Early College

‘Doors open because of this’: How one Newark high school is closing the college degree gap

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Hannah Olaniyi (center) and Gabriel De Oliveira take a college-level biology class at East Side High School.

After the final bell rang at Newark’s East Side High School on a recent afternoon and students surged toward the exits, Hannah Olaniyi hustled to her next class.

By 3 p.m., she was copying down the distinctions between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells among 13 other seniors who had elected to take a college-level biology course after their normal school day.

Before long, she would have to rush in an Uber to her evening job selling sneakers at KicksUSA, then return home to cook dinner for her siblings and finish her homework. But for the next hour, her only concern was taking notes so she could pass the course to earn the credits that would lead to a college degree.

“It’s not that I want, I need to get a degree,” explained Olaniyi, who said her commitment to education came from her mother, a Nigerian immigrant who died of cancer last year. “Failure is not an option.”

Olaniyi is not alone in her quest for a college degree. On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students enroll in college right after high school, a rate that has grown over time, according to a new report. Yet only 23 percent of Newark high school graduates earn a degree within six years of leaving high school, the report found, leaving them ill-equipped for an economy where decent-paying jobs are increasingly reserved for college graduates.

The early-college program that Olaniyi is part of at East Side, like those at a handful of other Newark schools, is an effort to close the degree gap by allowing students to earn college credits even before they have high-school diplomas. Through a partnership with Essex County College, a Newark-based community college, East Side students who qualify by passing a required exam can earn up to 64 college credits and an associate’s degree by graduation — a benefit offered by only 7 percent of programs like this in the U.S., according to federal data. And, unlike many programs, the cost of transportation, books, and tuition is free to students.

Such partnerships, often called dual-enrollment or dual-credit programs, have gained popularity across the country as a way to increase students’ odds of completing college by exposing them early on to college-level work and expectations and reducing the time — and cost — of earning a degree. Not only are dual-enrollment programs more prevalent in high schools than college-level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, according to federal data, but they also have been found to serve a broader range of students than AP courses, which are more narrowly targeted to the highest-achieving students.

Some skeptics question whether college-level classes taught in high schools like East Side match the rigor of traditional college courses and have raised concerns that some colleges may not accept credits earned through dual-enrollment programs. But because New Jersey’s public universities must accept community-college credits, East Side officials say their early-college graduates, most of whom attend state schools, have saved thousands of dollars through the program.

“Hard work pays off,” said Principal Michael West, repeating a mantra he tells his students. “And doors open because of this.”

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
After completing East Side’s early-college program, Erika Baque was able to earn a degree from Montclair State University in just two years. Her brother, Freddy, is now in the program.

Erika Baque, now a 22 year-old addiction counselor, found that to be true.

In 2012, she was a junior at East Side, Newark’s largest and most diverse traditional high school, when West launched the early-college program. Her parents, Ecuadorian immigrants who were adamant that their three children attend college, insisted that she apply.

At first, Erika was reluctant. Other students and even faculty members advised against it, saying AP classes were safer than a new program promising credits that colleges might reject.

“There was a lot of pushback from a lot of folks,” said West.

Still, Baque sat for the program’s entrance exam and interview and was admitted. Then the work started.

Each day, early-college participants take two roughly 80-minute liberal-arts courses in subjects such as sociology, art history, and biology. Most are taught by a qualified East Side teacher or adjunct professor at the school, which sits in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood across from Independence Park. Usually one class per semester meets at Essex County College’s downtown campus, which East Side students ride to in a yellow school bus.

Overwhelmed by the burden of college courses in addition to their high-school classes, more than half of the 30 students in Baque’s cohort quit the program. West called those who stayed “The Fearless Fourteen.”

“I wanted to drop out like 50 million times,” Baque recalled. “I would go home and kick and scream and cry.”

Instead, she completed the program and, after graduating from East Side, enrolled at Montclair State University as the equivalent of a junior. Her experience at East Side had prepared her for the demands of college, she said, allowing her to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology in just two years.

Now, she is earning a master’s degree in counseling while working at a residential addiction-treatment center in Newark. Meanwhile, her brother Erik, who completed East Side’s early-college program this spring, is studying civil engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, while her youngest brother, Freddy, is a junior at East Side who has just started the program.

Erika still remembers West telling her, “It’s going to be worth it in the end,” she said. “And it was.”

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
East Side Principal Michael West founded the early-college program.

Dual-enrollment programs are one answer to the problem of Newark students who enroll in college only to be tripped up by classwork, campus culture, or money, and drop out. Research has shown that dual-enrollment participants not only enroll in college at higher rates than non-participants, but they also tend to have smoother transitions to college, get better grades, and are more likely to graduate.

East Side requires incoming early-college students to take a “college success seminar,” which is being held at Essex County College this fall. Students learn about the financial risks and rewards of college, the basics of writing research papers, and “soft skills” like time management and teamwork.

This year, a total of 97 juniors and seniors are in the program — including, for the first time, 27 students who are still learning English, most of them Spanish-speaking immigrants from such countries as Columbia, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic. (Another 32 students are taking some college classes but not the full load.) Essex County College waives tuition fees for the early-college participants, but East Side still pays about $3,200 per student, mainly for the cost of adjunct professors, out of its $16.6 million annual budget (based on 2016-17 figures).

West’s dream is to expand the program to include all 2,035 East Side students — a model employed by Bard High School Early College, a selective magnet school in Newark where all students can earn associate’s degrees from New York’s Bard College. But East Side’s program is limited by funding, which comes out of the school’s operating budget.

“We want to scale this and offer it to everybody,” he said. “The question is: How do we pay for that?”

Help may be on the way. Mayor Ras Baraka and a coalition of colleges and corporations has set a goal of increasing the share of Newark adults with college degrees from 19 to 25 percent by 2025. Reginald Lewis, the executive director of that coalition, called the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, said one strategy will be to expand the city’s dual-enrollment programs.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Judith Zeta is a senior at East Side.

At East Side, it’s not hard to find students who would cheer that expansion. After a film studies 101 class one recent morning, three seniors explained why they believe the rewards the early-college program promises are worth the sacrifices it demands.

Gabriel De Oliveira said he had struggled in grade school. In the fourth grade alone, he recalled being suspended 10 times. But at East Side, with the encouragement of a ninth-grade English teacher, he began to take school more seriously, enrolling in an AP course, then the early-college program. Last year, he counted 60 nights when he stayed up past midnight completing coursework.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “But I feel like I’m stronger.”

Judith Zeta said the program has meant parting ways with friends when they go to hang out at a local cafe after school and doing homework on the train after her nightly 5:30-to-10 p.m. shift at a Hoboken restaurant. But she knows that when she earns her associate’s degree this spring and begins college ahead of schedule, it will ease the burden on her parents, who immigrated from Peru and work in construction and at a local hospital.

“They’ve made so many sacrifices for me and my brother,” she said. “This is the one thing I want to give back.”

And Hannah Olaniyi, the student who is helping to raise her siblings, said she decided after her mother died last year to transfer from a charter school to East Side solely for its degree program.

“That’s the whole point of me coming to this school,” she said. “If I don’t commit to this, if I don’t give it 110 percent, then I failed myself.”

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.