Second Chances

Carlos X. Garcia wants to be a radiologist. “At first I wanted to be a nurse, but you have to stick needles into people,” the 18-year-old explains as he presents a PowerPoint “autobiography” as part of a “presentation of learning” ceremony at Holyoke Community College one evening in February. “Then I was going to be a surgeon. But I’d probably be dropping hearts all over the place.” His audience, which includes two dozen fellow students, along with his Puerto Rican-born parents, laughs as he moves to the next slide, about his “future goals,” which include driving a Mercedes-Benz E-Class by the time he’s 25, and owning “a nice house in Puerto Rico.” The rest of the kids nod–and howl–their approval.

Carlos X. Garcia raised his career
goals after passing the MCAS.

Garcia’s ambitions don’t seem out of the ordinary for a graduating senior, a standard late-adolescent mix of bread-and-butter and pie-in-the-sky. But last fall, his prospects were looking bleak. He was getting mediocre grades and he had failed the MCAS graduation test. Garcia was not expecting to graduate.

Then a counselor at Springfield High School of Science and Technology got him into Another Route to College (ARC), a pilot program funded by the state and developed collaboratively by the nonprofit Commonwealth Corp., the Lawrence and Springfield public schools, and Holyoke and Northern Essex community colleges. Garcia is one of 25 ARC students at Holyoke; another 30 students are enrolled at the Northern Essex campus in Lawrence. Today, Garcia is taking college-level courses in English and human anatomy; the classes are small and he receives one-on-one tutoring. He is also an intern in the medical imaging department at Mercy Hospital in Springfield.

Facing an uncertain future just a year ago, Garcia is now thinking about college and a career–and that Mercedes. What’s more, he’s passed MCAS, in a retest.

That makes him one of the lucky ones. An estimated 6,000 students–mostly minority students from urban districts like Chelsea, Holyoke, and Springfield–face the prospect of not graduating this June because they have not passed the English and math MCAS exams, even after four tries. By the middle of spring semester 2003, it was still unclear what options would be there for them.

“The big issue is, what pathways are available to the kids?” says Paul Reville, executive director of the Center for Education Research and Policy at MassINC. “Right now, it depends on where you live. Right now, it’s a hit-or-miss strategy. We need something systemic so every kid knows there are ways to keep at it.”

That such pathways seem a hit-or-miss proposition at this point on the MCAS timeline is frustrating to those who work with students facing a diploma-less June, many of whom remain in the dark about options for remediation services. “There are attempts being organized, but they’re coming slower than we would like and later than we would like,” says Richard Robison, executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, a parent training and information resource center. “It’s not clear to me yet where the funding is coming from, where those initiatives will be offered, and who is eligible to receive them.”

The state’s 15 community colleges, with their tradition of local service and their expertise in post-high school remedial education, might seem like a natural choice to serve the students who have left high school but without MCAS certification. And several of them, like Holyoke, Northern Essex, and North Shore community colleges, are already working with students at risk of MCAS failure while they’re still in high school. But although some institutions have embraced a role in post-high school MCAS assistance, there has also been reluctance.

For some, it’s a matter of philosophy. Prepping students for a high-school test, they say, is a distraction from their proper functions–that is, training high school grads for careers and further education at four-year colleges. But it’s also about money. As community colleges scramble to adjust to the state’s budget cuts, the last thing they want is a new mandate, the funding of which is uncertain. Then there’s the suddenly heaving institutional landscape. Under Gov. Mitt Romney’s proposed overhaul of public higher education, two community colleges–Holyoke and Greenfield–would merge, and all would become part of regionally focused systems of public higher education ultimately accountable to a proposed new secretary of education. The administration plan is supposed to result in $100 million in “savings”–$37 million from community colleges –that, to campus administrators, look more like simple funding cuts than organizational efficiencies.

Finally, there is the nature of community colleges themselves. They are locally controlled institutions with a mandate to meet local education-and-training needs. That makes channeling a statewide mission like MCAS remediation through community colleges a bit like herding porcupines.

“Community colleges don’t speak with a single voice,” says Reville. “Each has its own board [of trustees] and does its own thing, and no one has the authority to tell them what to do.”

