Many of the nation’s charter schools set up shop in low-income urban areas hoping to propel students who may struggle to finish high school—let alone go to college—into higher education.
But even among the students who make it to college, national statistics paint a grim picture of what happens after they get there: Just 11 percent of low-income, first-generation college-goers graduate in six years, according to the Pell Institute, a research group that focuses on access to higher education.
Even though many charters name homerooms after universities and hang college pennants in the hallways, their alumni still face a range of challenges once they reach college, from cultural to academic.
In recent years, however, charter schools—in particular, charter school networks—have started investing heavily in supporting their alumni beyond high school graduation.
“To be quite honest, my first semester was rough,”, a charter school in New Orleans. Barnes is a freshman at Grinnell College in Iowa. “At Sci, they make sure you have the material down before you leave class, and if you don’t have it, they make you go to a tutoring session. Here, it’s on you.”
Besides, he added: “Going from crawfish to corn, that’s not totally ideal.”
Completion Is the Goal
Although studies have shown that low-income, first-generation college students are much more likely to drop out than their wealthier peers, there is little research that has looked at college persistence among charter school graduates like Barnes.
One study, published this month in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, found that, at least for students in Florida,on their college persistence and later income. Charter graduates were more likely to stay in college and earn higher salaries than their district school peers, even though their test scores were no better.
When KIPP, the nation’s largest charter school network, first took a hard look at its alumni’s college-persistence rates in 2011, it saw similar results. Ten years after completing a KIPP middle school education, students were significantly more likely than their low-income peers nationally to stick with college. Even so, the outcome was still far from stellar: Only 33 percent of KIPP students graduated from a four-year university.
“We wanted to shift the debate away from focusing on college acceptance and move the debate in the charter school community and beyond to college completion,” said Steve Mancini, a spokesman for KIPP. “At that time, there were a lot of charter schools and district schools putting out press releases saying we have 100 percent graduation rates or 100 percent college-acceptance rates.”
More recently, in 2014, KIPP released a second batch of data showing that its alumni graduating from a four-year college had risen to 44 percent, but that the rate was still far south of its ambitious 75 percent goal.
To increase college persistence among alumni, KIPP has focused more on teaching nonacademic skills such as perseverance and providing intensive counseling in high school and beyond.
The network has also entered into partnerships with more than 70 universities. The universities commit to taking groups of eight to 10 students from KIPP or similar schools, so the students have peers from similar backgrounds to lean on. The schools also agree to give those students additional support on campus, such as assigning a point person for them to go to with questions or problems.
It’s often smaller challenges that can derail low-income, first-generation college students, like navigating a complex university administration without guidance, or not having the money to cover textbooks or travel costs home.
“We tend to focus a lot on the big things, but paying attention to the lived experience of students and the smaller struggles that we can help them with makes a big difference,” said Jenny Nagaoka, the deputy director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. “If you’re accepting low-income students and you really want them to graduate, it’s not enough to give them a full financial-aid package; there are a lot more specific things that institutions need to be paying attention to and providing.”
‘No Excuses’ Mantra
Many network charter schools that place a heavy emphasis on getting into college are characterized as “college prep” or “no excuses.”
Beyond festooning their buildings with college-themed decor, those schools also typically have strict rules for behavior: Students must wear uniforms, follow teachers with their eyes at all times, and walk along taped lines when changing classes, to name a few examples.
Those policies have been criticized, not only because they can lead to ballooning suspension rates, but also because they might undermine a student’s ability to meet different expectations of a college setting.
“The big thing that happens to children when they go to college is they’re more called upon to be independent learners,” said Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University. “For some charter schools when they have this very rigid discipline [and] incredible behavioral modification, everything is really scripted.” Preparing students for the ups and downs of college—and not just the academics—has become key to New Orleans’ Collegiate Academies college-persistence efforts.
Ninety-eight percent of graduates from the network’s three schools, which include Sci Academy, are accepted into college, according to Collegiate Academies. But many of its alumni drop out, especially between their first and second years in college. Today, Barnes is among about half the network’s alumni—which so far includes graduates from four classes—who started college and are still attending. “We’re definitely working to make that less of an issue,” said Lauren Katz, the director of college completion for the network. “There is always some sort of college transition. What we try to do is gradually instill more independence and leadership so that when they go to college, they are more prepared.”
Follow J’Remi Barnes’ path through New Orleans’ charter system to college.
All seniors at Sci Academy are required to take a special course focused on building skills such as good study habits and financial literacy. Staff members teach students how to calculate their GPA to see if they’re at risk of losing their scholarships, and they provide assistance to them as they fill out housing and financial-aid forms.
As a major part of her job, Katz also visits graduates on their college campuses to check on them and refine the network’s college-prep programming back in New Orleans.
“I had a few students talk about how, in their college math classes, their professors will just run through a few practice problems instead of explaining the concept,” said Katz. “So, I talked to the head of our math department, and then our senior-year math teacher started incorporating that into her classroom.”
Nagaoka, the University of Chicago researcher, said some charters have amassed crucial knowledge on how to help poor students through college.
Nagaoka has doubts that many traditional school districts would be able to muster the resources to offer similar supports. But, she said, the programming and ongoing supports that some charter networks have refined—and their positive results—could spur broader interest in college persistence among nonprofits and foundations. That could, in turn, benefit larger groups of students.
Still, there are issues that specialized college persistence programs can only do so much to tackle.
Students may still have to adjust to different cultures. And they still get homesick—something that Barnes worried about as he prepared to leave for college last summer.
Barnes is attending Grinnell on a Posse Scholarship, a national program that groups scholarship recipients into cohorts from the same city and sends them to college together. He said his posse has helped him adjust to life at a small, private liberal arts school.
“It’s a culture shock,” he said. “I’m coming from New Orleans where it’s majority black, most of the community I’ve seen and interacted with is black, and then you come to Grinnell, and it’s just different.
“Having my posse here, ... I was never alone,” he said, “even when I was struggling with my schoolwork, I could lean on my posse.”
But, Barnes said, he doesn’t think his situation is unique.
“From what my adviser said, he said everyone struggles in that first semester, so I shouldn’t worry about it too much. So, I’m guessing it happens to just about everyone.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as Charters Help Alums Stick With College