Charter schools stress college-going support

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Urban Prep "college signing day"

Photo by Marc Monaghan

Here, young men from Urban Prep take part in “college signing day” at Daley Plaza in May 2014. Union members say more than a dozen teachers were unfairly fired in June 2015 for their union activities.

At North Lawndale College Prep, one of the first charter schools in the city to focus on college preparedness, students benefit from a lot of face time with counselors before they even begin applying to schools.

There are eight counselors for roughly 820 students at two campuses — a ratio of 1 to 103. Factor in additional counselors focused on college-going or alumni support, and the ratio drops by half.

That low ratio is unheard of in most traditional neighborhood high schools, which have an average of about one full-time counselor for every 303 students, according to a recent report prepared for the philanthropic group Donor’s Forum. The nationally recommended ratio is 250 students per counselor.

The Charter AdvantageCollege counseling has become more important to high schools since CPS now rates them on the college enrollment and persistence of their graduates. And it’s an area in which charters — which can raise substantial private money and have more spending flexibility — are often ahead of the game when compared to district-run schools.

Many charter schools use privately raised money to hire full-time alumni coordinators to stay in touch with former students through campus visits, phone calls and social media. They organize events at the high schools to bring back graduates, who then share stories about college life with current students. And they’re on call to offer guidance if a college student runs into trouble with financial aid or gets placed on academic probation.

North Lawndale Chief Operating Officer Christopher Kelly says the school chooses to spend less on some areas — such as security — in order to spend more on counselors. But he also acknowledges how critical outside funding is to the ability to hire additional staff and that most neighborhood high schools don’t have the same means.

“Since Day 1 of school, we’ve had to fund-raise just to make our core functions work. And we consider alumni programming a core function,” Kelly says. The school raises about $2 million annually.

Counselors are assigned to a single class and follow them from freshman year of high school through their freshman year of college. Their job includes driving students to campus and ensuring they have sheets for their dorm beds and flip-flops to use in the showers.

“These are basics that most of our kids, who are first-generation [college-goers] might not have,” Kelly says.

North Lawndale also has an emergency fund — initially funded by staff contributions but now boosted with major outside donations — that helps pay for the sometimes unexpected expenses that can sidetrack low-income students.

The school spends about $50,000 in emergency expenses each year for the 1,000 or so alumni who are currently in college.

At Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park, school leaders say money is the No. 1 obstacle graduates face. To address that challenge, CMSA and other schools managed by Concept Schools began hiring former students to work as office receptionists or teacher aides.

“So many of our graduates were having financial difficulties that we started providing them part-time jobs in our schools,” says Principal Aydin Kara, adding that at least a half-dozen graduates work in his school alone. “This way, they can get some additional money to continue to pay for their tuition.”

In addition, CMSA routinely invites alumni back for school dinners and weekly soccer matches. “That’s how we keep connected with them,” Kara says.

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Charter school leaders also work on college persistence by building relationships with key administrators at the colleges themselves. One example is Urban Prep Academies, schools that serve the demographic least likely to enroll in and graduate from college: black males.

Just a third of black males who graduate from CPS high schools go on to enroll in college — and only a third of those will obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to recent estimates from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

“You can’t have the expectation that a black male from the ’hood in Chicago who is economically disadvantaged is going to come to your college at your very white, very privileged, very competitive school, and then not provide him with any support along the way,” says Urban Prep founder and CEO Tim King. “It’s really important that these colleges get to know these kids. They’ve got to admit students, provide financial aid, and social-emotional and academic supports so kids can be successful.”

King described the recent case of an alumnus who was accepted into a small liberal arts college. But after getting Cs and Ds in the first semester, he was required to withdraw because of a policy that required students to maintain a 2.0 GPA in their freshman year.

After the student appealed and Urban Prep officials called to complain, college administrators agreed to allow the student to return to campus.

King acknowledges that the national recognition Urban Prep has garnered might afford his former students more leeway than would be extended to students from other high schools.

“When we call and speak to someone they pay closer attention,” he says. “But for me, personally, and I think for us institutionally, we really do want to change what happens with African-American males and their high school and college experiences. So when we are talking to a college about an issue, we do also say that we hope that the college doesn’t make this mistake again with one of our kids or anyone else’s.”

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Jocelyn De La Torre

Photo by Michelle Kanaar

Jocelyn De La Torre, left, graduated from the Noble Network of Charter Schools’ Rauner campus in 2012 and is now a junior at North Park University, where she mentors other Noble alumni.

One factor that many counselors pay particular attention to is a college’s institutional graduation rate, and especially the minority graduation rate.

Matt Niksch, chief college officer at the Noble Network of Charter Schools, says that minority graduation rates have been an accurate predictor of the percentage of Noble alumni who would graduate six years later. Two years ago, Niksch — who was an aerospace engineer before entering the world of education — built a computer program that helps students decide on a college by comparing key persistence indicators, including minority graduation rates, financial aid and their likelihood of admission.

In addition to relying heavily on data to help students make college decisions, Noble also employs alumni outreach coordinators at every high school that has at least one cohort of graduates and recruits its own graduates to do work on improving college persistence.

Jocelyn De La Torre’s story is a case in point. She graduated from Noble’s Rauner campus in 2012 and enrolled at North Park University, a private Christian school on the North Side. As the first in her family to attend college, and with few examples to look to in her Back of the Yards neighborhood, De La Torre was more than a little nervous.

But an older Rauner alumna who also attends North Park was waiting on campus to guide her through her freshman year through a Noble mentorship program (the program partners with the Associated Colleges of Illinois network). Mentors get small scholarships in exchange for helping younger students adjust to college.

“She helped me with the simple questions, like, ‘What class do you think I should take?’ and ‘What do you think of this professor?’” De La Torre recalled.

When a more serious problem emerged later in the year with her financial aid package, De La Torre didn’t turn to her parents, who didn’t graduate from high school. Instead, she looked to her mentor on campus.

“It was so hard, because one of the main reasons I chose the school was financial aid,” De La Torre says. “But my mentor helped me talk to the financial advisers and explain my situation, and encouraged me to call [my high school guidance counselor] and ask for more help. Without them, I wouldn’t have known what to do, where to go or what to say.”’

Between the three of them, the issues were sorted out and De La Torre could afford to remain on campus. The experience convinced her to become a mentor herself this school year to new students from Noble high schools who are showing up at North Park.

“You have that connection, and that’s such a big thing to have your first year of college, especially when you don’t have the background of any college in your family,” De La Torre says. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it — to help these students who don’t have the support from their parents.”