Saturday, March 19, 2016

College Funding Reaches a Critical Stage in D.C.

It’s not a newsflash that college costs have spiraled out of control.  Many colleges expect students or parents to borrow huge amounts of money to finance their education.  For RISE’s low-income students, funding for college has been manageable recently but may reach a crisis state before long. 

Pell Grants are still worth less than $6,000 per year for RISE’s students.  Isolated scholarships are available, but they are usually just a few thousand dollars each and only available to students with high GPA’s or test scores.  About fifteen years ago the DC CollegeSuccess Foundation was launched to help students in Wards 7 and 8 pay for college.  The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) had audited the population in Wards 7 and 8 and found that, on average, only 3% of each public school graduating class was finishing college.  Funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the “Double the Numbers” Initiative of the DC College Success Foundation has had the intention of doubling the number of students graduating from college.

The initiative has largely succeeded, although RISE believes the numbers could be much higher still.  I write more about this here.  The game changer for low-income students was the DC Achievers Scholarship program run by the DC College Success Foundation.  The program is open to high school students in Wards 7 and 8 and has provided approximately $10,000 in grant money for each year of college for approximately sixty students at each of six high schools for the last ten years.  With the DC TAG program also available, enabling D.C. students to essentially get the in-state tuition rate at any public university in the country, college became eminently affordable to the lucky recipients.

The Achievers program, however, is ending.  Ward 7 and Ward 8 students now face a specter of the near impossibility of funding for four-year college other than the local and much maligned University of the District of Columbia, whose struggles were the impetus for DC TAG.  As of yet, neither  OSSE nor District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) have yet to announce any measure for the Classes of 2018 and beyond.

The DC Council had floated the idea of a $70,000 scholarship program for students, but that bill stalled.  Any college scholarship program administrator will tell you it is incredibly expensive to run and maintain such a program.  Not only the scholarships need to be dispensed, but students need training for college, help with logistics, and counseling.   

RISE’s College Prep program helps students with academic preparation, college choices, logistics with financial aid paperwork and enrollment, and college visits.  But RISE cannot bridge the looming funding gap that threatens to return Ward 7 and 8 students back to a distinct disadvantage in college admissions.

As we transition into the post-Achievers era, you can be sure RISE will be dialoguing with DCPS and City Council regarding this critical situation.  Our mission is not one of political advocacy, so anyone interested in this issue is encouraged to dialogue as well.

RISE's College Prep Cohorts

RISE started the College Prep program in 2013 for the members of the class of 2014.  The original impetus for the program was our belief that our students were not making the most educated college choices.  We have provided them with mentors and with college visits to help them make informed choices, and we have also offered SAT prep, which may become less necessary now that the SAT is a more straight-forward test. 

We think the mentoring program, college visits, and SAT prep have all paid a role in helping our students become as prepared for college as possible.  We also found our students need logistical help and a little financial help with the enrollment process so that the cost of books or a room deposit do not get in the way of their success.  We even have delivered students to their campuses and have made numerous trips to get our kids home and back for school breaks.  After observing best practices of programs like POSSE and I Have a Dream, we decided to visit our students each semester during freshman and sophomore year.

When we recruited our first cohort of students, in the winter of 2013, we drew mainly from our MATHletes program.  These students tended to have some of the higher GPA’s in their class.  But we also decided to recruit one or two students each year who showed great potential even if their GPA was not high.  These students had one foot in the streets and one foot out.

Our first cohort of eleven students is now in their sophomore year.  Two of those students opted out of college soon after matriculating and began apprenticeships for plumber and electrician, respectively.  I expect each student to be very successful in those careers.  Three students lost their college funding standing after earning poor grades, so they are attending community college in an effort to get their GPA’s up.  Others have had some brief interruptions in school, but we still fully expect most students to have their degree within six years.

I cannot understate the personal, emotional, and logistical challenges many of these students have faced.  Three of our students were homeless for part of their senior year.  One student became withdrawn from half of his classes in a mistake by a college professor.  The financial aid office withdrew the student’s aid, resulting in a huge bill.  The financial aid office wouldn’t even talk to him anymore since he wasn’t a full-time student.  When he tried to talk to the registrar about his courses, they wouldn’t talk to him either because he had a large bill to pay.  The situation was never satisfactorily resolved.

RISE’s second College Prep cohort, high school graduates of the class of 2015, was probably Anacostia’s most proficient group of students in the four years RISE worked at Anacostia High School.  We are especially proud of our students who have intrepidly made unusual choices for colleges, like the University of Arizona and Stevenson College outside Baltimore.   

Our third cohort, graduating soon in June, has more modest academic accomplishments but is as perseverant as any group we have worked with.  As I mentioned in the last newsletter, violence is common in these students’ lives, and they are eager to get out of Southeast Washington.

