College-bound

How one Memphis charter school’s ACT scores jumped 2.6 points in one year

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A graduating senior speaks during an Academic Signing Day ceremony for Freedom Preparatory Academy, a Memphis charter school whose entire first graduating class is headed to college. Banners were on display to represent the schools they'll attend.

When Roblin Webb launched Freedom Preparatory Academy in 2009 with a class of sixth-graders, she made a promise to their parents: College would be a reality for their children.

Now, as those students and others make up the Memphis charter network’s first graduating class, all 50 are heading to college.

Helping the students get there was a remarkable 2.6-point boost in the group’s average ACT composite score — from 16.7 to 19.3 in one year. That’s considered below college-ready, but the score is higher than average for Shelby County Schools and other high schools in the low-income neighborhood served by Freedom Prep.

“Our results tell us that although we still have work to do to ensure our students are highly competitive nationwide, our success locally and statewide lets us know that we are on the right track,” said Webb, a former lawyer and a graduate of Rhodes College. “We expect this success to continue next year and beyond!”

Chief Academic Officer Lars Nelson traces the boost to integration of ACT prep last fall into classes for English and math; three required practice tests throughout the year; and adding a third counselor for the school of 315 students.

The school’s small size helped, too. Most Memphis schools have more seniors and fewer counselors.

But Nelson also emphasizes the foundational learning that happened in the charter network’s elementary and middle schools, as well as an emphasis on teacher development and being an early adopter of the Common Core academic standards, which began in Tennessee in 2012.

“The way to truly prepare students is to see them through 12th grade,” Nelson said. “It’s not just one year of phenomenal teaching. It’s year after year, and then kids are ready for college.”

Like other Memphis schools, Freedom Prep has to manage a high student mobility rate. Freedom Prep had 96 students in its first sixth-grade class, 70 by 11th grade and 50 in their senior year. A spokeswoman said the network does not recruit students to its senior class.

The four schools in the Memphis-based network are considered some of the most successful in the city. Among charter schools overseen by Shelby County Schools, Freedom Prep is the top performer in English and Algebra I and the second highest in biology, according to the district’s latest charter report.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Elijah Tyler speaks at the school’s academic signing day.

But it’s Freedom Prep’s culture that attracted students like Elijah Tyler, a senior who has attended since sixth grade and earned a 27 on his ACT.

“You know for a fact if you need something, you can go to a teacher; not just academics but social issues,” said Elijah, who got a full scholarship to Rhodes College. “Everyone knows coming into Freedom Prep that the goal is to get into college and get that 4-year degree.”

The high school culture is grounded in a three-week teacher orientation every summer. During the school year, it’s not unusual for Principal Kristle Hodges-Johnson to pop in a classroom up to 10 times a week to give teachers quick pointers that “help them hone their craft at a greater rate,” Nelson said.

Vivek Ramakrishnan, a first-year high school teacher, said the overlap between ACT math and Bridge Math curriculum made integrating ACT prep a natural fit.

“Our leadership recognized how integral writing is to college academic success and prioritized writing in all content areas. Our history and (language arts) teams have pushed kids to writing college-length research papers,” he said. “…We also shifted towards making students interpret and justify their mathematical solutions in writing.”

Though Common Core isn’t perfectly aligned with the ACT, findings from the test company’s national survey helped inform its development in 2009. So, Freedom Prep leaders set out to adapt their classroom instruction early and provided time in the school day for students to prepare, especially since many don’t have access to the internet at home.

“This is a really hard shift for adults to make; it’s hard for students too,” Nelson said of Common Core, which is the basis for the state’s newly revised academic standards that will reach Tennessee classroom this fall.

The charter network focused on bite-size changes over time to help teachers teach differently and ask students more evidence-based questions. When it got hard, teachers reminded students that perseverance is key to the ultimate educational goal: graduating from college.

“We don’t try to insulate kids from that frustration and that’s an important lesson to have,” Nelson said. “We connect the transition with what they came here to do… (which) matters so much more than a standard.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include information about student mobility.

path to college

Nearly 60 percent of New York City students are heading to college, new data shows

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Nearly 60 percent of New York City students continued their education after high school last year, maintaining an upward trend, according to statistics released Wednesday by the city’s education department.

Among city students who entered high school in 2012, 57 percent went on to enroll in college, vocational programs, or “public-service programs” such as the military, officials said – a two percentage-point uptick from the previous year. City officials also noted that more students are prepared for college than in prior years, though more than half of New York City students are still not considered “college ready.”

“More of our public school graduates are going to college than ever before,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “That is great news for our graduates and their families, and for the future of our city.”

The statistics are welcome news de Blasio, who has made college access a priority by providing funds and coaching to 274 high schools to help students plan for college, which can include college trips or SAT preparation. The city also eliminated the application fee for low-income students applying to the City College of New York and started offering the SAT for free during the school day.

