College Readiness is Key Focus This Year

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Classes began last week up at Buffalo State College, and, against long odds, Joanelly Fermin was there.

Just one in 10 children across the country who grow up in poverty — as Joanelly did in Spanish Harlem — graduates from a four-year college in six years. Yet due to the attention of a caring community of educators at her small high school and the school's focus on writing in-depth research papers, Joanelly developed resilience, built her core academic skills, and became ready for college.

As she begins her junior year, Joanelly has a 3.9 grade point average, serves as a residential assistant on campus, and holds down a part-time job off-campus. She is majoring in special education and is currently on track to graduate in four years; afterward, she plans to teach in a high-needs school.

We know from experience and research that how students fare after high school is determined in large part by the preparation they receive from pre-kindergarten (and before) through 12th grade. Joanelly’s story and those of students like her are powerful evidence of what is possible when educators work together to provide a rigorous academic experience.

Her story is an example of what we are working to replicate across the city. But with only 37 percent of New York City high school graduates ready for college, and half of the college students across the country reaching graduation, we also know that the challenge is great.

The 2012-13 school year will mark my 19th in the New York City public schools, where I began my career as a middle school math and social studies teacher in Harlem. Like Chancellor Dennis Walcott and educators across the city, I became a teacher to make a difference in young people’s lives. I believe the youth of New York City have a right to a world-class education, an education that empowers them with real options when they graduate high school. To fulfill that right, students need the skills to succeed in college and the workplace. While we have made critically important progress, at this moment we are not yet reaching this goal with all of our students, and we have an obligation to fix that.

Due to the strong foundation Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the chancellor have laid over the last decade, we are entering this school year with a deep-rooted commitment to strengthening instruction and a focused eye on doubling the college readiness rate over the next three years. This rate is based on the percent of students who graduate in four years with a Regents diploma and meet City University of New York’s standards for passing out of remedial coursework.

To ensure our students develop 21st-century skills such as thinking creatively, solving real-world problems, and making effective arguments, schools are beginning to shift their instruction to emphasize understanding concepts more deeply and making connections among topics. These skills require a strong foundation in literacy so at Dual Language Middle School in Manhattan, for example, where one in three students is an English language learner, all teachers lead a weekly book club discussion with students. In preparation for what they will read in high school and college, students read, write, and talk about a balance of fiction and non-fiction texts.

Recognizing that success in college and careers involves hard and soft skills, we are also emphasizing school cultures that build resilience and support youth development. At Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, students receive mastery-based grades that allow students, teachers, and families to understand exactly which of the school’s Learning Targets students have mastered. Students also receive separate grades for their academic behaviors, which they call Habits of Work and Learning. Both grades are discussed in parent-teacher conferences, which are led by students.

Our teachers are integral to ensuring our students are prepared for their next step, and schools that support their teachers in reflective practice are yielding better results for their students. After New Dorp High School in Staten Island organized itself into smaller learning communities — comprised of teacher teams that meet daily to examine student work to identify gaps in students’ skills — teachers began to realign curriculum and adjust their practice accordingly, and student outcomes skyrocketed.

The school's four-year graduation rate has increased from 54.9 percent in 2005 to 75.8 percent in 2011.

One of the benefits of New Dorp teachers’ regular analysis and tracking of student work is that teachers are intimately aware with how students’ skills and content knowledge are progressing. As the time to take Regents exams approaches, teachers do not need to stop their regular teaching and shift into narrow test prep, which in the long run would not benefit the students or the teachers.

The leaders of these schools and many others across the city get that the purpose of our schools is not to teach our students to be good at taking tests. They get that the purpose of our schools is to develop independent learners, to help our students learn how to be resilient when they fail and to come back again, to learn how to read and deeply understand a text, to write clear arguments and defend their ideas with real evidence. When we do a good job supporting our students with developing these skills, they also do well on tests.

The greatest gift we can give our students is the freedom that is inherent in a world-class education. There are no shortcuts to truly preparing our students for college and careers, and with our collective focus on strengthening instruction and supporting our teachers, I am confident we can reach that goal.

Shael Polakow-Suransky is the chief academic officer at the New York City Department of Education.