College Guide

from the Hechinger Report

August 18, 2014 6:09 PM Getting Kids into College is One Thing, Getting Them Through is Another

By Jamaal Abdul-alim

NEW ORLEANS —When Pamela Bolton searched for a middle school for her daughter seven years ago, convenience, not college, was on her mind. She ended up enrolling her daughter at a new and untested middle school called New Orleans College Prep largely because she could get there easily.

But New Orleans College Prep, and its partner high school, Cohen College Prep, ended up providing much more than an easy commute. Last spring a large poster of Bolton’s daughter, Imani, then a graduating senior, attested to such as it hung in the school hallway. “IMANI HAS OPTIONS,” the poster proclaimed, listing the scholarship awards that Imani had won up to that point: $4,000 to attend Jackson State University; $52,000 to attend Spring Hill College; $56,000 to attend Emory & Henry College; $32,000 for Millsaps College.

In the end, Pamela Bolton counted the unexpected help that Imani got in the college admissions process as one of the most important things the school provided.“It was a lot off me because I didn’t know much about it,”said Bolton, a baker at a downtown casino, during an impromptu interview at the school’s college counseling office. She was there filling out paperwork for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which her daughter plans to attend on a state-sponsored full scholarship this fall.

Cohen College Prep’s graduating seniors listen to a classmate speak during last spring’s graduation ceremony — the first for the charter network. (Photo courtesy of New Orleans College Prep)

Cohen College Prep’s graduating seniors listen to a classmate speak during last spring’s graduation ceremony — the first for the charter network. (Photo courtesy of New Orleans College Prep)

Cohen College Prep’s 100 percent college acceptance rate for the Class of 2014 —its inaugural graduating class —is three times the rate at the old high school the ambitious charter displaced, school officials say. Collectively, the school’s 54 seniors won over $2 million in scholarship aid, more per student than any other open enrollment school in the city, according to an analysis of figures from the Recovery School District, which encompasses most of the city’s public schools.

Ben Kleban, the founder and director of New Orleans College Preparatory Academies, the network that runs Cohen College Prep, describes the school’s high college acceptance rate as a “major milestone”made possible by more than seven years of hard work and strategic planning.

But the real test will come over the next few years, as the students from Cohen seek to earn their college degrees.Whether they succeed will be part of a crucial reckoning not only for Cohen but more broadly, for the post-Katrina New Orleans school reinvention. This fall, the Recovery School District will be the first big-city school district made up entirely of charter schools, many of them founded on the premise that they could do a better job of sending low-income and first-generation college students to and through college than their public school predecessors.

Not everyone is convinced the students from these schools will persist to degrees once free from the watchful eyes of charter school teachers and administrators —and on college campuses where their academic fates will rest in their own hands like never before.

Charter schools’ proponents and detractors alike say it’s too early to declare the city’s schools a success or failure when it comes to college success.

“This is a marathon,”said Andre Perry, the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the former CEO of a New Orleans charter network. “Ultimately, it takes years to see if a school is successful.”

College as the inevitable destination

Destination colleges for Cohen graduates vary widely and include two-year colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, which often pride themselves on enrolling underprepared students. But they also include highly selective institutions that are as far away culturally and socioeconomically as they are geographically from the violence-prone neighborhoods from which many of Cohen’s students hail —and ardently want to escape.

“Ultimately, it takes years to see if a school is successful.”Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education, Davenport University.

Cohen College Prep has presented college as the inevitable destination for its students since its inception in 2007, when it opened with just sixth graders and added a grade each year.

When they are not wearing their standard uniforms, for instance, students don hooded college sweatshirts. College pennants hang throughout the school, and teachers emphasize the various skills and habits of mind students will have to know once they arrive on campus.

For instance, in an Advanced Placement calculus class toward the end of the school year, math teacher Elizabeth Greene chided the students for allowing other staff members to pull them out of her class for end-of-year planning and activities.

“It’s not on me to make sure no one interferes with your math time,”Greene said. “I don’t want you falling behind because that’s what’s going to happen in college. You need to be able to say, ‘I’m actually busy then, can we do it another time?’”

Over time, Cohen College Prep has also put substantial resources behind its college-for-all goal. It has two full-time staff in the college counseling office, a sizable commitment given the relatively small size of the graduating class.

One of those counselors is Paris Woods, who started over a year ago as director of alumni relations to advise the students as they progress through college.

Jamaal Abdul-alim is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who specializes in coverage of higher education.

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