New York City’s statistics also compare favorably to the national average. Among city students who graduated high school in 2016 (a smaller number than all those who entered high school four years earlier), 77 percent enrolled in a postsecondary path. Nationally, about 70 percent of students who recently graduated from high school enroll in college, as of 2015. It is slightly lower than the percentage of students statewide who finished high school and pursue postsecondary plans.

Still, while the city appears to be helping more students enroll in college, students still encounter problems once they arrive. Slightly above half of first-time, full-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in New York City’s public college system graduate in six years.

That is likely, in part, because not all students are prepared for college-level work.

Only 46 percent of New York City students met CUNY’s benchmark’s for college-readiness last year (students who don’t hit that mark must take remedial classes). The figure is higher than in previous years because CUNY eased its readiness standards, dropping a requirement that students take advanced math in high school. But even without those changes, the city estimates that college-readiness would have increased by four percentage points this year.

The gap between college enrollment and readiness is not unique to New York City

 Over the past forty years, the country has seen a spike in college enrollment — but that has not always translated into diplomas, particularly for students of color. Among students who entered college in 2007, only 59 percent graduated college in six years, with black and Hispanic students lagging far behind their white and Asian peers, according to a 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

exclusive

For almost half of Memphis graduates, formal education ends after high school

Just over half of 2016 graduates from Shelby County Schools went on to some sort of college training, according to a new report spotlighting whether Memphis students are preparing for the work of the future.

In all, 56 percent of the district’s 6,905 graduates enrolled in post-secondary education, compared to 63 percent statewide. And the percentage of students going on to community college — a big push under the state’s free tuition initiative known as Tennessee Promise — was 9 percentage points lower than the state’s average.

Here’s the breakdown for Shelby County Schools:

  • 38 percent went on to a four-year college or university (compared to 35 percent statewide);
  • 16 percent went to community college (statewide was 25 percent);
  • 1 percent went to a technical college (statewide was 3 percent)

The data was shared by the Tennessee Department of Education in its first-ever district-level reports on where students are going after graduating from high school. The reports were distributed recently as part of the state’s Drive to 55 initiative to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025. Currently, that number stands at 40 percent.

Scroll to the bottom for the full reports acquired by Chalkbeat for Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

“This was actually pretty revolutionary – it was not something that districts necessarily ever knew, or at least not in any comprehensive, data-driven way,” said spokeswoman Chandler Hopper of the department’s new reports.

“We think this data can help districts and the state learn more about how to better support students on their journey to post-secondary, particularly in targeting support for key groups of students, and how to better partner with higher education institutions so that ultimately students are successful.”

The information is a welcome resource for Terrence Brown, a former principal who recently became director of career and technical education for Shelby County Schools. Brown called the data “surprising,” especially that only 1 percent of 2016 graduates went on to technical college.

In his new role, Brown is helping to develop the district’s new academic plan with a focus on career readiness.

“We track (students) until the day (they) graduate, and after that it becomes a matter of state tracking,” Brown said. “So, this data is helpful. … We need to make sure students first of all have a good plan and vision for where their best skill set lies and start to put in pipelines early for them. We can use (the data) to backmap and inform how we do this.”

The percentages for post-secondary enrollment were lower for the Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools. In all, just over 40 percent of 2016 ASD grads went on to college training, up from 31 percent in 2015. (The report for the state-run district is based on data from only two of its four Memphis high schools, since the Pathways alternative schools did not have enough students to graduate, according to state officials.)

For the 227 graduates of Fairley and Martin Luther King Preparatory high schools:

  • 29 percent went to a four-year college or university;
  • 11 percent went to community college;
  • 1 percent went to technical college

“(The report is the) first time we’re seeing a comprehensive and contextualized set of results about post-secondary opportunities in Memphis,” said Sean Thibault, a spokesman for Green Dot Public Schools, which operates Fairley as a charter school.

Most of Fairley’s students are considered economically disadvantaged, and Thibault noted that the school outpaced the state average for students in that category. “We are proud of the rate at which our graduates are heading to four-year universities,” he said.

PHOTO: Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal
Gov. Bill Haslam visits Southwest Tennessee Community College in 2015. According to a new state report, 16 percent of recent graduates of Shelby County Schools went on to community college.

For both Shelby County Schools and the ASD, the most popular in-state option was Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis. The reports also break down the districts’ graduates by individual high school, ACT score, subgroup and opportunities for early credit, such as Advanced Placement courses or dual enrollment.

The district-level reports come on the heels of this year’s statewide report on bridging the gap between high school and college. It was based on months of interviews with high school students who said they aren’t receiving adequate resources or guidance to set them on a path to college or career.

That report recommended more support for high school guidance counselors, as well as ensuring that more schools have college credit-bearing courses like dual enrollment or advanced placement classes, or have vocational programs that fit with industry needs.

District-level reports are below: