Schools try to prepare low-income students for college

When Pamela Bolton searched for a middle school for her daughter seven years ago, convenience, not college, was on her mind. She ended up enrolling her daughter at a new, untested middle school called New Orleans College Prep largely because she could get there easily.

But New Orleans College Prep, and its partner high school, Cohen College Prep, ended up providing much more than an easy commute.

Last spring, a large poster of Bolton’s daughter Imani, then a graduating senior, attested to that as it hung in the school hallway. “IMANI HAS OPTIONS,” the poster proclaimed, listing the scholarship awards that she had won to that point: $4,000 to attend Jackson State University, $52,000 to attend Spring Hill College, $56,000 to attend Emory & Henry College, $32,000 for Millsaps College.

In the end, Bolton counted the unexpected help that Imani got in the college admissions process as one of the most important things the school provided.

“It was a lot off me because I didn’t know much about it,” said Bolton, a baker at a local casino, during an impromptu interview at the school’s college counseling office. She was there filling out paperwork for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which her daughter plans to attend on a state-sponsored full scholarship this fall.

Cohen College Prep’s 100 percent college acceptance rate for the class of 2014 — its inaugural graduating class — is more than three times the rate of the old high school the ambitious charter displaced, school officials say. Collectively, the school’s 54 seniors won more than $2 million in scholarship aid, more per student than any other open-enrollment school in the city, according to an analysis by the Recovery School District, which encompasses most of the city’s public schools.

Ben Kleban, the founder and director of New Orleans College Preparatory Academies, the network that runs Cohen College Prep, describes the school’s high college acceptance rate as a “major milestone” made possible by more than seven years of hard work and strategic planning.

But the real test will come over the next few years, as the students from Cohen seek to earn their college degrees. Whether they succeed will be part of a crucial reckoning not only for Cohen but, more broadly, for the post-Hurricane Katrina reinvention of New Orleans schools. This fall, the Recovery School District will be the first big-city school district in the country made up entirely of charter schools, many of them founded on the premise that they could do a better job of sending low-income and first-generation college students to and through college than their public school predecessors.

Not everyone is convinced the students from these schools will earn degrees once free from the watchful eyes of charter school teachers and administrators — and on college campuses where their academic fates will rest in their own hands as never before.

Too early to tell

Charter proponents and detractors alike say it’s too early to declare the city’s schools a success or failure when it comes to college success.

“This is a marathon,” said Andre Perry, the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the former CEO of a New Orleans charter network. “Ultimately, it takes years to see if a school is successful.”

Destination colleges for Cohen College Prep graduates vary widely and include two-year colleges and historically black colleges and universities, which often pride themselves on enrolling underprepared students. But they also include highly selective institutions that are as far away culturally and socioeconomically as they are geographically from the violence-prone neighborhoods from which many of Cohen’s students hail — and want to escape.

Cohen has presented college as the inevitable destination for its students since its inception in 2007, when it opened with just sixth-graders, then added a grade each year.

When they are not wearing their standard uniforms, for instance, students don hooded college sweatshirts. College pennants hang throughout the school, and teachers emphasize the various skills students will need to have once they arrive on campus.

For instance, in an Advanced Placement calculus class toward the end of the school year, math teacher Elizabeth Greene chided the students for allowing other staff members to pull them out of her class for end-of-year planning and activities.

“It’s not on me to make sure no one interferes with your math time,” Greene said. “I don’t want you falling behind, because that’s what’s going to happen in college. You need to be able to say, ‘I’m actually busy then. Can we do it another time?’ ”

Over time, Cohen College Prep also has put substantial resources behind its college-for-all goal. It has two full-time staff in the college counseling office, a sizable commitment given the relatively small size of the graduating class.

Breaking the news

One of those counselors is Paris Woods, who started over a year ago as director of alumni relations to advise the students as they progress through college.

Woods, a former financial aid and admissions officer at Harvard University, is usually the one who breaks the stark news to students regarding the cost of tuition at some of their top choices for college — and ultimately steers them away from colleges that will leave them saddled with sizable debt.

For instance, Bolton’s daughter, Imani, said she was elated this past spring when she received an acceptance offer from Millsaps, whose biology program she admired.

