SEPTEMBER 26, 2013

Stepping into the Breach: Nonprofit organizations can't fully replace college counselors, but they offer crucial assistance to both students and schools.

In New York City, nonprofit organizations are the steady two-cylinder engines helping tens of thousands of high school students find their way to college. These organizations don't have much horsepower, they aren't designed for long-hauls or heavy pulls and they don't pick up everyone along the way. Nonetheless, without their work, far fewer teenagers would make their way on the sometimes hazardous road to higher education.

Most city high schools, recognizing their own limitations, accept and even welcome the involvement of these organizations. Perhaps inevitably, some principals express concern or regret about relying on external groups to meet a need that, by rights, is the schools' responsibility.

"From my point of view as a school leader, a CBO [community-based organization] or a partner organization can't supplant what I feel is my responsibility," says Monique Darrisaw, former principal of the Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick, Brooklyn, now working in school support for the Department of Education. "It's like sending your child to visit somebody. Dinner is my responsibility. If someone gives them a snack, I'm very thankful. You know they went to your house and they had a snack, but it's still my responsibility to feed and clothe that child."

Nonetheless, there is a general recognition that the outside groups serve a very important function, especially considering how overburdened the high schools are. "With all of the paperwork guidance counselors have to fill out, and with union rules about working overtime, schools are hampered from doing things the way a CBO can," says Lan To, director of post-secondary initiatives at Good Shepherd Services, a social service and youth development agency. "It's not that schools don't want to do things, they just aren't able to."

In 2011, Graduate NYC!, a Gates Foundation-funded community collaboration led by the city school system and the City University of New York, identified 253 organizations doing college readiness and transition programming in New York City. Of these, 156 nonprofits replied to their survey. They counted nearly 93,000 New York City teens and young adults who looked to these groups in 2010 for help with college essays and applications, financial aid paperwork and preparation for tests like the SAT and the CUNY assessment.

In our own research at the Center for New York City Affairs, we have closely followed the work of 12 community and nonprofit organizations that are collaborating with 14 public high schools and middle schools as part of the College Ready Communities initiative, funded by the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation. The initiative is premised on the idea that these nonprofit groups, with their neighborhood connections and knowledge of local communities, will mobilize new resources to help students prepare for college. They also aim to promote a culture of high achievement, parent engagement and community involvement in the schools.

On page 56, we provide short summaries of a number of programs, large and small, that nonprofit organizations have run with substantial success. The one common thread: they are all attempting to fill a vast gap in the services available to the city's students.


Each summer, the University Program at East Harlem Tutorial Program welcomes 25 to 35 rising high school freshmen to a comprehensive four-year program designed to prepare students for college. The free program begins with a rigorous five-week summer institute that includes two weeks on a college campus outside of New York City, such as Syracuse University. Over the next four years, students take classes in English and mathematics at Harlem Tutorial, and have special opportunities such as taking anatomy lab classes at Touro Medical School or competing in a regional robotics tournament. The aim is for students to embark on an academic path suggestive of the college experience years before they ever formally enroll in college. Students participate in workshops that require them to think about the factors that go into becoming a successful college student; they take part in trust-building exercises and learn financial literacy. As juniors, students are required to attend a 10-week SAT preparation class; as seniors, they sit down with their family and program staff to work together on financial aid applications.

Admission to the program is not based on grades. Students are invited to participate if in the course of interviews they demonstrate a strong commitment and willingness to do what is required to succeed in college. Most participants are black or Hispanic and from low-income households.

In essence, Harlem Tutorial creates a web of support for young people. If students need Metrocards during the summer, Harlem Tutorial will buy them. If they need to babysit younger siblings after school, they can bring the children along and someone will be there to watch them. The proof of success is in the numbers. Last year the 20 seniors participating in the program were all accepted to four-year colleges, garnering over 150 acceptance letters among them. What's more, they received, in total, over $450,000 in scholarship money.

