Inside the classrooms at New Haven Academy, students take the usual slate of high school classes, as well as a more unusual offering: a four-year progression of courses designed to teach students to plan for the future and successfully apply to college. According to NHA Principal Greg Baldwin, 100 percent of graduating seniors are accepted to at least one college or university.
Last week, Gov. Dannel Malloy chose New Haven Academy as the site to announce that high school graduation rates are on the rise in Connecticut, particularly in the Elm City. In New Haven, the graduation rate has soared 13 percent since 2010 to hit 75.4 percent in 2014. The statistic is a sign of the success of the School Change Initiative, a major reform project launched in 2009. According to Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for New Haven Public Schools, the statistic is also in part the result of the district’s relentless focus on getting students into college, a drive embodied by NHA’s commitment to guiding students through every step of the application process.
“A large focus of the [School Change] Initiative was on creating a college-going culture in our schools,” Smith said. “We think that that preparation has helped drive the graduation rate up.”
Despite progress, New Haven’s graduation rate still lags behind the statewide rate, which rose 1.5 percent to hit 87 percent this year. Even NHA, though its graduation rate rose from 66 percent in 2013 to 85 percent last year, is fighting to catch up to the rest of Connecticut.
But not everyone agrees that what the most at-risk students need is more focus on college. Four miles northwest of NHA’s brick building on State Street — a temporary campus while its Orange Street home is renovated — some of those who do not graduate from NHPS find their way to the New Haven Job Corps Center, one of 125 locations nationwide where young adults can earn credentials to enter a skilled trade or service profession while living in dorms on the federal government’s dime. Renee Venturino, business and community liaison, sees room in schools for greater career preparation.
“I think youth need to be aware that they do have choices,” she said.
A COMMITMENT TO COLLEGE ADMISSIONS
Sitting at a conference table in his office, Baldwin explained the mission and vision of the school he founded in 2003 with his wife, program director Meredith Gavrin. NHA, an interdistrict magnet school that enrolls students from New Haven and nearby towns, focuses on cultivating critical thinking skills and engaging students in studies of social justice and democracy participation. It offers students courses at Quinnipiac University and Gateway Community College, job shadow days and three-week internships. Starting from day one, students are asked to consider and plan for their futures.
“They take a class called freshman seminar that starts to explore the essential questions,” Baldwin said. “How do I do well in high school? Where am I going? How do I get there?”
College preparation deepens in junior and senior years, when students begin participating in the College Bound Seminar. They research schools, work on admissions essays, obtain references, prepare for standardized tests, learn about financial aid and consider issues they might face as they transition from high school to college. Next week, Baldwin said, NHA juniors will sit for mock college interviews with actual campus interviewers, who will offer feedback and suggestions for improvement. Before graduation, every senior will present a “Life Plan” detailing their goals for the future.
NHA’s overall vision is shared by district administrators. Along with increasing graduation rates and eliminating the achievement gap, preparing students to attend and succeed at college is one of the three pillars of the School Change Initiative.
Dolores Garcia-Blocker, director of college and career pathways, said she was not surprised at the increasing graduation rates. She views the annual increases as the result of a slow, steady effort to change the way New Haven students think about college.
The district initiatives Garcia-Blocker believes are contributing to rising graduation rates include partnering with the nonprofit College Summit, which has led “college-going culture” trainings for New Haven teachers and students who serve as peer leaders.
Since 2010, New Haven Promise has offered up to full-tuition scholarships to Connecticut universities to NHPS students who meet academic and attendance criteria. This week, Mayor Toni Harp, New Haven Promise Executive Director Patricia Melton and researchers from the RAND Corporation met at Co-op High School to discuss the results of RAND’s 2010-2013 study of Promise and the School Change Initiative. The researchers found that the number of students who met Promise criteria increased over time, and college enrollment increased slightly for all students.
In an interview, Melton said she believes Promise nudges students to stay academically focused because it makes college financially viable.
“Parents and students are absolutely motivated to declare that they’re going to try to get the scholarship,” Melton said.
Garcia-Blocker is also working with schools to develop industry partnerships and career pathways, some of which include not only thematic coursework, but also certification opportunities. The expectation, however, is that students will need some kind of post-high school training to succeed.
“No one’s going to be able to survive in this world with just a high school diploma,” Garcia-Blocker said.
AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, NOT HEADING FOR THE IVORY TOWER
On Tuesday morning, roughly 20 young adults, their parents and a few infants arrived at the New Haven Job Corps campus in Hamden to tour the carpentry workshop, nursing training stations, demonstration kitchen, dorms and classrooms. Outreach and Admissions Counselor Tyra Stanley led the group through several buildings, pointing out the small visitor registration hut built by carpentry students and the tables where culinary students were preparing to serve lunch.
At least five of the young adults on the tour, ranging in age from 18 to 24, said they had not graduated from high school. They were looking for an opportunity to learn a trade — an opportunity they had not had in high school — and gain a job that would confer not only better wages but also dignity.
Twenty-one-year-old Alina Stein said she dropped out of Hamden High School at 16 because she was bullied by classmates. Now, she works as a bartender, cares for her four-month-old daughter, Zoe, and hopes to attend night school to gain her GED. Moreover, she found the academic classes at Hamden pointless.
“I thought it was all stupid,” Stein said. “That’s why I was interested in Job Corps. It goes straight to the point.”
In addition to Job Corps, Connecticut Center for the Arts and Technology, located in Science Park, provides job-training by offering non-residential courses in phlebotomy and medical billing and coding, and will soon add a third track in culinary skills. Since 2012, it has graduated about 32 students per year.
The courses are open to all adults with a high school diploma or GED, but many applicants fail to pass the required basic math courses, according to Genevive Walker, director of programs. Walker said many students struggle to come to class on time and communicate with instructors — even securing a high school diploma does not necessarily guarantee students the interpersonal skills employers need, much less the credentials to obtain a stable career.
Like Venturino, Walker does not see why schools focus so little time and resources on career certification.
“We’re not fully taking advantage of training and encouraging young people toward trainings that can provide an income while they figure out what they want to do in college or if they’re going to college,” Walker said. “I think there’s some missed opportunities, to be honest. We need to be providing many more alternatives.”
At NHA, Baldwin believes setting college as the goal ensures students are equipped to pursue any plan after high school, be it a traditional four-year university degree, trade certification or a military career.
When they present their Life Plans at the end of senior year, NHA students occasionally explain why they chose to turn down a college acceptance in favor of a career, military service or another path. Baldwin is fine with that, because he knows they considered multiple viable options.
“Often, kids aren’t going to college and it’s a choice that was made for them by courses they took or didn’t take, pass or didn’t pass, things they did or didn’t know until they were a senior,” Baldwin said. “What we want is informed choices.”
Mariana Sanchez, a freshman at Riverside Academy who attended the Job Corps tour, makes a simple but significant choice every day when she decides whether or not to go to school. Already this year, she has missed 45 days when it was too cold to wait for the city bus or she felt sick. She was disappointed to find out she is too young for Job Corps, which requires students to be at least 16. Unlike Riverside, she is drawn to Job Corps because it offers the chance to prepare for the career she would like to have as a chef.
Sanchez plans to wait until she is old enough for Job Corps, and then she will decide whether to stay at Riverside or leave — with or without her diploma.