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.”

capital crunch

As New York City’s public housing crumbles, pre-K centers go without crucial repairs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Yvette Ho, right, taps out a request to NYCHA to fix a leaky roof at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center. Meanwhile, a student shows her art project to Mary Cheng, who oversees early childhood programs for the Chinese-American Planning Council, a nonprofit that runs the daycare.

The tables where children would normally play had been dragged to create a makeshift barrier, blocking the 3- and 4-year olds from their favorite centers and from a growing puddle on the floor.

The ceiling at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center in the East Village was leaking again.

Center director Yvette Ho rushed to the classroom to survey the damage. On her phone, she tapped out a repair request to the landlord — NYCHA, New York City’s public housing authority.

“This is the perennial leak,” she said. “Just when you think it’s fixed, it comes back again.”

Decades of divestment, neglect, and mismanagement have left NYCHA buildings crumbling, forcing the city to give up some of its control of the housing authority to a federal overseer in an agreement struck last month. The plight of residents has been well documented in media reports and a scathing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which uncovered out-of-service elevators, faulty heaters, and health hazards like rodent infestations, mold, and lead paint.

But few realize that nestled within those buildings are about 100 child care centers that serve infants and toddlers even while critically needed repairs stack up. Mostly run by nonprofits that rent space from NYCHA, those programs offer a lifeline for families, often earning high marks from the city’s reviewers while also providing subsidized or free care for almost 5,000 children.

The programs face citations for facilities issues more often than programs in buildings leased from private landlords, a survey by the Day Care Council of New York found recently. Though it’s not always clear who is responsible for making repairs, operators can face burdensome fines.

Providers “have to dig into their own pockets,” said Mai Miksic, a research analyst for the Day Care Council. “They’re paying fines for problems that aren’t theirs.”

Groups representing nonprofit providers operating out of NYCHA community centers have begun to join together to advocate for changes, and they say officials have shown interest in taking action. They also say they know that their needs represent only a sliver of the pressing facilities problems facing the country’s largest public housing agency and its residents. Remediation of lead paint in agency apartments where children live is behind schedule, and the city estimates that NYCHA needs a total of more than $30 billion in repairs and upgrades.

Day care centers alone require $130 million in fixes, according to NYCHA. That figure likely does not include problems that affect the entire buildings where the centers are located, such as boilers that need replacing.

The Jacob Riis houses, which were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, needs almost $94 million in renovations over the next five years, including heating upgrades and drainage work, according to city figures.

The Chinese-American Planning Council, a 54-year-old social services organization that runs daycares and community programs in Lower Manhattan and Queens, has cared for small children in the complex for decades. It currently uses three classrooms in the basement of one of the towers, including one — the one with the persistent leak — that is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s heralded Pre-K for All program.

Staff and children at the center have a front-row seat to the building’s problems. A steam pipe in the main hallway frequently bursts. With every explosion, waterlogged ceiling tiles come crashing down and the center’s only bathroom for children becomes off-limits due to dripping, scalding-hot water. NYCHA has encased the temperamental pipe in a makeshift closet.

At times, the facility’s troubles have seemed too disruptive for the Chinese-American Planning Council to justify keeping its center in the building. All the garbage for the tower piles into a compactor room in the middle of the center. The only way to empty it, twice a day, is to haul the trash past classrooms and out an open door.

But Mary Cheng, the director of childhood services for the planning council, said they’ve resolved to stay because closing isn’t a good option, either — not for kids of such a young age, who thrive on stability, and not for parents who rely on the center’s longer hours so they can work to support their families.

We had to think: Are we being a service to the community or a disservice?” Cheng asked. “You’re faced with the issue of constant facility issues.”

Operators say they stay because NYCHA centers are usually where their services can have the most impact, and because the more affordable rent allows them to stretch their dollars even further.

“These buildings were built with community spaces for a reason. Neighborhoods need places for people to gather,” said Melissa Aase, the executive director of University Settlement, a nonprofit that runs programs for seniors and after-school care in NYCHA buildings. “If we’re crumbling, it sends a really powerful message to the residents about their worth.”

NYCHA says it takes just over 10 days for the authority to respond to repair requests in community centers — a much shorter turnaround of more than a month across the system. Still, it’s a long window that advocates say has sometimes forced programs to shut their doors or even have their licenses yanked.