The program is unusual in its intensity. But it is similar to many other community-based college prep programs in that it can serve only a few teenagers. For many nonprofit groups, it's an "either or" proposition: either do in-depth work with a few young people or serve a much larger number of students in a far less intensive way.

Even with a larger volume of students, nonprofits report a high level of personal interaction that can be helpful during the stressful college application process. In the Graduate NYC! study, organizations working on tasks such as essay writing and filling out FAFSA forms reported that about half their time was spent working one-on-one with students.

"What's most important when you're dealing with college is one-on-one counseling and making lasting personal connections," says Veronica Aguilar Hornig, manager of college guidance at the Opportunity Network, a six-year career development program open to high school sophomores. "A personal connection makes the difference between a student who gets through it, and does well in college, and the ones who may fall through the cracks." Individual attention is even more critical when, as is often the case, personal situations are complicated--when, for example, students come from unstable homes or are undocumented immigrants.

College readiness support by nonprofits is often available after school and during the summer, when high schools are closed. According to the Graduate NYC! report, 73 percent of surveyed organizations provide college admissions support after school, while 63 percent provide it during the summer months. The College Directions Program at Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, a settlement house in the Northwest Bronx, does much of its college programming during the summer. This includes a one-week Summer Literacy Institute at Manhattan College, during which students live on a college campus and work one-on-one with experienced tutors to prepare their college essays. "They hone in on their writing skills and also start to see what will be expected of them in college," says program coordinator Allison Torres. During the school year, the program works with students until 9 p.m. and serves about 200 registered students a year as well as others who drop in with quick questions or need urgent help.


In the College Ready Communities initiative (which was evaluated by the Center for New York City Affairs from 2009 to 2012) four collaboratives of community organizations, schools and advocacy groups were tasked with helping more low-income students prepare and matriculate to college. The schools served mostly students of color from the Soundview section of the Bronx; Bushwick and Cypress Hills in Brooklyn; Central Harlem in Manhattan; and Flushing, Elmhurst and Corona in Queens.

Each of the community organizations had different resources, backgrounds and perspectives. The schools, too, differed in many respects. But the Center's three-year evaluation revealed a few overarching lessons.

Most important, the nonprofit groups provided crucial assistance boosting the number of young people applying to college. The collaboratives provided workshops and college advising, integrating college prep into the school day, often doubling the capacity of schools' college guidance staff. In the nine College Ready Communities high schools that had graduating classes in 2011, more than 900 seniors applied to college, substantially more than the previous year. And the proportion of graduating seniors who applied to college increased from 77 percent to nearly 88 percent.

This work was especially important because, even in small high schools, guidance counselors' caseloads were generally too large to ensure that all students who needed attention received it. In addition, many of the guidance counselors were teachers and most dealt with multiple job responsibilities. And as is typical in many schools, their level of knowledge and experience was inconsistent. Large guidance caseloads tended to jeopardize postsecondary access for low achieving students and favored those who have better grades and are motivated to seek help. (See "College Counselors Count," page 29.)

Another key objective of the College Ready Communities collaboratives was to develop a collegegoing culture. Almost every school participating in the project was able to provide students with more access to college-level course work over the three years, principally through CUNY's College Now program or Advanced Placement classes.

The groups pursued different strategies across the 14 schools. Make the Road New York and Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation each managed a "Student Success Center," one at the Bushwick High School campus and the other in the Franklin K. Lane building in Cypress Hills. Each Student Success Center was staffed by a director, an organizer and up to 10 paid "youth leaders" or "ambassadors." These centers provided college awareness workshops and, through the outreach of the youth leaders, encourage students to come in for advice and help applying to college.

The Pan American International High School Collaborative, on the other hand, primarily addressed non-academic barriers to college. The collaborative linked immigrant families to social services, provided support on college and financial aid applications and helped immigrant parents and students maneuver the complexities of U.S. higher education. One of the collaborative partners, the Internationals Network for Public Schools, helped establish the two small Pan American International High Schools, one in the Soundview section of the Bronx and the other in Elmhurst, Queens. These schools serve students from Latin America who have been in the United States for four years or less. The other partners were the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SoBRO) and Make the Road New York.

