College checklist

Memphis FAFSA drive seeks to build city’s college-going culture

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Kirby High School senior Kimberly London hopes to attend the University of Memphis with financial aid. She recently completed her FAFSA form during the city's second annual FAFSA drive.

Kirby High School senior Kimberly London is the vice president of her class, president of the school’s honor society, and active in numerous extracurricular activities. But even she needs help overcoming the burdensome task of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to secure financial aid for college.

“If I didn’t have this help, I probably wouldn’t have applied for financial aid,” says Kimberly, who finished her forms last month with support provided through a Memphis-wide FAFSA campaign. “If anything, I would think I just needed to work and struggle to be able to pay for college.”

Kimberly’s apprehension isn’t unique. That’s why community leaders are behind the push to help area high school seniors complete their FAFSA applications this month. The goal is to create a college-going culture in a city where building a college-trained and career-ready workforce is an ongoing challenge.

The city’s FAFSA campaign launched in early January and culminates this weekend with events in libraries, churches and schools to provide hands-on assistance. While the FAFSA deadline varies for different post-secondary schools, Feb. 15 is the cutoff for completion to remain eligible for Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam’s initiative to provide eligible seniors with two free years of tuition at a community or technical college.

Last year, the first year of the Memphis FAFSA campaign, a network of more than 100 community organizations and high school counselors assisted more than 7,000 graduating seniors. Their work increased the city’s completion rate from 60 to 88 percent in Shelby County, according to leaders of Memphis Talent Dividend, an action initiative of Leadership Memphis.

Nationwide during 2015, the first year of eligibility for Tennessee Promise scholarships, Tennessee accounted for more than 40 percent of the increase in FAFSA completions

Opportunities after high school are especially critical in Memphis, where one in every five youth ages 16-24 are neither in school nor working, according to a 2015 study from Measure of America, a nonprofit organization that gathers data for social science policy. That makes Memphis the No. 1 large city in America for “disconnected youth,” the study says.

The FAFSA push also aligns with Shelby County Schools’ strategic plan known as Destination 2025, which aims for 80 percent of its seniors to graduate college- or career-ready, and to help 100 percent of those students enroll in college or other post-secondary opportunities.

But helping youth access funding is only part of the equation in pursuing a post-secondary education. The other challenge is making sure that parents complete the necessary financial information required under FAFSA, says Alton Cryer, coordinator for the Memphis campaign.

“The fact that they have to hand over their tax information, something that is really private, is unnerving,” Cryer said.

There are also social barriers. Many parents are caught up in systemic poverty and have little experience with government documentation outside of welfare applications or arrest records.

“If the system has let them down in many ways, then documentation is sometimes intimidating,” said the Rev. Eugene Gibson, senior pastor for the Olivet Fellowship Baptist Church, a Memphis congregation that is helping to spread the word about the city’s FAFSA drive.

The FAFSA process has been criticized as needlessly complex by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. The Tennessee Republican and former governor has introduced federal legislation that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

Until then, the FAFSA process likely will remain intimidating to many students, even high-achieving ones like Kimberly, who wants to study business marketing at the University of Memphis. She says assistance like her city’s FAFSA campaign will make a difference for seniors navigating the process.

“Scale of 1 to 10, the need for this is a 10,” she said.

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.