Beating the College-Enrollment Odds

| 03 Mar 2015 | 08:47

NYC lags the rest of the country in terms of high schoolers going on to college. But schools like the Upper East Side's Talent Unlimited are bucking the trend.

New York City high schoolers may be graduating at a record-high rate -- as Mayor Bloomberg proudly touted last week -- but they still lag the rest of the country when it comes to enrolling in college. Less than half of the city's graduating seniors are going on to two or four-year college, well behind the national college enrollment average of 66%.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that there are a growing number of local high schools (beyond the brand names like Stuyvesant) that are defying the odds. They're beating the city average -- sometimes by a wide margin -- by focusing intensely on college-prep coursework and guidance services.

At Talent Unlimited High School on the Upper East Side, for instance, students can take classes at nearby Hunter College.

The High School of Economics and Finance in the Financial District offers guidance from representatives at Pace University.

And at Manhattan/Hunter Science High School on the Upper West Side, all students actually take classes their senior year at Hunter College, which can be used as college credit courses. Principal Kevin Froner said that even if the students opt not to attend Hunter College, the program gives them a college-like experience while still in high school.

"In our school we have ordinary kids-who might get a 2 out of 4 on the high school exam-- who do extraordinary things," said Froner. "It's all about the common core, and getting kids ready for college. Most schools are struggling to do that in 4 years but we are committing to doing it in three years, which raises the bar for every teacher and student."

A common thread in high schools with low college enrollment rates is a population of students from disadvantaged backgrounds whose parents have never gone to college. A school with less than half of the kids going to college is likely to be categorized as Title I, which means a majority of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The High School of Economics and Finance in the financial district is such a place, with 78% of students eligible for free lunch

And yet 84% of the class of 2013 went to college.

As a college preparatory high school, the staff there focuses on disseminating information about college from 9th grade onward. Principal Michael Stanzione said that he makes sure that kids know there are scholarship opportunities even for students who don't believe they can afford college, including the Posse Foundation Scholarships, given to selected student leaders. "We are constantly letting them know that the next step is college," said Stanzione, who himself is a first-generation college graduate in his family. "We make sure every student meets the criteria for graduation and college readiness. We ensure that our students get placed into choice colleges."

One of the most consistent aspects of high schools with high college enrollment rates is a dedicated college-counseling program, meaning that students can and will meet with college counselors all year around to work on admission essays, go on college visits and discuss career goals.

The problem, often, is funding. So many of the Title I schools can't afford the resources needed to get their kids to college, or they are just focused on keeping students from dropping out before graduation day.

East Side Community High School on the Lower East Side, where almost three-quarters of the students are eligible for free lunch, took matters into its own hands by bringing College Bound Initiative into the school. CBI, part of the Young Women's Leadership Network, places full-time college guidance counselors into 21 under-achieving or high-needs schools.

"The program is really very integrated, they are always there for the kids," said Lauren Hare, a representative from CBI. "The majority of students we work with, their parents may have only graduated from high school so they can't provide the support of researching schools or knowing about the SAT. A student may come to East Side, a college prep school, not knowing that college was an option, but almost all of their students aspire to college."

For many principals in schools with high college enrollment rates, it's not just about meeting with guidance counselors, but integrating college into the classrooms. At Talent Unlimited High School on the Upper East Side, students write and edit college essays in their English classes. At the High School of Economics and Finance, students take a four-week course before entering the 9th grade to get them used to the idea of high school and preparing for college.

For Principal Froner at Manhattan/Hunter Science High School, it all comes down to curriculum.

"It should be quality over quantity," said Principal Froner. "Any school can do this but we're more inclined to do so. It's about incorporating the spirit of higher learning in the classroom."