Closing the Low-Income College Readiness Gap Requires Doing Business Differently

In December Paymon Rouhanifard, the state-appointed superintendent of Camden, New Jersey schools, caused a stir when he told the media what he learned on his listening tour of the troubled district. Rouhanifard spoke of decrepit school facilities, children fearing violence, high teacher turnover, and a long list of other woes.  He called learning of Camden’s abysmally low college readiness rate a "kick-in-the-stomach moment." Only 3 of Camden’s 882 high school seniors met the College Board’s college readiness benchmark in 2012.

Ninety-five percent of Camden’s 15,000 K-12 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Camden High School is 99 percent African American or Latino. Only about half of its students even took the SAT in 2012. Their average score was 1,026, more than 500 points below the College Board’s college readiness benchmark of 1550.

On January 27th Rouhanifard announced the “Camden Commitment,” a 16-page strategic plan to take “direct aim at fundamental rights we owe our children and families."  Rather than pushing college readiness, the plan focuses on improving school safety and renovating facilities as a first priority.

"Every child in Camden has a right to attend a safe school in a modern building," the superintendent told parents and the press.

Critics have concerns about the plan, but Rouhanifard is staying the course.  At the end of February, he announced a new school safety initiative designed to improve student security and decrease violence in and around school buildings.

As Camden’s struggles show, urban low-income schools face real challenges in providing facilities that are first and foremost safe and structurally sound. There is no way around prioritizing student safety, nor should there be.

We also should not lower the bar regarding college readiness, even while other issues loom.  But it would be a mistake to rely on the public school system alone – at least in its current incarnation – to improve low-income students’ college readiness.

Instead we need to support alternative models – some within the public system and some operating alongside it – that are helping to get more low-income students ready to succeed in college.

Generation Schools is one example. The organization is redeploying existing resources in public schools to create a longer school day and year and to create more effective teacher collaboration around school success and college and career readiness. The model works costs no more than current public school budgets and requires no additional staff.

Through a variety of strategies detailed in a new report sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Generation Schools in Brooklyn, New York and Denver, Colorado are achieving impressive results.

Students at Brooklyn Generation spend 280 hours each year focusing specifically on college and career readiness. Their counterparts at other New York City public schools spend just 1-2 hours. Since it began in 2007, Brooklyn Generation has doubled the graduation rate among its population, and the percent of its graduating class being accepted to college has climbed to 90 percent. The Generation Schools model shows reform is possible within the current public system.

In February Brooklyn Generation hosted a school visit where staff presented the results of their working paper.  In his opening remarks at the event, Sanjiv Rao, a program officer with the Ford Foundation, summed up what it takes to improve college options and outcomes for low-income students. Rather than giving up on public education, he suggests we can find ways of “reinventing the school day” and “fundamentally doing business differently.” Rao’s full remarks are worth viewing.

SEO Scholars, a non-profit organization operating in San Francisco and New York City, provides another compelling model for how to prepare low-income students to succeed in college. This one operates entirely outside of the public school system. SEO Scholars starts working with students in ninth grade. For eight years, program participants receive mentoring, internships, enrichment activities, and intense academic support.

Participants in SEO Scholars are largely minorities and come from families whose median income is well below the poverty line. While all of the intangible supports the program offers are important, the academic focus remains a consistent key.

"When they start with us, most of our students think they're doing pretty well in school. But that's not really the case," says SEO Scholars director Millie Hau. "We administer a diagnostic exam to all of our students when they enter our program in 9th grade that tests basic skills every 9th grader should know. Last year, less than 1 percent of the students who joined our program scored an A while the average score was an F. Clearly, we have a lot of academic ground to cover before we can succeed in closing the achievement gap for them."

SEO Scholars covers this ground by providing 720 hours of additional academic instruction in the basics -- math, reading, writing, and vocabulary.  SEO participants attend regular public schools. But for four years they get rigorous extra schooling from SEO. Three Saturdays a month from September to June they are in class from 9:30-4:30.  They also go to SEO’s version of summer school, all day Monday to Friday for the entire month of July.

With their average SAT score of 1616, SEO program participants beat the College Board college readiness benchmark hands down. In fact, an independent evaluator found that the SAT scores of SEO Scholars participants are on par with students whose families earn $140,000 a year.

100 percent of SEO Scholars program participants are accepted to four-year colleges. Four out of five participants graduate within four years, and 95 percent graduate within 6 years.