ARUN RATH, HOST:
Let's take a look now at charter schools that serve low-income students. Here's the good news - those at the top are able to send almost all of their graduates to college. The bad news is most of those students don't earn a degree. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Codeswitch reports on what can be done to change that.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: It's the day before the end of classes at City University of New York or CUNY. A group 10 CUNY students have gathered at a Mexican restaurant near campus to celebrate.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Can I get the California quesadilla?
STARR: The students are all graduates of the Knowledge is Power Program or KIPP schools. KIPP is regarded as one of the best charter school networks in the country. The organization helps alumni as they navigate college.
Erica Martinez-Close is a KIPP middle school graduate who had a rocky start at CUNY. She dropped out after her first year. Telling the news to her old KIPP advisors was tough.
ERICA MARTINEZ-CLOSE: It was extremely awkward, because if anything, it's essentially like a parent.
STARR: And one of her parents - her mom - is the assistant principal at a KIPP middle school in New York. But KIPP counseled Martinez-Close during her 18 months out of school.
MARTINEZ-CLOSE: I went back to City College and advocated for myself in an immense way to get to where I'm at right now.
STARR: She's just graduated and has plans to go to law school. KIPP started hiring more counselors for students like Martinez-Close four years ago. That came after a review of KIPP middle school graduates who are post-college age. It found that only one-third had earned a bachelor's degree. Jane Martinez Dowling is head of KIPP NYC Through College.
JANE MARTINEZ DOWLING: And I do think it was a pretty sobering moment for the organization, and we realized how hard this work is.
STARR: KIPP's graduation rate is actually impressive given that almost 90 percent of KIPP students are low income. Only 9 percent of all poor college students earn a bachelor's degree. The rate for the highest income students is 75 percent. Dowling say that's what KIPP wants to see for its own alumni.
DOWLING: We just got much, much more intentional about the work once students left our schools.
STARR: So KIPP has launched more high schools. And Dowling's team is currently working with hundreds of KIPP graduates. Maintaining a connection with students post-graduation is becoming more common among elite charter schools. The Harlem Children's Zone, which operates two highly-regarded schools in New York, recently expanded its college success office. On an afternoon this spring, college advisor Diane Mosley spoke with Ramona Williams about a community college class.
DIONE MOSLEY: I know you told me you were struggling here. I'm thinking like what are some methods that you think would work for you?
RAMONA WILLIAMS: Well, I moved to the front row so that I can see the notes that he writes.
STARR: Williams is a graduate of one of the Harlem Children's Zone's charter schools. She spent a year at Medgar Evers College before dropping out. Part of it was that she was dealing with a personal trauma.
WILLIAMS: I was in 10th grade. I lost my brother.
STARR: He was the victim of a random shooting. The emotional fallout didn't really hit Williams until she was out of the nurturing environment of her high school. She says that made for a tough transition to the more impersonal world of college. Harlem Children's Zone CEO, Anne Williams-Isom, worries that sometimes the school can go too far in holding students' hands.
ANNE WILLIAMS-ISOM: We were like, we were going to put a safety net around them. If you missed a test, we were like, OK, we're going to get you to make it up. Some of that is good. But we've got to find safe ways to let them fail.
STARR: But Brian Gill, an education analyst at Mathematica Policy Research, says it's a balancing act. He points out students from low-income households, who are often the first members of their families to go to college, need additional supports.
BRIAN GILL: It's more likely to be the case that the support they're getting early on is just helping to prepare them to do better later.
STARR: The efforts to boost college completion rates seem to be having an effect. KIPP's latest figures show that 45 percent of their middle school graduates go on to earn college degrees. Harlem Children's Zone hasn't done the same kind of audit of its graduates. But they believe their efforts are bearing fruit. The organization hired Ramona Williams in its administrative office. As her advisor Dione Mosley points out, that offers advantages.
MOSLEY: We kind of work a study schedule around your work schedule, right, because I know your employer so (laughter)...
STARR: The support is paying off for Williams. In the fall, she plans to enroll in a four-year college. Alexandra Starr, NPR News, New York.
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