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How KIPP learned the truth about its students’ college completion and inspired others to do the same

By: Richard Whitmire

Most people think the story of KIPP charter schools is a story about two guys in Houston, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, launching a network of high-performing charter schools that today includes 183 schools educating 70,000 students. They’re right; it’s a great story, one told well in Jay Mathews’s book “Work Hard. Be Nice.”

I won’t retell that story here. Instead, I will argue that KIPP’s other story, its research, is every bit as influential as the charter network itself. That research is thorough and unsparing and has affected nearly every school in America, traditional and charter. I will focus on a single piece of research, the College Completion Report, one that proved somewhat unflattering to KIPP in the short run but also one that continues to have positive long-term benefits for both KIPP and other charter networks in increasing overall college completion rates.

The College Completion Report was unveiled in late April 2011 and hit with a very hard thud — and not just in KIPP-world. There was some promising news: 31 percent of early-generation KIPP middle school students graduated from (four-year) colleges within six years, which at that point in time was three times the graduation rate for low-income, minority students nationally.

The problem was that the graduation rate fell far short of what high-achieving charters like KIPP thought they could accomplish (and predicted they would achieve), which is closer to 75 percent. The headline written by Jay Mathews when he wrote about the report in The Washington Post: “KIPP criticizes its college graduation record.”

At the time the report came out, KIPP was already well on its way to reshaping its approach for making sure its graduates not only got into college but also graduated from college. That’s an interesting story I’ll tell shortly. But the significance of the report went well beyond KIPP’s internal changes.

In this report, KIPP threw down three data gauntlets and dared others to follow. First, KIPP reported its college completion statistics by tracking students all the way from eighth grade. Traditionally, schools just tracked from the senior year, conveniently ignoring all the students who dropped out between eighth and 12th grades. Better public relations, of course, but what about all those dropouts? If your program succeeded only by losing the less successful kids, then was your program truly successful?

Second, KIPP reported its college statistics based on which students actually graduated. Still today, scores of schools report only the percent accepted to college. Sure, the latter strategy makes you look better, but how honest is that? If you get your students accepted but don’t prepare them to succeed in college, then is your program truly successful? I can only imagine the gasps and red faces around the country when charter school boards met to discuss their “100 percent accepted” claims: Should we really be doing this without saying how many actually make it through college to earn a degree? Seeing schools issue those 100 percent claims “drives me crazy,” KIPP CEO Richard Barth told me. And it should.

Third, KIPP made all its findings public. Considering that KIPP’s college track record fell short, that was pretty brave. They could have kept it quiet. But as Barth puts it, you shouldn’t maintain two stories — a blunt story for internal consumption and a cheery one for the general public. Will others be brave enough to make their internal studies public?

And, given that KIPP was first out of the blocks with full disclosure, the next question was: What’s KIPP going to do about it?

The two-part solution called for next-generation learning which focuses on students directing their own learning (thus developing grit) and bringing intense support networks to college campuses, thus giving poor kids the kind of backing that middle-class college students take for granted. KIPP’s “character counts” program — a chart I’ve seen posted outside KIPP classrooms — is just one example. Teachers are reminded of the seven “strengths” that need development along with math and reading skills: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.

Perhaps the most dramatic change KIPP made as a result of that research is its College Match program. A big factor in why some KIPP students earned a degree and others didn’t was the college they chose. “We began to realize that where you go to college really matters,” said Barth. “Like, it is absolutely life-changing. We were watching what happened to our 12th-graders when they went to college, and we learned that at each level of selectivity — competitive, highly competitive — some colleges are better at graduating first-generation college-goers than others.”

The result: a network of about 80 colleges that want to work with KIPP. The next task was to make sure KIPP graduates found their way to those KIPP-friendly places. The answer: intense guidance. Three years ago, only about one in 10 KIPP graduates enrolled at the best colleges for them; today, it is about one in four. That’s a rapid change. The colleges that are good for KIPP students run the full gamut of selectivity. In 2016 KIPP had about 40 students at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, home to the “grit” researchers. An additional 35 attended Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College.

