What about college?

Too many students leave high school unprepared for the next step

Salvador Pimentel, a
senior at Brighton High
School, says his jobs have
shown him there’s not
much to look forward to
without a college degree.

The colorful murals that ring the walls of Brighton High School’s College and Career Center (for 65 years it was the school library) seem out of sync. Not that there’s anything wrong with paintings of pharaohs, monks, cavemen, and lumberjacks — or with nearly two walls depicting the manufacture of paper and the operation of old-style lead type presses. It’s just that images of contented manual laborers conflict with the wake-up call that guidance counselors want kids to grasp: The future demands college.

Guidance director John Travers has been ordering college banners on the Internet and hanging them around the room. Bright felt flags represent the Ivy League, local schools like Boston College and Boston University, and historically black colleges like Spelman and Howard.

“We’ve been talking all year about increasing visibility among students about post-secondary options,” says Travers. A new bulletin board amplifies his point. Big letters read: WHAT’S A GPA? To help kids judge their performance, Travers color-codes student grade point averages (using ID numbers, not names) with green (3.67 and above), blue (2.67 to 3.66), yellow (1.67 to 2.66), orange (0.67 to 1.66), and red (0.66 and below).

It’s troubling enough that about half of students are orange and red. Even more worrisome to Travers is that many don’t see the relationship between grades and college admission, and how both affect their future. A girl this year with a 1.6 GPA, he says in disbelief, didn’t see why she shouldn’t visit Harvard.

“They don’t understand that kids who go to BU or BC, that 90 percent of them are near the top of their class,” he says. “Our students don’t typically have the college-educated parents. It is a huge educational issue for them to understand how all this comes together.”

Fifteen years after the Massachusetts legislature passed a sweeping school reform act that foreshadowed the federal No Child Left Behind law, a troubling gap persists between students in wealthy suburban districts and in poor urban districts — precisely what education reform sought to address. Only today, the issue is not about what drew attention in 1993 (inadequate funding, leading to crowded classrooms and a dearth of textbooks) but about the more critical and complex matter of who goes onto college and who is able to succeed there. The state’s obsessive focus on MCAS passing rates missed something: What happens to kids after they graduate?

SOCIOECONOMIC FAULT LINES

In Massachusetts, for every 10 urban students in the ninth grade, six will graduate from high school, four will enroll in college, and only two will earn a degree, according to figures presented in January at the Massachusetts College and Career Readiness Summit by Jeffrey Nellhaus, acting commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Also, a new K-16 database lets state education officials follow public high school graduates who enroll at the state’s public colleges. Data for the class of 2005, released in April, reveals that the state’s urban and suburban high schools do send a majority of their graduates on to some form of higher education, but many of those students must play catch-up, taking remedial courses that cost money and time but don’t earn them credit.

While a worrisome number of students at suburban and exurban districts have to play catch-up, the problem is more widespread in some urban districts, where well over half the students who go on to state colleges need remedial work when they get there. And that may be understating the problem, since no database tracks whether high school graduates enrolling in private or out-of-state colleges require remedial courses. Perhaps most disheartening is that large percentages of high school graduates who enroll at the state’s public colleges fail to return for a second year, making it unlikely they’ll earn a degree.

So while Massachusetts often looks good on national education indicators, Andrew Sum, professor of economics at Northeastern University and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies, says a profound disparity lurks below the surface.

“You look at the subsets and you find we are worlds apart. We have some schools I would call Third World countries in Massachusetts and others where kids feel entitled to go to a four-year college and they go and are successful,” says Sum, who is working on a report due this summer on private and public college attendance for the Boston Public School classes of 1998 through 2005. “We present a false face to the outside world.”

One problem is that not enough students take the courses that will get them skills they need to do college-level work. Plus, there’s a giant cultural gulf between rich and poor schools. For many low-income students, college is still an inchoate idea, something they hear about but don’t really get.

One student who does “get” it (albeit belatedly) is Salvador Pimentel, a ponytailed senior at Brighton High who wants to attend Northeastern and one day design car engines. He knows his 1.8 GPA — dragged down by little effort and poor grades his first two years (he now earns As and Bs) — means he’ll start in community college. He also knows from his valet parking job that without a college degree, there’s not much to look forward to.

“When you get a part-time job where you only get minimum wage, you see what the real world is like. It’s a pain,” says Pimentel, the youngest of nine. “I pay bills that are in my name and it is a headache and it is stress and you are making chump money.”

Pimentel’s experience reveals the obvious socioeconomic fault lines. He may be bright and able, but he’s had to figure out for himself that taking advantage of his free public education is critical to his future. That’s not information suburban kids miss. To the contrary, they are piling up Advanced Placement courses, dual-enrollment credits, internships, and leadership chits that are tools to get them to and through college.

