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Most City High Schools Don't Prep Kids Enough for College, Experts Say

By  Carolina Pichardo and Amy Zimmer | December 1, 2016 8:50am 

 Deirdre Cipolla, pictured here with her 13-year-old daughter, Lila, said selecting a college-ready high school is
Deirdre Cipolla, pictured here with her 13-year-old daughter, Lila, said selecting a college-ready high school is "one facet" of the process for her family.
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Deirdre Cipolla

MANHATTAN — High school applications are due Thursday, with families allowed to pick up to 12 of the Department of Education’s 400 schools with 700 programs.

But the vast majority of the city’s high schools aren’t providing students with what they need to succeed at four-year colleges, parents and experts say.

“What ‘college readiness' means is kind of a joke,” said Elissa Stein, who runs a service called High School 411, helping parents navigate the high school admissions process.

“Families are so ill-prepared for college, it’s mind-boggling — not just from an academic standpoint, but how do you apply, what kind of essay do you write, how do you look for financial aid," Stein said. "Most schools do not offer that support to kids. That’s part of college preparedness.”

In fact, fewer than 7 percent of all high schools — or just 25 of the 400 — meet the college readiness bar set by the nonprofit Breakthrough New York, which developed its own metrics, including 4-year graduation rates, college matriculation and enrollment, average SAT scores and number of college advisers.

“There are probably at most 20 to 25 public high schools that are preparing kids for what I would consider rigorous college-level work,” said Rhea Wong, executive director of Breakthrough, which runs a highly competitive program to support low-income students from middle school through college.

Because of the lack of college-ready schools — which include elite schools like Bard, Beacon, Millennium and Townsend Harris — the stress of the application process, with trying to snag seats at open houses and navigating interviews and essays, can be daunting for many families.

Breakthrough New York's 10-year-long program assists students every step of the way, from finding the right high school to getting into — and staying in — college, often providing the role that affluent parents fill for their kids in the city.

“Because the way the system is set up in New York, it really does advantage those that have more knowledge and free time,” Wong said about the high school admissions process, noting that families really have to start thinking about college when they’re applying to middle schools to ensure they’re kids are on the right track.

“Better middle schools have better guidance counselors that help you get tracked to better high schools,” she said. “It’s like this perpetuating cycle of haves and have-nots. We’re trying to fill in the gaps for children who may not have the guidance resources and other resources.”

Though the group is expanding its labor-intensive efforts to reach more kids, it’s still a relatively small program, set to recruit a new crop of about 100 seventh-graders this spring.

That leaves the majority of parents on their own for the most part as they try to determine which city high schools provide a strong enough foundation to ensure kids are "college ready."

Washington Heights mom Deirdre Cipolla, who has spent weeks negotiating the admissions process for her 13-year-old daughter, called the process exhausting.

And she's already been through it once before — placing her 15-year-old son at Long Island City’s highly regarded Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, where she felt she hit the lottery.

“At Frank Sinatra, they definitely have their eye on getting their kids to college," said Cipolla, whose son is likely to get college credit for his AP global history work. “I do like that, because he’s getting a bit of a head start."

Gerald Morales, who is currently in the application process with his 13-year-old daughter, Cassidy, said the process is frustrating. 

"There aren’t too many options," said Morales. "In New York City, for the amount of schools we have, we noticed that the schools that actually prepare kids for college is so small. It then makes getting into those ‘good schools’ even harder."

Morales said although they attended several open houses, auditions, tests and "did everything we had to do," it didn't feel like it was enough, so they applied to two private schools to broaden the options for their daughter. "If your child is strong-suited academically, but with so little options, what do you do?" he said. "What are your choices?"

The DOE, meanwhile, has touted that enrollment in post-secondary institutions is at its highest rate ever, with 55 percent of the Class of 2015 enrolling in a two- or four-year college, vocational program or public service programs after graduation.

That’s up 2 points from the previous year and 4 points from the year before that.

The percentage of last year’s seniors who were “college ready” upon graduation also improved to record highs — to 37 percent, up 2 points from the year before — according to the DOE, which looks at on-time graduation rates and meeting CUNY’s standards for college readiness in English and Math.

“I am excited to see that the hard work of our educators is paying off with more students than ever before enrolling in college,” Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement announcing the college readiness rates. “But it’s clear there’s so much work to do.”

The city has a host of initiatives, including expanding the availability of AP courses, in hopes of ensuring that in 10 years two-thirds of graduates will be college-ready and that 80 percent will graduate high school on time.

While the uptick in college enrollment appears to be good news, the data does not include college retention and graduation rates, Wong noted.

“Are they going to schools where they are able to handle the work? Are they taking remedial courses? How many are graduating?” she asked. “That’s the finish line.”

Wong also said there are qualitative measures of college readiness that are harder to glean from looking at school data.

“There’s the academic piece,” she said. “But there’s the other piece: life skills. Can I be resilient in the face of challenges? Can I negotiate on my behalf? If you have a financial aid issue, are you going to be resourceful to talk to the bursar’s office?”

Wong said that many high schools don’t necessarily teach these sorts of skills but that many students need to learn them, whether they’re affluent kids sheltered by “helicopter” parents or low-income students, who may not know, for instance, what a bursar is.

So besides things like taking AP English, AP Calculus and demonstrating a "curiosity" about the world, Wong said, “To me, college readiness is also this intangible: Are you self confident enough to figure things out and be resourceful?”