But that elation turned to confusion a month or so later, when the college sent its financial-aid offer promising the $32,000 in scholarship aid.

“When I opened it up, I didn’t really understand it,” Imani said.

So she brought it to Woods, who explained that Imani could wind up tens of thousands of dollars in debt if she went to Millsaps because the scholarship covered only the equivalent of one year of tuition.

Imani began reconsidering her options, including taking a closer look at public universities in Louisiana where she could get a full state-funded scholarship. That’s why she settled on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Although Woods’ primary job is to keep tabs on Cohen’s graduates once they start college — something a number of schools across the nation are doing to ensure their students persist to earn degrees — she starts working with them before their senior year.

When students start to get acceptance letters from colleges, Woods creates color-coded charts that show how much they would have to borrow or pay out of pocket to attend a particular school.

Woods also prods virtually all of the students’ parents to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — a task that is highly correlated with college enrollment. When she couldn’t persuade parents to come in and work with her on it in person, she called them and walked them through the process on the phone and completed the application online.

Overall, New Orleans public schools have FAFSA completion rates that fall significantly below the national average.

Distance not just in miles

Cohen’s graduating class includes several students bound for faraway — and comparatively foreign — locales.

Anton Brown, 19, one of three Cohen students participating in the Bard Early College program in New Orleans, which enables high school juniors and seniors to take college-level courses, is headed to Bates College in Maine. Brown spent a few days on the Bates campus after his college admissions essay got him selected for the school’s “fly-in” visitation program, which is designed to get high-achieving high school juniors — who are minorities or are the first in their family to attend college — acclimated to the college environment.

He liked the relative calm of the Bates campus, contrasting it to the violence-prone streets of New Orleans.

“In New Orleans, you can have someone walking down the street and say, ‘How you doing?’ And you don’t even know them and then someone gets shot,” he said.

At Bates, “I felt a really good vibe,” he said.

Theodore Williams IV, 19, also a Bard Early College student at Cohen, said he never thought about going to college in Wisconsin. But as soon as he set foot on the Beloit College campus, he became enamored with the school’s small classes and sense of community.

“I never felt more at home until I got there,” Williams said. “Everybody was, like, so warm to me.”

The more selective institutions that Cohen graduates will attend all enjoy high graduation rates for African-Americans. At Bates, for instance, the graduation rate for black students is 86 percent, just shy of the school’s overall graduation rate of 88 percent. At Beloit, the graduation rate for black students is 75 percent, compared to 78 percent for the college overall. Nationally, the average college graduation rate for black students is 39.9 percent, federal data show.

The challenges ahead

Still, Cohen educators acknowledge that the school faces myriad challenges preparing its students for the culture shock and academic demands of college.

For instance, during the 2012-13 school year, when Cohen began offering an Advanced Placement course in U.S. history, 14 of the 17 students who took the end-of-course exam scored just 1 out of 5 on the exam — not high enough to earn college credit.

“It was a glass of cold water on our face,” said Andrew Witkins, the teacher who led the class.

Still, Witkins said he’s glad the students had the experience and he believes he’s doing a better job now — a view supported by data, which show that in the 2013-14 school year, eight of 10 students who took the AP U.S. history exam scored a 2, and two scored a 4. Most colleges and universities require a score of 3 or better for the exams to count for college credit.

Even with the stronger showing this year, Witkins said he worries many students will struggle with writing in particular once they get to college. For some students, “the ability to formulate an argument and even a strong sentence is lacking,” he said.

Other similar charter networks have had mixed results at achieving the college graduation records they desire, suggesting Cohen College Prep may struggle as well.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, for instance, has a college graduation rate of about 44 percent for its alumni (an additional 5 percent of alumni have completed two-year degrees). That’s significantly higher than the rates for first-generation and minority students nationally but well below KIPP’s target of 75 percent.

Despite questions about how well Cohen College Prep’s graduates will fare once in college, some parents say they are grateful for how much support the school has provided just to get their children to this point.

Bolton credited the school’s teachers with going “above and beyond the call of duty,” tutoring Imani even on the weekends.

“I made a good decision,” she said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.