Beating a path to their doors

Everybody knew the day would come when several thousand kids from the “canary class,” the first to face the state’s MCAS graduation standard, would emerge from high school without diplomas. These students were in second grade when the Education Reform Act of 1993 was signed and funding began to flow to cash-starved schools. But they were nearing high school before statewide curriculum frameworks and standards were in place, and their schools have been scrambling to align instruction with state requirements ever since. State officials expect the number of MCAS casualties to diminish over time, but they’ve always known that the test requirement would trip up a substantial number of students, especially in the first few years of enforcement. To avoid the fate of those canaries in the mine, these all-but-MCAS students are going to need post-high school help.

In March 2002, a committee that included state Board of Education chairman James Peyser, Department of Education Commissioner David Driscoll, and Chancellor of Higher Education Judith Gill outlined several alternative routes, or “pathways,” that would get these students to MCAS certification and beyond. These routes included a “13th year” at community college. For some, particularly those at vocational schools, staying on an extra year seemed like a viable option. Others who pass the “AccuPlacer” test, which establishes their “ability to benefit” from post-secondary study at their local community colleges, could become eligible for federal financial aid and enroll without a diploma. Once there, they could take non-credit “developmental education” courses to get them prepared for college-level work, then pursue a professional certificate or associate’s degree.

These pathways all made sense on paper. But paving them turned out to be problematic. Board of Higher Education Chairman Stephen Tocco acknowledges that community-college cooperation was “sporadic” in the beginning. “They were worried that this would become a new mission,” says Tocco.

Stephen Tocco: The state’s community colleges
fear being saddled with “a new mission.”

Reville says discussions bogged down in what he calls “a game of chicken” over money. “The community colleges said, we’ll queue up if you deliver the resources,” he says. “But this is the population they would have served anyway.”

For their part, some community colleges see themselves as getting pressed into service, on an emergency basis, to solve an all-too-predictable crisis. “I’ve been concerned all along that we didn’t plan well for students who got caught in the high-stakes aspect of this test,” says Wayne M. Burton, president of North Shore Community College.

Some community college leaders say they shouldn’t be saddled with the job of making up for the deficiencies of K-12 education. The developmental programs they provide aren’t the same as MCAS remediation, which prepares students for a specific test that’s based on a specific curriculum, they say. “The help to pass the test is not generally coming from the post-secondary [world],” says Janice Motta, executive director of the Massachusetts Community Colleges Executive Office. “It’s the K-through-12 faculty who are the experts with the frameworks.”

These institutions have been burned by MCAS before.

Some community college presidents also worry about “mission creep.” Already responsible for providing career training and a low-cost foundation for students who later transfer to four-year colleges, community colleges worry about taking on MCAS remediation as a new line of work without a clear source of financing. “We’re concerned about adding another responsibility to the colleges without the money to pay for it,” says Burton.

These institutions have been burned on MCAS help before, they say. In Worcester, an analysis of MCAS scores showed a pattern of deficiencies among roughly 400 students who were at risk of not graduating, many of whom lived in the same public housing project. Together with Quinsigamond Community College, the district set up a program that brought students to the campus for three hours, half of which was spent in a math lab. Students were also provided with on-campus mentors and work-study jobs. The district had specific MCAS-remediation money from the state Department of Education to support the program, but QCC covered some staff salaries and work study costs on its own. Then came a round of budget cuts imposed by acting Gov. Jane Swift. Quinsigamond could no longer hold up its part of the deal, says Worcester Superintendent of Schools James Caradonio.

Wayne M. Burton: “We didn’t plan well for students
who got caught in the high-stakes aspect of the test.”

“You can understand why the community colleges are mad,” says Caradonio. “The community colleges know what to do, but the same state wanting them to do more is whacking them to death.”

Indeed, the fiscal crisis has not made it any easier to make provision for a group of students who, because of MCAS, will be falling into a limbo between high school and college. “The state’s difficulties have pushed this MCAS issue away from some of the attention it was getting, even last fall,” says Paul Raverta, executive vice president of Holyoke Community College. “It’s unfortunate that this group [of students] is coming through at a time of economic difficulties, which makes it even harder.”

Transitional assistance

Tocco, chairman of the board of higher education, says that’s all behind us now, and that the state’s 15 community colleges –or at least most of them–stand ready to do their part. “What broke the logjam was that we said it was a transition,” says Tocco. “If we really believe the MCAS is working, in three years, we won’t need this anymore.” As a result, he says, “They’ve all, with the exception of four or five schools, gotten on board at this point.”