If education reform sought equity and opportunity, many low-income and urban kids are being left out because the educational culture hasn’t evolved. Tonya David, a mother of five from Roxbury, saw this play out for her daughter, who graduated last June from Madison Park Vocational Technical High in Boston. “Kids are making careless choices,” she says. “There are a lot of kids who are focused, but it is hard for them to focus in city schools because they are around so many kids who just don’t care.”

This lament is not about kids like Brighton High senior Ruo Chen, who tackled AP biology, chemistry, and calculus and is headed to Harvard in the fall. Chen and kids like him will always succeed. More urgent is connecting poor city kids who are good or average students with a college-bound agenda, and with the academic and social support to see it through.

College was never the focus of education reform, acknowledges Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council. “It set out to raise academic standards and expectations, and academic achievement for a broad swath of the population. It was ambitious in its breadth,” he says. “Even so, it did not target a 50 percent reduction in the dropout rate over a discreet period of time. It did not look at the college diploma as a measure of success. Why not do those things now?”

Paul Reville, who played a key role in the passage of education reform and is about to become the state’s secretary of education, insists that preparing high school graduates for higher education without remediation was part of the original agenda.

“It was definitely part of the thinking,” says Reville. “It just wasn’t the language we were using.” Still, Reville concedes a gap between state graduation requirements and college readiness, noting that “those discrepancies have become more vivid over time.”

THE NON-COLLEGE CULTURE

Whether or not education reform addressed graduation rates and college readiness, those giant issues make the rest of the reform effort seem shortsighted or, at best, a mere prelude. And now there is a divide between public educators who feel excited about the strides they’ve made and charter school leaders who don’t get why college wasn’t more blatantly the point from the start.

“Raising the academic bar for a large part of the population is an important goal, but it’s not enough. Parents in suburban districts and wealthy parents who send their kids to private schools would never allow that to be a sufficient measure of progress,” says Evan Rudall, co-founder of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School and now chief operating office of UnCommon Schools, a nonprofit charter school management organization based in New York City.

His point is that making “adequate yearly progress” — a measure of school improvement under No Child Left Behind—matters only if kids graduate and leave prepared for higher education. That precise goal, though, remains a reach for many low-income city kids because, unlike many charter and pilot schools created around strong and defined school cultures, your average comprehensive urban high school has been allowed to drift. Some, like Brighton High, have created ways to reach students with more individualized attention, or have partnered with organizations to give students access to experiences and support they wouldn’t otherwise get. Other schools, though, look only marginally different after 15 years of reform.

Aimee Bronhard, a 1998 graduate of B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River and its newly appointed guidance head, is blunt about her alma mater: “I feel we’ve been a dormant high school for a long time.” Principal Ralph Olsen, formerly principal at Framingham High, has a strong track record in urban schools, but he’s the third principal in five years to give it a try. The school schedule has changed three times as well, leaving seniors with transcripts that are a mish-mash of credit schemes.

Marlon Thompson, a Boston College
sophomore (see in front of BC’s
Burns Library), says a lot of his friends
didn’t graduate from high school and
ended up in jail or having kids. “They
just didn’t see the path to college.”

Bronhard believes students are capable of more, but just 27 percent of last year’s graduates went on to a four-year college and another 41 percent pursued a two-year education. At Wellesley High, by contrast, 94 percent enrolled at a four-year-college. Bronhard wants to make college a focus (and, as we spoke, scribbled a Post-It reminder to hold an SAT registration drive), but she spends time every day trying to keep kids from dropping out. The most prominent visual in the guidance lobby is a royal blue felt banner with glued-on white letters urging, STAY IN SCHOOL. Could you imagine that at Wellesley High?

It’s tough to talk college when only about half of those arriving at Durfee in grade nine graduate in four years. On a late March morning, a student in a white hoodie stood before the guidance secretary and in a tone no different than asking for a hall pass, wondered, “Where do I get papers to drop out?” The girl and secretary chatted about how this is not a good idea, but the secretary ambled back to get the forms.

Part of Durfee’s challenge is geographical. Bronhard says Fall River is isolated in a poor pocket of the state. “The opportunities in Fall River are not what they are in Boston,” she says. “We have the business community support, but it’s like comparing apples and avocados. Around here you are talking about your mom-and-pop bagel shops and grocers.”