Project College Bound focused on the needs of English Language Learners in two high schools in Queens, Flushing High School and Flushing International High School. The collaborative partners organized student and parent groups to build support for the notion of college as an achievable goal--and create a broader public agenda for changing the school culture. The partner organizations, Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) and Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF), provided invaluable college guidance and financial literacy services and ESL courses. CACF also trained students and parents to advocate for school reform and equity in services for recent immigrants and English Language Learners.

The fourth collaborative was the Harlem Middle Schools Project, based at Abyssinian Development Corporation. The project had two main goals: to create a culture of high expectations and college awareness and to increase the level of academic rigor in the middle school grades at Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change. Another community organization, Brotherhood/Sister Sol, ran leadership training for students.

Among the high schools participating in College Ready Communities, more than one-quarter of the students were English Language Learners and more than two-thirds were seeking to be the first in their family to go to college. Most were members of ethnic minorities and come from low-income and working-class families. The hurdles were high for these students to become emotionally and socially prepared for college. "Most of our students do not see beyond the day at hand," wrote one high school teacher in a response to a survey we administered in 2011. "Many do not see the connection between what they are doing now and the future ahead. There seems to be a disconnect."

There are promising signs that the high schools in the initiative are getting stronger academically, with big improvements in the numbers of students receiving Regents diplomas. A majority of the College Ready Communities schools posted increases from 2009 to 2011 in the percent of students scoring 75 or more on their English and Integrated Algebra Regents exams, critical gateway scores to avoid remediation at CUNY. And attendance improved in eight of the 11 schools with sufficient data to analyze. The schools have also begun to offer more Advanced Placement and college-level classes, despite budget pressures to cut back.

These trends are heartening, but the academic challenges remain huge. Failure rates on Regents tests are high; at most of these schools in 2011, fewer than 10 percent of test-takers in a given year received a 75 or better. And despite gains, graduation rates remained relatively low over the year, bouncing up and down at many schools. Three schools had four-year graduation rates above the 2010 citywide average of 65 percent. The remaining five schools with graduating classes that year had four-year graduation rates below 60 percent. (All the College Ready Communities schools have significantly better five- and six-year graduation rates. The extra time is particularly important for schools that serve newcomers, like the three Internationals schools, which need to give students time to learn English.) We do not yet know how many of the students who participated in College Ready Communities programs and applied to college have in fact matriculated and remained in school. Those results are yet to come.

The starkest lesson is this: Nonprofit partners can make a large difference in college awareness, guidance and the mustering of resources. And they can provide invaluable leadership training for students and parents. Ultimately, however, the full lift required for college readiness is much larger than nonprofits can provide. And this reality has many leaders from across the sector worried.


Much as they strive to propel students to college, many nonprofit leaders and frontline staff struggle with some doubt about this work. After all the work they do to hold a teen's hand through the daunting steps in the college admissions process, nonprofits often find that the student is simply not ready for college. Staff at each of the two dozen groups interviewed for this report voiced deep concern that they are promoting high school graduates who are academically unprepared.

"If a student is a junior in high school with a GPA of 70 and has never written a research report, there are real ethical questions about exactly what colleges he should go to or if he will even get into one," a former Cypress Hills Local Development Cooperation staffer. "Is it really fair to send this student to college if he may not be able to even pass out of remediation?"

Studies show that students who need remediation are far less likely to finish college than peers who go directly into college-level courses. Nonprofit staffers want to support students' dreams of going to college, but they also want to save them from failure if it is clear they are not prepared for college work.

Thus organizations face a Hobson's choice: Try to help students catch up academically or give up on college and help them find a different post-secondary pathway. While some organizations do extensive academic work, most find it too expensive and too time-consuming to compensate for years of an inferior education. One young woman at East Harlem Tutorial, for example, dreamed of becoming a doctor, but her school did not offer Physics, Calculus or any Advanced Placement classes.