“What are these folks doing?” asks Barth. “First they are looking at our KIPPsters and seeing immense potential. Second, they’re looking into the world of these students and seeing how they can optimize their financial packages so the students can cover what is needed and not end up with extreme levels of personal debt. Three, these are campuses where our kids are socializing, where they can be involved in campus activities.”

Barth credits F&M president Daniel Porterfield with making what he describes as “potentially third-rail” decisions to make his college more welcoming to first-generation students. “He has made the case with his board that in doing this, the student body will be higher-performing; there will be more fellowships, more Fulbright winners. That’s a remarkable example of what can be done. We’re looking for other partners who have that level of commitment.”

What KIPP learned in getting poor and minority students into colleges that succeed with first-generation students was quickly passed along to both charters and traditional districts. In Arkansas’s Delta, for example, a place where students almost never made it to the University of Arkansas, a KIPP collaboration with counselors at local schools there changed that pattern.

Amy Charpentier, the director for KIPP Through College at KIPP Delta, supervises two college counselors at Central High and one counselor at Lee High, whose positions are funded through a grant KIPP Delta received from the Walton Family Foundation. The results to date: Last year, the partnership more than doubled the four-year college-going rates for seniors at Central High School and increased the four-year college-going rates by nearly half for seniors at Lee High School.

Relations between charters and district schools are always delicate, but in this case the principals and superintendents agreed their students weren’t getting the college guidance they deserved and agreed to the KIPP counselors coming to their schools, said Charpentier.

Barth said he just got a similar collaboration request from the superintendent of Philadelphia’s schools. “There’s nothing we’re doing with counseling that’s proprietary,” said Barth, who said he was open to more collaborations. “We’re at a place where it’s sharable, and the more first-generation kids who can get this kind of guidance, the better.”

Adapted from “The Founders,” published by The 74 Million, an education news and opinion website whose founders support charter schools.

Students: Scholarship program changes lives

Wednesday, September 14, 2016



MONROE COUNTY — The Take Stock in Children college scholarship program in Monroe County is currently accepting applications for more students. Recent high school and college graduates who participated in the program say it was a game changer for them. Many are the first generation in their families to attend college.

“It changed my life entirely,” Joey Guminski, 18, told the Free Press. He is currently attending Florida Polytechnic University and majoring in computer science engineering. He graduated from Key West High School last June. 

“If you have the eligibility to apply and get in, it’s a must-do. It can change your life. It’s the best thing that can ever happen to you,” he said.

Guminski describes a feeling of relief with the weight of college tuition off of his back. He was accepted into the Take Stock program as a seventh-grader, and he met the requirements until he graduated high school, which included maintaining a 2.5 grade point average. As a result, he received a four-year scholarship, which pays for complete tuition and fees for schools in the state of Florida. He also qualified for a two-year housing scholarship.

But a college scholarship wasn’t the only thing that Take Stock gave him. He is grateful to the support of Mindy Conn, who is a Take Stock college success coach but was also Guminski’s mentor, a different position in the organization.

“My life in middle school wasn’t the best. There was a lot of drama, a lot of bad stuff, especially during eighth grade,” Guminski said, explaining that his father passed away while he was in seventh grade and he moved between his grandparents’ and parents’ homes during high school.

“Take Stock was always there for me. If I needed someone to talk to, [Conn] was there for me,” he said, pointing out that he “loves her as family.”

According to Chuck Licis, program coordinator for Monroe County, Take Stock currently has 220 students, and he has a goal of adding 50 students by the end of October. 

“The Take Stock in Children program has been offering scholarships, mentors, and hope to our academically eligible students from low income households for 17 years in Monroe County,” he said.

Once accepted into the program, children are matched with college success coaches, who meet with them regularly to discuss grades and college plans, and mentors, who offer more personal support and guidance on a weekly basis.

While students who successfully complete the program can get full tuition and fees for any of the 12 state universities or 28 state colleges in Florida, Take Stock will not cover full tuition at a private or an out-of-state college or university. But students who choose to enroll in a private or an out-of-state school can also apply for additional assistance, such as institutional scholarships or federal grants, to help defray the cost.

Katrina Wiatt, a Take Stock college success coach in the Middle Keys, noted that students can take “an alternative path” after high school for their secondary education. 