Boston’s high-powered business community offers more for schools to lean on. At Brighton High, Travers is trying to turn on the light bulb around planning for college and a future that many kids miss because of family circumstances, zip code, or simply not being able to figure how to get from where they are to where they could be. That’s why Joyce Campbell, small learning community leader at Brighton High, says business investment and involvement through the Private Industry Council (PIC) has been one of the most important outgrowths of education reform.

Rashell Wilson, senior class vice president, says her job at the Boston law firm of Burns and Levinson (arranged through the Boston PIC) makes college an obvious goal. (She will attend Salem State College this fall.) “I’m around all these people who have these fancy degrees and what I consider a better life, and I wanted what they had,” she says. “I knew settling for a regular job or something that didn’t require post-secondary education wasn’t going to cut it for me.”

In too many city schools, there is a randomness to the way kids get connected and receive mentoring and guidance that helps them see how the world works outside their enclave. Until speaking with Bronhard, Heather Reis, an 18-year-old senior, says, “I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to college.” A reluctant student who rarely does homework and took five tries to pass the 10th-grade MCAS in math, Reis works three jobs — bookkeeping for her father’s masonry business, bookkeeping for another business, and caring for an 8-year-old girl with Down Syndrome — and earns $210 a week to cover car insurance, cell phone, clothes, food, gym membership, and indulgences like the French manicure she shows off. On the cusp of graduation, she’s thinking about the future.

“I realize obviously that you do need education to get a decent job,” she says, adding that she may attend community college even though her father wants her to work for him. “After high school it’s scary because what’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to me for the rest of my life? I’m not ready.”

The question of what it means to be “ready” is a point of serious confusion. While Reis is not sure she can do the work (and doesn’t want to waste money if she’ll fail), other students are falsely confident. Education reform mandated that students pass the 10th grade MCAS in English and math to earn a diploma. But many believe, as Bronhard relates, that “I’m all set. I’ve passed MCAS.” According to a report by the Boston Higher Education Partnership, From College Access to College Success, “students operate under the false assumption that their ability to pass MCAS with minimum proficiency is a measure of college-readiness.”

READY FOR REMEDIATION

It’s one thing to enter college, but quite another to earn a degree. Nationally, concern about students dropping out during or after freshman year has driven campuses to create support programs for first-year students. The other half of the problem, though, falls back on high schools: How prepared are students for college academics?

“The MCAS never aligned with college readiness,” says Ann Coles, senior advisor for college access programs at TERI, a nonprofit providing student loans. She says MCAS tests 10th-grade skills when students must master 12th-grade skills to do college work.

Coles insists such preparation “should have been a goal at the beginning,” but she says over the past 15 years the need for post-high school degrees has become more obvious. “The state policy people weren’t there yet. They were still thinking about, ‘Some people go to college,’ and ‘Some people go to work,’” she says. “The thinking is much more now that all students need to finish high school college-ready.”

And ready to do college work without remediation. Unfortunately, the education department’s School-to-College Report shows that 37 percent of the statewide public high school class of 2005 who went on to the state’s public college system enrolled in one or more remedial or “developmental” courses for which they pay tuition but don’t earn credit.

In Boston, transcripts from 465 graduates of the classes of 2003, 2004, and 2005 attending public and private colleges were analyzed by the Boston Higher Education Partnership and revealed that 59 percent of non-exam-school graduates enrolled in remedial math their first semester. But the real zinger is that more than one-quarter failed the remedial course and 11 percent withdrew, presumably to avoid failing. The study found 37 percent of non-exam school grads took remedial English, earning an average 2.41 grade point.

Most distressing about remedial courses is what they mean to a student’s chance of earning a degree. According to a key 1999 study done by Clifford Adelman for the US Department of Education, only 45 percent of students who took two or more remedial courses earned a two- or four-year degree by age 30. The study tracking the Boston Public School graduates showed just 67 percent still enrolled at the end of two semesters of college. On average, they earned just 9.6 credits toward graduation — or about three courses worth.

Sticking it out in college when it takes years to earn enough credits to graduate makes the end point elusive. And yet, high schools that merely send students to college look like winners. At Brighton High School, Travers says one reason they send so many grads to Salem State College is that “Salem State has remedial programs that are a good fit for us.” Of 39 seniors who applied this year, he says, only four were admitted without needing remediation (10 were rejected, 17 were admitted with remediation and eight are on hold for missing documentation).

Students end up in remedial courses — especially in math — partly because many high schools don’t have very demanding course requirements for graduation. At Durfee, students are only required to take three years of math. “How do you get kids motivated to realize they are better off senior year in math than in basketweaving?” asks Bronhard, who says students may choose courses not based on an academic plan but on the buzz they get from friends.

