First-gen students help each other through UT


“La Raza” members kayak on Barton Springs in Austin with visiting friends from home during Spring Break 2014. From left to right: Perla de la O (foreground), Zarina Moreno, Xenia Garcia, Bianca de la O, Jose R. Peña. Photo: Courtesy of Perla de la O.

Going from Roma, Texas, a ranching town on the Mexican border, to the University of Texas in Austin is a huge leap, writes Lillian Mongeau in the Washington Monthly.

“It was overwhelming,” Jesús “Nacho” Aguilar, 23, said. “It was also liberating.”

Mongeau, who taught English in Roma for Teach for America, asked Jesús, Tomás González, 23, Perla de la O, 22, and Eduardo Rios, 20, how they succeeded at UT despite the culture shock.

They helped each other, the Roma grads said. They call their homegrown network La Raza or just “the group.”

The group holds potlucks featuring food from home. They get each other jobs. They help the newest Roma-grads-cum-UT-freshmen find housing, the laundromat, and free food on campus. They share textbooks and help each other with homework. They carpool home for the holidays. They ask each other: How do you sign up for health insurance? Can you explain this financial aid form? Where is the registrar’s office? When someone is sick, they cook him dinner. When someone is lonely, they talk. When someone is struggling, they encourage her to reach out to resources on campus they know can help.

. . . “You think you’re the only one struggling,” Jesús said. “But no. Everyone is in the same boat.”

Seeing each other struggle, knowing you’re not the only one crying in the shower that first desperately hard semester — that’s what gets you through, Tomás said.

Students who’d aced AP Calculus at Roma High discovered they were not prepared for UT classes.

“On his first college test, Jesús, a star student at home, earned a 50 percent,” Mongeau writes. He worried he was letting others down. “When I experienced failure, it wasn’t just my own failure,” he said.

The Roma students found helpful programs at the university, “special scholarships, offices full of mentors, friendly professors and former Roma TFAs who live in Austin and host welcome dinners for freshmen,” writes Mongeau. Now they advise younger students to join organizations and look for help.

“There are people looking out for people like us,” Eduardo said. “But we have to find them.”

Several members of La Raza “posed” for a photo at Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas in 2013. From left to right: Valeria Molina, who now lives in New York City, Jonathan Peña, Travis Pham, Tomás González, Jesús Aguilar and Ziyad Alghamdi, who is not from Roma but was adopted by the group. Photo: Courtesy of Perla de la O.

Students need skills that lead to middle-class jobs

Seventy percent of young Americans will not earn a bachelor’s degree, write Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor, and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, in Bloomberg View. Most community college students drop out without earning a degree or certificate. Schools must provide “effective programs that prepare kids who are not immediately college-bound for middle-class jobs,” they write.

For many students, the college-prep track is a dead end, they argue. Students don’t master the academic skills needed to earn a two- or four-year degree or the technical skills needed to gain entry to a job with chances for advancement.

In New Orleans, education, business and civic leaders have created YouthForce NOLA to help students qualify for “jobs such as EMT, junior software developer and manufacturing process technician,” write Bloomberg and Dimon. Schools will provide career-tech classes and businesses will offer paid internships aligned with students’ coursework and goals.

JPMorgan Chase and Bloomberg will invest $7.5 million in YouthForce NOLA, and plan similar investments in Denver and Detroit.

The rich get more educated (and richer)

Americans are earning more bachelor’s degrees since 1970, but a larger share go to students from families in top half of the income spectrum, concludes a Pell study. In 2014, 77 percent of four-year graduates came from families in the top 50 percent. Students from the bottom 50 percent earned 23 percent of bachelor’s degrees, down from 28 percent in 1970.

Lower-income students tend to enroll in colleges with low graduation rates, such as community colleges and for-profit colleges, the report found. Middle-class and upper-income students are more likely to attend selective colleges with higher graduation rates.

Overall, only a third of students enroll in selective colleges and universities and only 14 percent in those rated “most,” “highly” and “very” competitive.