She coached Thomas Davis, who graduated Marathon High School in 2011 and went on to complete a certificate in marine mechanics at Universal Technical Institute in Orlando. The school was paid for by Take Stock. Thomas now works as a mechanic at Cannon Marine in Marathon.

Davis, 24, said that covering UTI’s tuition would have been a strain for him and his parents, who both work in construction. 

“It changed my life’s outcome because without them, financially I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he said of Take Stock. “There would have been no secondary education beyond high school without the financial support.”

Francine Swadley-Lemay, 28, is so grateful to Take Stock that she is currently serving as a mentor to a Coral Shores High School student in Tavernier. Swadley-Lemay graduated Coral Shores in 2006 and majored in communications at Florida Gulf Coast University. She currently runs a lifestyle blog that she created, keystoislandliving.com.

“[Take Stock] gave me the extra bit of confidence,” she said. “I was able to afford the education I wanted. It was a great mentoring program in school. It was like having an extra cheerleader.” 

She is still friends with her own mentor, Michelle Sutter.

Ryan Cziko is now pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at Florida State University. Last year, he graduated with not only a high school diploma from Key West Collegiate Academy but also with an associate’s degree from Florida Keys Community College. The 18-year-old said his life would have taken quite a different path without Take Stock. 

“I’d probably have two jobs, trying to pay rent,” he said. 

He was formerly a food runner at a restaurant on Stock Island and an associate at Divers Direct.

Cziko is the first generation in his family to go to college. His father is a bartender. 

“My dad cried when I walked across the stage [at graduation],” he said. “He’s a big dude who doesn’t show emotion. When he found out I had a scholarship, he was ecstatic.”

Take Stock in Children Monroe County is accepting applications until Sept. 23. Email or call Licis at chuck.licis@keysschools.com or 305-293-1549 for more information.


What’s the Right Public Message About Going to College?

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Beckie Supiano August 30, 2016  

“College” encompasses much more than four-year-degree programs, and is in fact the country’s main system of vocational training.

The evidence is clear: For the average student, college is an investment that pays off.

But averages conceal variation, and college outcomes vary widely. Variation in postcollege earnings and student debt has also increased over time, according to new research, raising the stakes on students’ college choices.

College is no guarantee. Many students never graduate. Even someone who earns a degree doesn’t always make more money than the typical person with less education. Factor in the ubiquity of student debt, and there’s a chance that things will go badly wrong — especially for those who don’t graduate.

Perhaps there was a time when a simple message about going to college was enough, says Eric Johnson, assistant director for policy analysis and communications in the office of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After all, he says, “failing at college used to not be a catastrophic event.”

In this way, Mr. Johnson says, higher education parallels real estate. Back when a standard home mortgage was the only option, it made some sense to say that real estate was “always a good investment,” he says. Purchasing a house could normally get buyers into only so much trouble when the process was meant to ensure they were able to afford it. But exotic financing options have introduced more risk, and the old advice no longer applies.

Crafting the right message about going to college, like crafting the right message about buying a home, is tricky. How do you describe an investment in oneself that has clear and important benefits, on average, but can be ruinous in some circumstances?

The message is “not as simple as ‘Go to college,’ it’s not as simple as ‘College for everybody,’” says Nicole Hurd, the founder and chief executive officer of the College Advising Corps, which places recent college graduates in high schools to work as college advisers.

That’s too bad because, “in the policy world, people want simple messages,” says Sandy Baum, author of a new book, Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

A ‘Core Value’

This problem, it turns out, is not unique to higher ed. “In the real world of any kind of messaging, there’s variability in outcomes,” says Joseph Cappella, a professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Experts encourage people to do things that usually carry benefits, but those actions don’t always bring the desired results. Still, he says, that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t do them.

What makes a public message effective, Mr. Cappella says, is connecting it to a “core value.”

College may not be a core value, he says, but education is, so that’s what a public message should emphasize. Once a message hits on that core value, it can mention the fine print, he says.

Getting such a less-simple message right isn’t easy, but it matters. Many people know someone who went to college and is worse off as a result. Tell them that college is unequivocally a good investment, and you’ll only increase their skepticism. Maybe a more-nuanced message has a better chance of being heard.