Many of our fourth cohort of Anacostia students have higher GPA’s and SAT’s than any previous group, and they are looking at schools previous cohorts did not consider, like Guilford College and CampbellUniversity, both in North Carolina.  Both colleges have excellent demographic diversity and could very well offer substantial financial aid to any of our students with GPA’s of 3.5 or higher.

How we design the College Prep program for the class of 2018 will depend on outside funding.  We do not want to be in the position of championing college for any students for whom the financial obstacles are too numerous.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Washing Away the Blood

As thoughts of domestic terrorism and police violence intrude on those in “safer” communities, we always need to be reminded that the specter of violence has always lurked in the communities RISE has served since 2003.  Five students in our programs have lost their lives to gun violence; I mention three of them in posts here, here, and here.  

For several years I have been mentoring two seniors at Anacostia High who are victims.  One student first lost his father, then his stepfather, to gunshots.  The other young man recently witnessed a murder outside his apartment building the night before I was to pick him up for pizza--a murder, incidentally, that was not reported in the local news.  When I arrived at the apartment complex at noon the next day, I was blocked by fire trucks which were washing away the blood of the victim who had lain on the ground for hours.

Amazingly, and no doubt thanks to supporters of RISE, these young men have positive outlooks and are headed for college.  They could not be more different.  One has a reading disability but has been lifted up by the WordSTARS program, and the other is a young man with incredible gifts: A MATHlete in our CollegePrep program, he is captain of his basketball team and will be choosing from top ten historically black colleges. Would our second young man be on the road to success without RISE?  I’m not sure.  On Christmas Day he called us “lifesavers” in a text message to me.

Our country may becoming more fearful and less optimistic, but supporters of RISE should take solace that RISE’s work results in more and more young people confident in their futures and with better outcomes after high school.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fourteen is Greater than One

It’s data time, to let you know how your money was spent last year and what RISE accomplished.  My favorite data point is the fact that after only the spring semester of tutoring at Maya Angelou’s Young Adult Learning Center, fourteen of Maya’s students passed the new GED, compared to a total of one in the entire calendar year of 2014.

Individuals donated a total of $145,000, and foundations $90,000.  Here is what you got for your $235,000:

2014-15 was our fifth year working with Anacostia High School students, and our first year at Maya and at Ballou Senior High SchoolAt those three schools, RISE monitored 105 students as part of our Keep Up/Village Watch programs and stepped in to intensively tutor 51.  Of those 51, only 3 failed to improve in either their grades or test scores.
Our four-year College Prep program (last two years of high school, first two years of college) serves an additional 35 students from Anacostia.  Of the 22 high school graduates, 19 students are still on track to graduate from a four-year college.  These colleges include North Carolina A&T University, Temple University, Johnson and Wales University (R.I.), and Norfolk State University.

Our Attendance Task Force monitored the attendance of fourteen Anacostia High School students with attendance challenges and made dozens of house calls for these students.  Of the fourteen, ten were successful in improving their attendance and engagement in school, earning positive gains in their grades. 

We worked with over thirty MATHletes at Anacostia and Cesar Chavez.  Twelve of these students passed a summer algebra II class, qualifying them for pre-calculus.  The other students met monthly for contests, problem solving, mentoring, and had their school performance monitored by RISE staff.  Many of these students ascended /will ascend to RISE’s College Prep program.

We worked with five WordSTARS from Anacostia and one recent transfer from Anacostia on a regular basis.  Five of the six students raised their reading level by at least 1.5 grade levels.

As part of our Graduate Services program, we reached out to 252 alumni to judge their career outlook, especially for those not on a career or four-year college track.  Forty-one RISE alumni changed their outlook from "negative" (i.e. no four-year college prospects, no livable wage job track), to "positive" (i.e. job prospects, job training, education) as a result of RISE’s efforts to re-engage graduates.

Why Aren't More Kids Finishing College?

As I wrote a couple of years ago, our students have a lot of obstacles to succeed in college.  When we first conceived of the College Prep program, we at first thought the primary need was helping our students make more educated decisions about where to attend college.  Some of our students "under apply" to colleges we think of as overly easy.  On the other hand it has been well documented that many of our low-income students arrive at a campus and are in shell shock from day one.  They start to doubt themselves; do they really belong there?

RISE's annual college trip allows students to see as wide a spectrum of colleges as possible:  HBCU's (historically black colleges and universities) and PWI's (predominantly white institutions), private and public, single-sex and co-ed, urban and rural, small and large.  Many of our students at first are reluctant to consider HBCU's given the negativity of African-American life they see around them.  But so many HBCU's impress us every time we visit:  Morehouse, Spelman, North Carolina A&T, just to name a few.  Most of our students end up attending an HBCU, if for nothing else than to lessen the culture shock that is freshman year.