It helped that Gov. Romney’s proposed 2004 budget calls for $3 million to fund MCAS remediation for students who have left high school. Ostensibly, that would provide payment of $1,500 to $2,000 per student–that’s less than half the $5,500 full-year cost per student for ARC–for short-term remedial programs. Even at that rate, the funding would pay to serve no more than 2,000 of the 6,000 seniors who will leave high school without a diploma. And so far, at least, the community colleges are far from reassured, according to a spokesman, who says they are waiting for details from the governor before counting on these funds.

Still, the announcement of the latest MCAS retest scores injected a new urgency into the development of pathways, says Andrew Caulkins, executive director of the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a pro-MCAS education reform group. “Everyone agrees it would have been better if it had been articulated sooner,” says Caulkins. “But there’s a lot of effort dedicated to bringing coherence to the pathways now. A lot of kids will find there are open doors this spring if they are ready to look for them.”

Even then, it may take some looking. In March, after release of the latest MCAS retest results, the state Department of Education sent information to school districts outlining “options” for seniors who still did not have MCAS certification. These include MCAS appeals (about 460 seniors have been given waivers of the graduation requirement), additional tries at the MCAS in May and in July, offered in conjunction with summer school, and “certificates of attainment” granted for meeting local standards, but not MCAS. Students are directed to the state’s One-Stop Career Centers for advice on career training, and to military recruiters (“The Army and the Navy will accept students without a high school diploma, so long as they commit to earning one within one year”). And then: “This fall, students who have not yet earned a diploma will be eligible to take remedial courses at local community colleges at no cost. On some campuses students will also be able to begin work toward an associate’s degree at the same time.”

This community-college piece of the puzzle will be coming together on the fly. Four colleges–Holyoke, North Shore, Quinsigamond, and Cape Cod–have received grants from the Department of Education to provide remedial math and English programs over the summer. Some other community-college offerings are up and running, or easily could be, as extensions of what these institutions are doing with high schools, such as Middlesex Community College’s work in remedial math with students from Lowell High School. In addition to the ARC program, for instance, HCC has introduced a “transitional acceptance” program, in which high school seniors attend Saturday classes for 10 weeks, then retake the MCAS, and, if they pass, enter college.

But it’s clear that even the institutions most committed to doing their pathways duty are scrambling to get ready for the all-but-MCAS cohort. North Shore Community College, which has been named a “lead institution” for pathway development by the state, is heading up an effort to have a demonstration program in place by May. Massachusetts Bay, Middlesex, and Quinsigamond colleges are participating in the program; three others (Bristol, Holyoke, and Roxbury) have expressed interest as well.

“The intent is to pilot it over the summer and implement it in the fall,” says Laura Ventimiglia, dean of academic assessment at North Shore. But, with the state budget far from final, she says the community colleges are swinging into action largely on faith. “Part of the project is to identify the cost,” says Ventimiglia. “The funding will follow the student, but where that funding will come from still hasn’t been determined.”

Something different

Those who develop remediation programs say the community college is an ideal setting, because it provides a change of scene, along with a more adult-like experience, for kids who have outgrown high school, even if they don’t have the state certification to prove it.

“These kids are ready for something different,” says Terry Grobe, program manager with the Commonwealth Corp. “If you get them out into the world, they get excited about things, they get…buzzed about what they’re doing.”

And it’s hard not to feel that buzz when you sit with the kids in the ARC program. Far from being near-dropouts, discouraged about their future, these young people seem to be actively exploring life options–from Vanessa, who wants to go to culinary school and one day open her own wedding-cake shop, to Ruben, who used to think school was “whack” but now wants to become an emergency room nurse.

“We’ve found that for students who have checkered academic careers, that this is key,” says Commonwealth Corp. vice president Ephraim Weisstein. “To show them they can do it, and to show them how to do it. It’s amazing, the turnaround you see. Students say on questionnaires, ‘I never in my life thought that I could do college work.'”

But with the right support, many of them can, and ARC is one program that proves it. When MCAS re-test scores arrived this winter, all the students at Holyoke passed the English portion of the test. Six have yet to pass the math portion, but they were getting closer. At the same time, a new group of students arrived to begin coursework.

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“I don’t think any one approach is right for every one of the 6,000 kids who need help,” says Weisstein. But he says ARC “could be ratcheted up at most of the 15 community colleges around the state. Certainly we could do a thousand kids.”

Whether ARC, or programs like it, are going to be ratcheted up in time for the first all-but-MCAS crop is another question. “I think we should have started earlier,” says Burton. “But you can’t go back.”