Rising college costs make it hard for lower-income students to stay in college, writes Stacey Teicher Khadaroo in the Christian Science Monitor. “There is good progress in high school graduation and college [entry] for low-income kids. Then these enormous financial barriers … just clobber them when they get to college,” says Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

If poor kids are unteachable, why teach?

Do teachers think low-income students are hopeless? That’s the message Derrell Bradford gets from a Duluth News Tribune commentary and graphic that was retweeted by American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten.

In response to a lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s teacher tenure law, the cartoon shows a seating chart filled with losers.

“Weingarten’s retweet shows what she and perhaps many of her members believe about our kids — that their entire identities can be reduced to the challenges they bring to the classroom, and that those challenges obviate and absolve the teacher’s responsibility in the learning equation,” writes Bradford.

Poor kids from tough places are no longer the outlier in America’s schools — they’re the majority of students.
 . . . Teaching is at a crossroads in this country but the issue isn’t which way we proceed with value-added scores or licensure and certification. It’s whether you’re up to the challenge of teaching poor kids or you’re not. There are no “better kids” waiting in the wings.

Bradford grew up poor. He could have been have been trapped in a “below poverty line” square, but he rode buses to get to better schools where teachers worked hard to educate him.

At #ThisTeacher Sees, teachers are making their own seating charts:

Apparently, some teachers have nothing but victims in their classes and others don’t have a single kid who rates “royal pain,” “never shuts up” or “cellphone addict.”

Mapping achievement gaps

A fourth grader works with his teacher in Union City, N.J., a low-income Hispanic district where students perform above grade level. Photo: Karsten Moran, New York Times

Large achievement gaps separate students by race and family income, concludes a Stanford study based on a data set of 200 million test scores.

Sixth graders in the most advantaged districts are more than four grade levels ahead of students in the least advantaged districts, the study found.

  • Average test scores of black students are, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district; the Hispanic-white difference is roughly one- and-a-half grade levels.
  • The size of the gaps has little or no association with average class size, a district’s per capita student spending or charter school enrollment.

White-black achievement gaps are especially large in Atlanta, Oakland,  Charleston and Washington, D.C., reports the New York Times, which created an interactive map of the results. Gaps also are large in university towns such as Berkeley and Chapel Hill, apparently because white students are likely to come from highly educated families.

Detroit has no achievement gap: Whites, blacks and Hispanics in district schools all are more than two years below grade level. Buffalo is gap-free too, for the same reason. Nobody’s learning.

“Poverty is not destiny,” said Sean Reardon, the lead researcher. In Union City, N.J. which is 95 percent Hispanic and mostly low-income, “students consistently performed about a third of a grade level above the national average on math and reading tests,” reports the New York Times.

Union City schools used to be dreadful, writes David Kirp, a Berkeley ed professor. Improvement was “slow and steady.”

To help the poor, give them money

To prepare children from low-income families for school success, U.S. policy and funding has focused on Head Start and universal pre-kindergarten, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst. But research shows that giving more money to low-income parents is more cost effective, he writes.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, which raises the income of  low-income working parents, is more effective than providing free pre-K for four-year-olds, he writes. The chart also shows the modest effects of class-size reduction and Head Start.

Northern European countries focus on supporting family incomes rather than providing preschool or pre-K, writes Whitehurst. “A policy midpoint” could be giving families more money, but limiting it to expenditures on their young children. He envisions something like food stamps.

In Finland, working parents of young children can choose from a variety of child-care providers or “opt to receive a financial subsidy that allows them to reduce their work hours in order to be home more with their child,” he writes. “They can also take unpaid leave.” The rate of enrollment in child-care centers is very low for children under four.

School-based pre-K doesn’t work

School-based pre-K doesn’t improve the lives of disadvantaged children in a “significant, sustained” way, write researchers Katharine B. Stevens and Elizabeth English on the American Enterprise Institute blog.

Some early childhood programs do make a lasting difference, they write. “Intensive, carefully designed, well-implemented programs” such as Abecedar­ian, Nurse-Family Partnership and the Perry Preschool Project, “target very young children, engage parents, and teach a broad range of skills.”

