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   Families Insure Their Children Against the Changing Sands of Education

In Madison Wisconsin, sophomores William Lemkuil, center, and Demitrius Kigeya, right, listen to Danaejuh Sheppard during a roundtable discussion with other students from Madison Memorial High School’s Black Student Union in August. Sheppard, a senior, discusses a proposed mentoring program at the high school that would partner younger students with older students. Photo: Joseph W. Jackson III / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

By Margo McKenzie

Ariel Gill, a 2013 New York City high school graduate, will defy the odds and graduate from Oswego State University in June 2017 after four years. According to a New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) website, 78,721 students entered a high school at the same time Ariel did in 2009. Of that group, she was among the 51,970 students who earned a high school diploma in 2013. Another NYCDOE report indicates only 22% of those same diploma recipients were considered college-ready. That is to say that 88% of Ariel’s peers who earned a high school diploma would have to enroll in noncredit-bearing CUNY remedial classes.

When Ariel graduated from high school four years ago, she and all other New York State graduates had to take the following course load: 8 credits in English, 8 credits in history (4 in American and 4 in global, 1 in economics and 1 in government), 6 in math, 6 in science, 2 in foreign language, 2 in art/music, 7 in physical education and 7 electives. In addition, Ariel was required to pass a minimum of 5 regents exams with at least a 65%: English, Global, American History, Math, Science.

Four years of reading and writing in high school served Ariel well. The same could not be said for most of her peers who, according to CUNY standards, were not ready for college and therefore were required to take remedial classes and pass a test to continue their studies.

“This is demoralizing for some students,” according to Beverly Marshack, a former CUNY adjunct professor who taught remedial reading and writing. “Sometimes students fail these exams two or three times. They become frustrated and develop an attitude making it more difficult to learn from their instructors.” Some students are in denial and will say, “I don’t belong here. I just didn’t have enough time.” Others are aware of their gaps and are ashamed. “When students get their diploma, it should mean their college-ready.”

Lori Bennet, former NYC middle school principal and local instruction superintendent who now serves as Outside Educational Expert, assesses high school in the Greater New York area and agrees with Marshack. When a student graduates high school, they should be prepared to embark on the next step in life. When she assesses schools, she looks for “rigor and high expectations.” She likes to see students work, “but I also like to see what the students were required to do.”   She is heartened when she visits schools that provide college readiness and career readiness. During one school visit, a student boasted that when he graduates from his automotive high school he can obtain an entry-level position at a BMW. He’ll have the skills to attend college, but he’ll also be prepared to enter a work world that exists.

A New York Times article (March 20, 2017) indicated CUNY is taking measures to reduce the number of students needing remedial courses. The headline read, “CUNY to Revamp Remedial Programs, Hoping to Lift Graduation Rates (March 20, 2017).” The plan is to drop Compass, one placement test and replace it with ACCUPLACER to determine readiness for college in addition to considering students’ high school grades in “relevant classes. . . or grade point averages.” Compass placed students in remedial courses when they may not have needed them after all. The damage was done, however. The article admits, “Many students, frustrated that they are sitting in class without progressing toward a degree, drop out.” By fall 2018, CUNY will implement their new system for assessing high school graduates. “Over the thirty years I’ve worked for CUNY, the standards have changed at least three times,” says Marshack.

Parents of school students who have long been weary of moving standards have established a system of their own as a hedge against the changing currents in education. Dr. Brenda Williams-Harewood, former principal of PS 20, studied these parents for a dissertation. She compiled a list of students who consistently achieved 3’s and 4’s on state exams and visited their homes and interviewed the parents and their children. She wanted to know the secret of their success and recorded her findings in a book she wrote with James Reed Campbell entitled “Parents as Talent Developers.”

According to Harewood and Campbell, if parents or guardians adopt identified values and practices, they can protect their loved ones from the vicissitudes of the educational system and be assured their children are ready for college or career. Every parent or guardian of elementary school students can implement some or all ninety-two nuggets of wisdom she presents in her book. One “kernel” or value she talks about is getting across the idea, “Your job is school.” If students understood this idea to its core and parents upheld it, students would succeed. When necessary, “Parents should step in when children get their priorities out of line.”

Parents Irmin Wilford and her husband did just that and established their own Wilford Summer Academy. She required her children to read four books, complete an hour of math and a grade-level grammar book. “The rest of the day was theirs.” In high school, the Easter break became Wilford Regents Week. She purchased regents review books for her children to complete. Today, Wilford’s children, a doctor and aspiring lawyer, still laugh about those days in their parent’s academy.

When Ariel graduates in June 2017, she will be the first in her family. Why was she successful? When she looked at a truncated list of Harewood’s kernels, she discovered she was raised on seventeen of twenty of them. Schools are important but “Parents have to pay attention to what’s happening with their children’s education.”

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