Leonardo Garcia graduated from the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science last year and headed about 350 miles north to attend SUNY Canton. He soon despaired that it was too far away and too expensive, so he decided to transfer. To guide him through, he turned to an unusual place for help—his old high school in the Bronx.
“They always welcome me with open arms,” said Garcia, referring to Urban Assembly’s staff. “People in Canton, they don’t really help out. They just tell you what to do.”
Garcia and Urban Assembly actually began discussing his thoughts on Canton while he was still a senior. He was unsure about whether or not he wanted to enroll, but his high school advised him to try it for at least a semester or a year. Now, the school is focused on helping him choose a new college that will be a better fit.
It may be an odd goal for a high school staff, but Urban Assembly’s teachers and administrators tend to believe their job isn’t finished on graduation day. The slogan used to be “Stay in School.” It’s now become, “And Stay in College, Too.”
The idea of helping their graduates navigate the world of college came from Assistant Principal Andrea Pompey last year, when Urban Assembly, which opened in 2004 and is located in the South Bronx, was preparing to graduate its first class of 72 seniors. She thought it would be an effective way for the school to continue supporting the same group of students who helped start it.
According to Pompey, staff members at Urban Assembly try to reach out to their college bound alumni at least once a month to ensure that they’re successfully adjusting and on track to graduate.
“We initiate it if we don’t hear from them,” she said. “We keep emailing them, or maybe we’ll ask one of their friends who we know they’re in contact with, ‘What’s going on with this student?’ so they know that they can’t slip through the cracks.”
Out of Urban Assembly’s 72 graduates, 63 earned Regents diplomas, and 50 enrolled in four-year colleges that included Cornell and Boston University. The teachers are pretty confident that their graduates are prepared academically. Now, the school just wants to make sure they stay in college.
The problems with keeping students in college can start well before most students actually enroll. According to the New York City Department of Education’s 2010-2011 high school progress report, approximately 83 percent of New York City public high school students attend schools where less than half graduate ready for college.
Although more kids are enrolling in universities–up from 51 percent in 1965 to almost 70 percent in 2005, according to the nonprofit group Complete College America—large percentages of them are not getting diplomas. According to the U.S. Department of Education, just 60 percent of white full time four-year students, 49 percent of Hispanics, and 42 percent of African-Americans earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Cynthia Weissblum, President and CEO of the Edwin Gould Foundation, which works to increase the number of low-income college graduates, said that these numbers are especially problematic at a time when a college degree is becoming increasingly essential for employment.
Some charter networks are getting the message. Knowledge Is Power Program, a charter network with 99 schools nationwide, changed its original “to college program” into a “to and through college program,” said KIPP Public Relations Director Stephen Mancini. The KIPP schools now provide college counselors for their students to help them with financial aid, internship placement, and general support as they attempt to earn their college degrees.
“We see our commitment continuing past eighth grade all the way through college,” said Mancini. “For us, we’re focused on that college diploma.”
William Goodloe, President and CEO of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a college preparatory program for New York City students, said his organization underwent a similar realization about five years ago. At the time, most of its students were going to college, but they were not all staying there. Although the program did not have a thorough system in place for keeping track of its alumni at the time, Goodloe estimates that, based on anecdotes he and other staff members were hearing, only about 50 percent of its students were graduating.
“We just realized that we were just preparing them for admission as opposed to success and graduation,” said Goodloe.
Sponsors for Educational Opportunity thus began drastically intensifying the academics and started a summer academy. And for the past two years, the program’s college graduation rates have climbed to 85 percent.
So far, none of the students from Applied Math and Science have been in college long enough to graduate. However, by staying in touch with them on a regular basis—and by keeping track of when and how they last made contact with each alumnus—staff members hope to eventually point to their college graduation rates as another point of pride for the school.
According to Pompey, students generally come back to Applied Math and Science not just with questions about their academics but also with questions about administrative topics, such as financial aid and paperwork.
“Most of them are first-generation college students,” said A.M.S. College Office Coordinator Christina Ramirez. This is new for them and for their families.
Regardless of what specific issue the conversations are about, a simple message underlies them all: don’t give up.
“College is going to be hard, and it’s something that you need to push through,” said Pompey. Whenever students come back with complaints, she views it as the school’s job to remind them how hard they worked to get into college and how important it is now for them to finish.
Pompey acknowledged that she has heard some occasional gripes from students about how often the school contacts them, but she does not take them too seriously.
“Sometimes they tease us,” she said, laughing. “But the same students who are calling us a ‘stalker’ knock on my door and say, ‘Can you help me with my financial aid form?’”
“Some people complain, like, ‘Oh my gosh, why don’t they leave me alone?’” said Lordlyn Osei-Ofori, who graduated last year and currently attends Lehman College. “But I guess they care. That’s why they do that. Whatever you need help with, they are always there.”
Ramirez is the staff member who reaches out to the school’s alumni most often, mainly through emails, phone calls, and Facebook. Although she makes it clear to the students that their old school is there to help, she generally tries to answer their questions by guiding them toward the resources they have at their colleges. Her goal is to strike a balance between letting alumni know that they still have the support of Applied Math and Science while also making sure they’re starting to take on a greater level of personal responsibility.
“You can’t always be holding their hand,” she said. “I had some students actually calling me about financial aid. ‘What do I do Miss Ramirez?’ And I would always tell them that, you know, at your school you have the financial aid office or the admissions office. There’s somebody there that is trained to help you.”
“We don’t want to infantilize,” echoed Ken Baum, the school’s principal. “We don’t want to make kids dependent on us for decisions. We want to support.”
Pompey said the school will have to think about how it’s going to maintain these efforts once it has more than one class to keep in touch with, but she remains devoted to keeping the system in place regardless of how many students it involves.
“We’ll have to figure out how we’re going to manage it,” she said, “but we really don’t want to lose touch with them.”
Ramirez expects to deal with the expanding number of alumni by delegating some of the school’s efforts to them. Instead of having former students rely on the staff at Applied Math and Science as their main source of support, she believes they will be able to rely on each other, especially if they enroll at the same colleges.
“If we have groups of maybe five to even 10 student alumni…that actually attend the same university or college,” she said, “I could have a group leader or team leader and just check in with that one person.”
The school has already started using its first class of alumni as resources for its current students. Some have come back to talk about their experiences in college; some have offered up their dorm rooms for overnight visits; and some have helped fill out college applications. Staff members may spend plenty of time telling their students about the importance of going to college and telling their graduates about the importance of staying in college, but something about students hearing this from each other makes it seem much more practical and real.
“Teachers, they don’t know that times are different,” said Garcia. “I feel like the new generation needs to go back and tell the students…‘Oh, my teacher never told me about this,’ or, ‘They never talked about this.’”
Still, Garcia remains appreciative of the efforts his old school has made both to prepare him for college and to stay in touch with him after graduation, even if his teachers didn’t manage to tell him everything. He does not think he would be driven enough to transfer without the help of his old school.
“I feel like I would have just stuck it out in Canton and just not been really happy there,” he said. “The support that A.M.S. gives me keeps me on track and keeps me motivated.”