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Social services alone won’t improve learning

Cincinnati has piloted community schools, which “wrap health, dental, therapeutic, and family support services around existing schools” to “improve students’ learning and life prospects,” writes Paul Hill of University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. The idea has spread to New York City and Philadelphia.

However, social services along won’t improve student outcomes, he warns. Students from poor families need a high-quality academic education in addition to social supports.

Oyler School in Cincinnati offers a full range of support services -- at a high cost.

Oyler School in Cincinnati offers a full range of support services, but costs are high and the effect on achievement is not clear.

Oyler School, Cincinnati’s model community school, provides an array of health services, including vision and dental care and mental health counseling.

However,  “the links between even intensive services and student learning are weak and tough to find,” Hill writes. “In Cincinnati, the strongest link between wrap-around services and outcomes like normal progress in school comes from attendance gains: on-site health services mean a parent or guardian no longer needs to take children out of school to wait all day to be seen at an emergency ward.”

“Careful studies” have found that students’ learning growth in the Harlem Children’s Zone “is a result of improvements in the schools,” rather than improved social and health services, he writes.

“Despite enormous support from Cincinnati hospitals and businesses, only Oyler has the full menu of services,” Hill notes. Community schools are expensive.

20,000 NYC students apply to Success charters

More than 20,000 New York City students have applied for 3,228 available spots at Success Academy charter schools, reports the New York Post.

Admission is by lottery.

The network is opening five more elementary schools and two new middle schools this fall. Success will use a $25 million donation to fund expansion.

Test scores are very high for Success charter students, who are predominantly black and Latino. The schools have been criticized for tough discipline policies. Apparently, many parents don’t care.

Why poor kids don’t try for top colleges


Genesis Morales works on the computer at Bryan Adams High School in Dallas. Photo: Cooper Neill, Texas Tribune

“One Dallas-area high school sent more than 60 students to University of Texas-Austin last year,” report Neena Satija and Matthew Watkins in the Texas Tribune. A few miles away, a high-poverty, high-minority school sent one.

Students who rank in the top 10 percent of their senior class are guaranteed a spot in any state university. (At UT-Austin, a student usually needs to be in the top 7 percent.)

Yet, across the state, many low-income, first-generation students don’t apply to top colleges, write Satija and Watkins. Some fear they don’t belong at elite schools like UT-Austin.

Genesis Morales, a senior who ranks 8th in her class at Bryan Adams High, qualifies for automatic admission to UT-Austin, but didn’t apply.

. . . her parents, who are from Mexico, didn’t graduate high school. Her dad is a landscaper, and her mom is a factory worker. For years, her only impressions of college came from watching television shows.

“It’s people who have money, people who are, like, prodigies and stuff, [who] end up there. For me, I was never surrounded by those people — people who went to college.”

Persuaded to aim higher than community college, Morales set her sights on going to Texas Woman’s University in Denton. She prefers a lower-ranked school. “I feel I’m not going to be as smart. So when it comes to tough schools, I kind of stay away,” she said.

Many top-ranked students at Bryan Adams are applying to UT’s less-selective campuses in the Dallas area, reports the Tribune.

. . . most low-income students of color prefer to stay close to home, said Jane Lincove, an assistant professor at Tulane University who studies college access.

In addition to that, at the branch campuses, “there’s more students who look like them, and there’s more students who went to their high schools,” Lincove said of minority students.

Despite her high grades, Morales’ SAT score is in the 43rd percentile, which is low for UT-Austin students. She believes she’d have trouble completing a degree.

“At the state’s two flagships, UT-Austin and Texas A&M University, 72 percent of Hispanic students graduate within six years, compared with 49 percent at Texas Woman’s,” write Satija and Watkins. Of course, that ignores the apple-orange issue: The flagship schools enroll academically superior Hispanic students compared to Texas Woman’s.

Some believe affirmative action can hurt minority students by getting them into top colleges, where they’ll struggle academically, instead of less-elite colleges, where they’ll be as prepared as their classmates. Mikhail Zinshteyn looks at the debate on “mismatch theory.”