley spoke with Ramona Williams about a community college class.

DIONE MOSLEY: I know you told me you were struggling here. I'm thinking like what are some methods that you think would work for you?

RAMONA WILLIAMS: Well, I moved to the front row so that I can see the notes that he writes.

STARR: Williams is a graduate of one of the Harlem Children's Zone's charter schools. She spent a year at Medgar Evers College before dropping out. Part of it was that she was dealing with a personal trauma.

WILLIAMS: I was in 10th grade. I lost my brother.

STARR: He was the victim of a random shooting. The emotional fallout didn't really hit Williams until she was out of the nurturing environment of her high school. She says that made for a tough transition to the more impersonal world of college. Harlem Children's Zone CEO, Anne Williams-Isom, worries that sometimes the school can go too far in holding students' hands.

ANNE WILLIAMS-ISOM: We were like, we were going to put a safety net around them. If you missed a test, we were like, OK, we're going to get you to make it up. Some of that is good. But we've got to find safe ways to let them fail.

STARR: But Brian Gill, an education analyst at Mathematica Policy Research, says it's a balancing act. He points out students from low-income households, who are often the first members of their families to go to college, need additional supports.

BRIAN GILL: It's more likely to be the case that the support they're getting early on is just helping to prepare them to do better later.

STARR: The efforts to boost college completion rates seem to be having an effect. KIPP's latest figures show that 45 percent of their middle school graduates go on to earn college degrees. Harlem Children's Zone hasn't done the same kind of audit of its graduates. But they believe their efforts are bearing fruit. The organization hired Ramona Williams in its administrative office. As her advisor Dione Mosley points out, that offers advantages.

MOSLEY: We kind of work a study schedule around your work schedule, right, because I know your employer so (laughter)...

STARR: The support is paying off for Williams. In the fall, she plans to enroll in a four-year college. Alexandra Starr, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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