HOW TO ‘DO SCHOOL’

In high school, “buzz” matters. Getting kids oriented to a worthwhile goal was something many Boston charter schools got from the start. For Roxbury Prep, the Match School, Codman Academy Charter School, Boston Collegiate Charter School, and the Academy of the Pacific Rim (among others), college was always the point.

On day one at Codman, Marlon Thompson of Roxbury, now 20 and a sophomore at Boston College, says founder Meg Campbell asked him where he wanted to go to college. “I said, ‘Princeton.’ I just liked the name of it,” he recalled, as he sat on a Sunday afternoon in Corcoran Commons fiddling with a bottle of lemonade and an iPhone. Thompson, an operations management major, never actually applied to Princeton but says that goal made him focus. Attending Citizens Schools’ 8th Grade Academy and Codman gave him the college message.

“The school should throw it in your face that if you don’t do this you won’t get anywhere. If you don’t stay focused and do what you need to do in high school, there is a slim chance you will make it to the next level — and these days you have to make it to the next level,” he says. “I know a lot of my friends, they didn’t graduate from high school; a couple are in jail, some have kids. They just didn’t see the path to college.”

Tonya David, a mother of five from
Roxbury, laments the “careless
choices” made by today’s teens.

Getting to college takes serious work, which is why poor preparation in the early grades puts extraordinary pressure on high schools to help students catch up. The Match and Codman schools do it with boot-camp-like academic rigor, strict discipline, and long hours. Match School students take four years of math, at least two AP courses, and two courses at Boston University, which is located next door. The school day runs 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. with two hours of one-on-one tutoring.

The good news is that the dual dose of more hours and more rigorous academics is starting to catch on. At Brighton High, Campbell says students identified as struggling will next year likely have to stay after school for a longer day. And in 11 high schools across the state, Mort Orlov, president of the Massachusetts Math and Science Initiative, is piloting an effort to enroll more students (and not just top performers) in Advanced Placement courses as a way of exposing more kids to college level work and building a college-bound culture. “Why wait until freshman year to find out that you are ill prepared?” he says.

There is no learning shortcut. Kathleen Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Collegiate Charter School, which enrolls students in grades 5 through 12, says that two years after the school started in 1998, they stopped accepting kids into high school because it was too tough to make up so much lost academic time in four years. Starting college preparation in middle school, she says, “means it needs to be less of a miracle.”

The belief that the road to college starts in middle school is gospel at Roxbury Prep, which comprises grades 6, 7, and 8. Some kids are shocked at first by the heavy homework, uniforms, discipline, expectations, long hours, and double math and English periods, but co-director Joshua Phillips says it’s the only sensible approach given that one-third of students arrive two or more grade levels behind in reading and math.

“What we are trying to do is really, really difficult,” he says. The school requires parents who want to get their child into the lottery that determines charter school admission to meet school leaders first. The leaders want parent buy-in. In return, the school offers help with college selection and applications.

“We are here to teach them how to do school,” says Teresa Rodriguez, director of high school and summer placement. That means teaching kids how to use a syllabus and organize their time, and relaying vocabulary that typically sinks urban kids on standardized tests. Learning to navigate the system is essential, which is why, although students leave after eighth grade, the school continues its help. Phillips says 86 of the 100 who graduated in the first class, in 2002, are now college sophomores.

We can thank education reform for many things, most noticeably that it has gotten educators to hang up the hunches and crunch the numbers. But the numbers show that the big picture stuff — that more kids are graduating, but lots are dropping out, and that too many who get to college can’t do the work and aren’t staying — still breaks too predictably around the same rich-poor district divide that existed in 1993.

The good news is that it’s easier to spot which urban schools are performing and which aren’t. That’s useful information for parents like Tonya David, who watched her daughter battle through Madison Park High, where 28 percent of graduates go to a four-year college, 74 percent need remediation when they enroll in state public higher education, and only 56 percent of those at state institutions return for year two.

Meet the Author
For her son Kani, a poised young man who sings and likes to study foreign language, David chose the Roxbury Prep charter school, which emphasizes preparation for college. This fall, Kani will attend Roxbury Latin, an elite private school with a national reputation for getting kids into top colleges.

“A lot of children, especially in the inner city, are faced with some tough things. Their peers are dying around them daily, they are walking around in mourning, and they don’t think education is important because they don’t think they will live to see the future,” says David, a mother of five whose youngest daughter, Kai Leigh Harriott, was paralyzed in 2003 after being hit by a stray bullet. “I tell my children all the time that we need to keep pressing forward. I was just two seconds ago telling my daughter that if you want to build a skyscraper, you need to be around engineers. It is important to be around positive people who will get you to the next level.”