The nonprofit Union Settlement runs five early childhood centers in NYCHA buildings across East Harlem. Sometimes, they’ve had to turn parents away who come to drop off their children in the morning because the classrooms are unbearably cold in the winter. The group is usually able to make space at another facility when an emergency forces one to close, but the sudden change can pose a “huge hardship” for families who need to get to work on time, said David Nocenti, the executive director.

“The same problems that the residents have, the nonprofits have as we’re trying to serve those residents,” Nocenti said. “Just like boilers go out in residential buildings and there’s no heat, the same boiler generally affects the community centers as well.”

Facilities breakdowns can leave operators vulnerable to fines from the city health department, which can reach thousands of dollars. Most programs operating in NYCHA centers are subsidized by city, state, and federal funds, but typically public money can’t be used to cover the citations. At Jacob Riis, the staff has resorted to “simple fundraisers” like bake sales to pay the fines, Cheng said. 

Centers take more than just a budgetary hit, as resolving the citations usually requires managers or other high-ranking officials spending hours at a city hearing.

“It’s also a loss of the staff and a loss of the expertise at that time as well,” Nocenti said. “If the department of health comes and you have no heat, you get fined for no heat, even though we don’t control the boiler and can’t make repairs to the boiler.”

Aase said her organization has sometimes dug into its own budget to make repairs to keep its after-school and senior programs open. One University Settlement center has paid deep cleanings after 17 sewage floods in the course 12 months, she said, while another center with a rodent infestation has closed 10 times over the span of a year and required spending on extermination services.

A record of citations could pose problems for operators vying for city contracts, so it’s better to pay for fixes than risk your reputation, Aase said.

“When you have violations, it shows up as you’re being vetted,” she said. “We spend our own money because we know either that NYCHA doesn’t have the funds or doesn’t have the personnel to address the issue quickly enough, and community members want to come back.”

Calling themselves the NYCHA Community Space Coalition, service providers that run more than 200 programs within public housing facilities have drawn up an action plan for addressing what they say is an emergency situation. They are calling for state money to help pay for repairs, and reimbursement from the city when operators tap their own budgets for fixes. They are also asking for agreements that plainly spell out NYCHA’s responsibilities and a clear delineation of who is responsible for which fines.

There have been encouraging signs, said J.T. Falcone, a policy analyst with United Neighborhood Houses, one of the organizations behind the coalition. NYCHA is meeting weekly with other city agencies to help speed up repairs, and Falcone said the authority has designated specific people to oversee work on pressing issues.

Locally, there have been small changes that can make a notable difference in the day-to-day operation of a center. At Jacob Riis, the trash is now taken out once before students arrive in the morning, and a lock has been placed on the door to the compactor room which had previously been left open and posed a potential risk to children.

While providers have found willing partners, a NYCHA official suggested there’s only so much that can be done when faced with such deep needs across the housing authority.

“These centers are valuable assets to our communities that deserve to be preserved. But given NYCHA’s dire financial position and more than $30 billion in capital needs, it is difficult to accommodate both the repairs needed to secure our residents’ homes as well as the fixes for our centers,” a NYCHA spokesman wrote in an email. “We continue to work with our partners to clearly lay out roles and responsibilities for each party to determine the best strategy for financing existing repair needs within the context of NYCHA’s larger capital needs.”

These thorny problems will soon fall also to the city’s education department to help resolve.

Currently, contracts for publicly subsidized child-care centers are overseen by the Administration for Children’s Services. But that oversight is set to shift to the education department beginning this summer, part of a high-stakes effort to streamline services for the city’s children from birth through high school. Already, the education department has joined NYCHA’s regular meetings with other city agencies.

We’ll continue to work closely with our providers in NYCHA facilities and support them through this transition,” education department spokeswoman Isabelle Boundy wrote in an email.

For now, parents are left to keep their fingers crossed as they make use of programs that the mayor says could transform their children’s lives — and the city’s future.

Dexter Fauntleroy drops off his son at Jacob Riis most mornings. Three-year-old Kenai has gone to daycare there for most of his short life. Fauntleroy and his wife have kept their youngest son enrolled at the center, just down the street from their apartment in the Lillian Wald houses, because they’re impressed with how much Kenai has learned and the dedication they see from the staff.

Of course, Fauntleroy has noticed the persistent leaks and patch-job repairs. The thought that the roof could come crashing down on students someday has crossed his mind.

“Does that have to happen before it’s taken seriously?” he asked. “There has to be some accountability.”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In her State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.