RISE also helps our students with some incidental costs with enrollment and getting started.  Many of our students have no relative or close friend with a car to take them to college, and the $100 or so it costs to reserve housing can also be a huge obstacle.  Sometimes there is an emergency need like an expensive book.  Often low-income students will be shut out of classes because they owe a small bill, but with RISE they are a phone call away from a lifeline.

Finally, someone on RISE's staff will visit each of our College Prep students once each semester for the first two years of college, making the RISE College Prep program a unique four-year program.  Sometimes the visit can serve just to boost the spirits, but often the RISE staffer can meet with a counselor or professor with the student and help work out issues.

Having said all that, not everyone has a smooth freshman year.  Many schools admit students for a January start, knowing full well that full beds will become empty ones after only one semester.  One of our students in the class of 2014 came home last October and did not want to go back.  (The lesson there was:  Never let them come home during the first semester; they will only get more homesick!)

Many of our students endure incredible trauma during their childhood, and as many psychologists have reported, that type of stress can not be easily undone.  Such students will have less confidence and more negative reaction to any adversity.  Imagine being abused by a family member for years and then getting your first D as a freshman.  I guess all that negative stuff was true, thinks the student.

The first RISE College Prep cohort, the graduating class of 2014, was a collection of particularly fragile students, particularly the males.  Only one of the males has a father that has not been murdered or incarcerated.  Three of the young men are now financially independent at age 19, that is totally on their own for housing, food, etc.

The second cohort just entered college this past August, and so far the reports are all positive, although we all know that can change.  RISE's goal is realistic:  a 75% completion rate for all the cohorts within six years, a rate that would far surpass the national average and also dwarf the rate of low-income African Americans, which hovers at about 10% nationally.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Am I Gandhi?

One of my students recently likened me to a combination of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi.  The student’s remark keeps coming back at me when I hear stories of our underserved mistrusting the ones in power, or the ones in power hurting the ones they are supposed to be serving. 

Our students don’t see a lot of positive events happening in their world, so if someone like Paul Penniman or any of our outstanding tutors or mentors decides to help them, our students sometimes feel they have died and gone to Heaven.  One of our challenges at RISE is to communicate what life is like for our students, even the more proficient, compliant students who have realistic aspirations to a four-year college.  Many of our students who are accepted to college have no one to take them to an all-day summer orientation, to deliver them to college in the fall, or visit during Family Weekend.  They cannot pay their small deposit to reserve a spot in their freshman class.  Their phone service is always tenuous, with someone different (maybe) paying the bill each month, so when they get to college and see IPhones everywhere, they feel out of place.

Our students who stay at home and look for jobs do so with great pessimism.  There isn’t much legal commerce in their neighborhoods, and the idea of their procuring the least interesting, lowest paying job, which they would love, seems remote.  Sometimes we need to drag them to the other side of the river to show them how good the economy is and show them that they, too, can get work.

Forty of our alumni received this type of career intervention during the past school year.  These were mostly alumni whom we had helped get to the high school finish line but are unlikely to make it to the four-year college finish line and had little notion of themselves as employable in a livable wage career.

Our students need to realize they are as able and as entitled as their brethren on the other side of the river, and it shouldn’t be so unusual for a Paul Penniman or other RISE staff to land in their lives to show them the truth.  RISE's supporters each year makes our presence in Ward 8 not seem so strange.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Three Months for One Point

The new GED, or Graduation Equivalency Degree, is befuddling scholars and school administrators across the country, as thousands of mostly young people hope for a second chance to acquire that elusive high school credential.

Before January, 2014, completing one's GED did not improve one's long term prospects for success.  In a study by James Heckman at the University of Chicago, high school dropouts and GED recipients fared about the same in terms of long-terms earnings and success.

Now, however, the GED is much harder to pass.  Students need to use higher order thinking skills which may have rarely or never been asked of them in the past.  GED pass rates as a result have plummeted.

RICH's tutors are working hard to improve on the pass rate as one of our partner schools, the Maya Angelou Young Adult Learning Center (YALC).  The YALC caters to students who might be taking an indirect path toward a high school diploma or who just need skill-building to qualify for a job training program.   RICH is extremely lucky to work with the YALC's talented, hard-working faculty, and we are lucky to have such equally skilled tutors to supplement the great work of the Maya staff.

RICH is working with many dedicated students, but in a number of ways, J stands out.  To pass the GED, you need to pass each of the four subtests:  social studies, reading and language arts, science, and math.  J has passed three of the subtests but is one point short on the fourth.  After recently taking this test, J must now wait three months before he takes it again.

Our students tend to be underserved and neglected by society.  Schools do not provide advanced classes or adequate facilities.  Housing is often substandard.  Children can be left with no sense of belonging or identity.  Not guided properly, our young people might make mistakes that they make up for years ago.  In J's case, we don't know why he is attempting his GED at his age, but RICH will continue to be with him every step of the way until he is on the path he is seeking.