In her speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, Hillary Clinton drew a distinction between “college” and other kinds of work-force preparation. “Sure, college is crucial, but a four-year degree should not be the only path to a good job,” she said. “We will help more people learn a skill or practice a trade and make a good living doing it.”

That line might frustrate a higher-education expert. “College” encompasses much more than four-year-degree programs, and is in fact the country’s main system of vocational training. But to everyone else, the word is likely to conjure up a four-year, residential, liberal-arts education.

“I’d like to rebrand the word ‘college,’” Ms. Hurd says. When people believe that college is not for them — or not for everyone — they may be working with a narrow definition of what it includes.

The Right Option

What college advocates are really trying to get at, Ms. Hurd says, is not “college for all,” but “the right postsecondary option for all.” But that phrase, she acknowledges, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Perhaps there are other ways to convey it. “The public message that college is worthwhile is still 100 percent accurate. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that message,” says Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College of Columbia University, who has studied the variation in college outcomes.

Still, she says, “there are some predatory actors in higher education,” and so would-be students can’t assume that anything called “college” has their best interests at heart.

“College is worth it, and relying on public institutions and public sources of funding are a good default strategy.”

Some of those bad actors are for-profit institutions, Ms. Scott-Clayton says, and it can be hard to determine whether a college is part of that sector on the basis of its marketing materials. At the same time, she says, “just because an institution is not-for-profit doesn’t guarantee that they’re an awesome institution.”

The simple, safe college-search advice Ms. Scott-Clayton recommends is: “College is worth it, and relying on public institutions and public sources of funding are a good default strategy.”

That is not to say students shouldn’t go to private colleges, she adds. Such colleges can have better outcomes and might even be more affordable after financial aid. But students should have a good reason for going to one.

‘Match and Fit’

Many people believe that more-expensive colleges are better than less-expensive ones, says Douglas Webber, an assistant professor of economics at Temple University who has also studied the varying payoffs of college degrees. But evidence does not support that belief. So on top of telling people that they should go to college but need to graduate, he might add that “you don’t have to pay a lot for it.”

Those education researchers’ focus on affordable options is no accident. After all, rising prices and widespread borrowing are responsible for some of the worst outcomes facing former students as well as much of the hand-wringing over whether college is worth it.

Little in life is “good or bad for all people under all circumstances,” writes Ms. Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, in her new book. Take marriage, for example. That’s another institution strongly linked to positive outcomes. “But clearly,” she writes, “we should not advise young people just to get married because marriage makes life better. It matters when you get married, why you get married, and whom you marry.”

The benefits of college, like those of marriage, come down to the specifics. It matters where students go to college, what they study, and whether they graduate.

Understanding that is “why we spend all of our time with students talking about match and fit,” says Ms. Hurd, of the College Advising Corps.

Finding a college that’s a good match or the right fit is a profoundly personal exercise. A public message can’t possibly tell every student the best path to and through college for her, individually. But maybe it could convey that finding that path is an integral part of seeing her investment pay off.

High-School Grades Still Count Most in College Admissions

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

 September 8, 2016 by Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz

Academic performance in high school remains the top-ranked factor in college admissions decisions regarding prospective first-time freshmen, according to a new report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

In its latest State of College Admission report, the association says that grades in college-preparatory courses were rated as “considerably important” by about 80 percent of institutions it surveyed. Grades in all courses, the strength of the curriculum, and admissions-test scores were the next most important factors, with each rated as considerably important by about 60 percent of colleges.

In other findings, the report notes that a long decline in the average yield rate for first-time freshmen appears to have stabilized. The rate, which is the percentage of students who are accepted who go on to enroll, rose in the fall of 2014 to 36.2 percent, a slight increase from the previous year’s 35.7 percent. The rate had fallen steadily since 2002, when it was 48.7 percent.

Strategies that institutions are using to improve their yield rates, says the report, include putting more focus on bringing in transfer students and international students, increasing the number of early-decision applicants they accept, and making greater use of wait lists.

The report is based on data collected from two annual NACAC surveys, the Counseling Trends Survey and the Admission Trends Survey, which were conducted in 2014 and 2015.