"If the schools aren't doing it, there's nothing a CBO or another program can do, because there's only so much we can do academically," says Carlos Velazquez, who worked on college access for East Harlem Tutorial before becoming a college access manager at KIPP NYC.

The moral dilemma is compounded when it comes to paying for college, either out-of-pocket or through borrowing. This, too, is an area that typically gets short shrift from high school counselors. Students often realize only at the last minute that they can't afford their first college choice.

"One of my students whom I'm very close with--I've had her all four years--was all excited to go to Hofstra," says one teacher in a small Brooklyn high school. "I made sure she was applying to CUNY and SUNY schools, but she was dead set on going [to Hofstra]. She got in. But then just last week she told me she wasn't going to go there anymore, she's going to York College." The deciding factor was cost. "I could have told her that," the teacher says. "I did tell her that. But financial awareness is something that our students just don't have and that our school just isn't preparing them for."

Nonprofits often assume the burden of helping students understand the cost of going to college. As a result, staffers face tough decisions: Should they urge students to spend scarce financial aid and household dollars on remedial courses in college? Or take out loans, despite the likelihood that they will drop out of college and have nothing to show for their efforts but several thousand dollars of debt?


Despite the growing involvement of nonprofit organizations, there is no formal protocol from the Department of Education for how these groups and the schools can profitably work together. Some of the most successful are those in which the nonprofit is housed full time in the school, such as the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families with offices at two schools in Flushing. At each school, a site coordinator from CACF works closely with school staff; if the school does not have the capacity to provide extras such as college trips or financial aid workshops, CACF may offer it.

"The CBO presence and partnerships in schools are hard because there's friction sometimes," admits Mitchell Wu, one of the site coordinators. "Schools push back [against] folks coming in. We don't want to come in and reinvent the school, we just want to use our strengths and capacity-building skills to make things better." But for all the difficulties of a live-in arrangement, there are obvious benefits, such as having direct access to schools and the ability to forge relationships with teachers and staff. "Being inside a school, you become part of the school culture," says Wu, "so you have some influence over how much a school values college access and success."

Most nonprofits are not physically located within the schools, however. Andrea Soonachan, who has seen the relationship from both sides, from the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation and currently as associate director of college and career planning at the Department of Education, notes, "Schools aren't always aware that CBOs are a resource to them. They struggle with how to assess the quality of a CBO. They don't know what they're looking for and asking for. There's no systematic way for schools to leverage those partnerships."

Power struggles are not uncommon, adds Lan To of Good Shepherd Services. "If we're in a school, and we want to do a workshop [on college or any other kind of issue], we have to go through the red tape and hierarchy," she notes. "And you also have to get people in the school and school staff to buy into and implement it. If we don't have support, or there is dissension, then it undermines the work."

Yet there are obvious opportunities for synergy. For example, both nonprofits and school counselors complain about the dearth of easily accessible information, including important updates. Lan To, who spends much of her time researching college admissions, has put together an e-news alert, Futurefocus Flash, designed to keep people up-to-date on changes in the application process and events such as college fairs. The Flash is distributed to nonprofit organizations and to high school counselors. In another instance, a group of ReServe volunteers in a high school guidance office realized that students were largely uneducated about FAFSA. On their own initiative, they organized a FAFSA workshop.

While the target audience was students and families, who turned out in impressive numbers, school counselors would also benefit. There is general agreement that the nonprofits provide an essential service to city students. Still, Soonachan believes that the Department of Education--or some other organization--should help schools learn to better work with CBOs. Some CBOs agree with a caveat: "Of course, we feel there should be more expertise within the schools, and we want to support that," says Lily Morgan Owen of the Goddard Riverside Community Center. "Still, we would never let go of our community-based approach, for the reason that it just offers a deeper, richer experience than the schools can provide, at least the way they're structured now."