Charter school gives college-bound grads the help they need

ByLeslie Brody

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Vincencial Agyapong, a soft-spoken 17-year-old in the Bronx whose mother works as a housekeeper, already feels the stress of taking out a $16,000 loan to start at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., this fall.

“I’m scared to fail,” Vincencial said. “I don’t want to disappoint my mom.”

Low-income students are far less likely than their more affluent peers to finish college, so KIPP, a charter-school network with sites in New York City, runs a three-week “summer bridge” program to give its high-school graduates such as Vincencial a better shot. In an environment meant to simulate college, they get advice on academics, budgeting and building a social life.

One goal is simply to get them on campus. Educators have documented a problem they call “summer melt,” in which many students accepted to college don’t matriculate by the fall.

Lindsay Page, an assistant professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the issue, found that about 10% of intended college students in the U.S. are lost to summer melt, and that rates are as high as 30% among poor urban teenagers.

Many find the pressures of completing financial-aid packages, housing and even transportation to the school too daunting.

“There may be some cold feet, with some students deciding it’s not for them, but there really are a lot of administrative and financial hurdles students can face,” Ms. Page said. Some flounder after losing the support they had in high school when they haven’t yet connected to comparable services at college.

KIPP, which has 200 U.S. schools, including 11 in New York City, started the summer-bridge program six years ago as part of a broader push to help its alumni get “to and through” college. Almost all of its students are poor, and black or Hispanic, and many are the first in their families to pursue higher education.

Supporters of charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded and privately operated, say they offer a haven from failing district schools. But critics say they often skim the most motivated students and drain resources from the traditional public-school system.

‘There may be some cold feet, with some students deciding it’s not for them, but there really are a lot of administrative and financial hurdles students can face.’

One morning last week, 40 KIPP alumni met at Mercy College in Manhattan to practice algebra and essay-writing. Other workshops in the program covered health issues, sexual assault and asking for academic help. Students go home with assignments at night.

Dajour Evans, who is excited to be heading to Georgetown University on a full scholarship, said the program persuaded her to go to professors’ office hours as much as possible and post a giant calendar on her dormitory-room wall to track deadlines.

“I get nervous about having to juggle so much and getting overwhelmed,” she said.

“For me, free time is the silent killer,” said Dante Perez, who enrolled in State University of New York at Oswego and hopes to become a music producer. “I have bad time-management skills, and that will haunt me.”

KIPP’s program is one of many nationwide that seek to address summer melt. For example, Urban Assembly, a nonprofit that supports a group of New York City public schools, has a “bridge to college” program in which its alumni serve as “college coaches” for younger students.

At KIPP, leaders say almost all of the network’s graduates matriculate, and the main factors that influence whether they remain past the first year include their academic readiness and social integration on campus, as well as college costs.

KIPP graduates in college are visited during their first semester by a network staffer and a long-term adviser who keeps in touch by phone every month, for four years, to help solve problems and offer encouragement.

Staffers ask the students a range of questions, whether they are probing the details of a particular class’s syllabus or checking the deadline for a financial-aid form or dropping a difficult class.

Network officials said they tracked students who finished eighth grade at KIPP middle schools whether or not they attended KIPP high schools. A network tally found that by fall 2015, among 1,015 students who left KIPP’s eighth grade at least 10 years ago, 44% earned bachelor’s degrees.

That exceeds the national rate for students from low-income backgrounds but falls short of the network’s goal of 75%, which would be on par with students from wealthy families.

Jane Martinez Dowling, executive director of KIPP Through College at KIPP:NYC, said many of the network’s graduates who didn’t finish college lacked the skills to advocate for themselves when they hit academic obstacles.

Sometimes, those failing a class simply stopped showing up when they should have withdrawn from the course. That mistake—and seeming truancy—could jeopardize their financial aid.

“It’s very difficult for them to go up to the professor or T.A. and say ‘I need tutoring, I need support,’ ” she said.