Josh de los Santos is a 17-year-old senior at Gorton High School, a school with a reputation as one of the worst in Yonkers, New York.
With a head of curly dark hair and a habit of pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, Josh looks the part of the studious kid. He loves biochemistry and molecular biology, and with good grades and high test scores, he's applying to colleges with high hopes.
Josh's story is a common one at middle-class high schools around New York, but it's exceptional at Gorton. Kids like Josh face exceptional barriers that make finishing high school and completing college much more difficult.
Josh lives with his mom and his two sisters, ages 10 and 11. His mom, who immigrated here from the Dominican Republic, works as a home health aide from 8 a.m. to noon. She relies on Josh to baby-sit his sisters after school while she works a second shift until 9 p.m. His dad is "out of the picture," Josh says. Even as he's hopeful about college, he's nervous about leaving his family that relies on him for child care and extra income from odd jobs.
Josh is one of the many kids in Yonkers who is graduating from high school this year. Most of them will struggle to get through college. Nearly half the residents of Yonkers speak a language other than English at home, and a striking 75 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program, a common poverty indicator.
Yonkers doesn’t get a lot of love. The very name Yonkers invites mockery. It's a sprawling working-class community in the shadow of Manhattan to the south and Westchester, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country, to the west. But the extent of need here makes the city a case study for the crisis of low-income suburban school districts around the country.
As of last year, more than half of America's schoolchildren come from poor households, according to a new report out last month that says 51 percent of students last year were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. That’s a stunning statistic, and one that may be hard for Americans — who generally think of their nation as a wealthy one — to wrap their heads around.
The increase of children in need represents a radical shift in the last decade: In 2013, 21 states reported that the majority of students in public schools came from low-income homes, that's up from 17 states in 2011, and just four states 10 years ago.
These demographic shifts could have major ramifications for the country. Kids who grow up in poverty tend to start school behind, stay behind, and are much less likely to graduate from college.
So how do you lift up a generation of poor students? Yonkers is betting on a bold experiment for its youths — 26,000 students in 39 schools — that may provide some answers to not just getting kids into college, but helping them earn degrees.
Getting in — the business of college
In 2005, then-mayor of Yonkers Phil Amicaone was inspired by New York City’s move to hire Caroline Kennedy to fundraise for schools and increase donations from the private sector.
He hired Wendy Nadel, who had spent 15 years in nonprofit youth programming for United Way and March of Dimes, to do the same for his cash-strapped district. The new organization was named Yonkers Partners in Education (YPIE), and was given the nebulous mission of “improving Yonkers public education with a private organization.”
With no clear plan, Nadel held all-day sessions with teachers, parents, students and faith and community leaders. One thing stood out to her: “It was stunning to see how unaware and how little information students and families had about college."
At the time, there was one college guidance counselor for 350 kids at one high school. “There was a lot of misinformation and lack of information ” she says.
Nadel had just gone through the process of helping her own daughter apply to college, and the difference between the college preparation for kids in Westchester, where she lived, and the kids in Yonkers was glaring.
“My daughter had private tutoring for SATs because I could pay for that, and it raised her test score 400 points,” said Nadel. “Lucky for her, but that’s pretty inequitable. Other kids whose parents can’t afford things like that are kind of screwed.”
There's an industry built around getting into college, and it's one that a lot of poor kids — especially if their parents didn't go to college — are locked out of. So Nadel decided that YPIE would give Yonkers kids some of the same tools that rich kids have to get into school.
Starting out with just $275,000, YPIE started free SAT prep courses and eventually raised $700,000 from local businesses to open college and career centers — dedicated spaces with their own computers, desks and college application resources — inside seven Yonkers high schools. Overwhelmed high school guidance counselors often served 400 kids or more, so YPIE hired and trained its own advisors to staff the centers. They supplemented with community volunteers who came in every week.
The college centers offered some of the same things that rich kids get — test prep, weekend essay-writing workshops and financial readiness seminars in English and Spanish. They rent buses three times a year to take students to visit local colleges.
"I didn't know anything about getting into college," says 17-year old Emmanuelle Sanchez. She worked with a Gorton's College Center volunteer — a retired teacher from Westchester County — to complete applications and fill out her FAFSA report for college financial aid.
"Our English teachers didn't even talk about the SAT," says Sanchez. Instead, her teachers were focused on passing the state's Regent exam to graduate from high school.
Stephanie Russo runs YPIE’s Gorton High college center — a cheerful room outfitted with computers and study tables inside the school library. Gorton’s college center is sponsored by New York Life Foundation, a YPIE sponsor, and YPIE pays Russo’s salary.
One of Russo’s goals is to make sure that she talks to every student at Gorton about their strategy for applying to college.
"It's not the same experience that wealthy kids get, but it's a lot closer," says Russo. "Now our kids aren't in the dark."
The strategy is not an unusual one. Many high-profile college access programs for underprivileged kids — New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America — use a version of the “give them what the rich kids get” method that have proven effective at getting students into top-tier schools. But those programs are usually for a few promising youths from poor neighborhoods.
“We don’t cherry-pick,” says Nadel. “The difference between them and us is that we are trying to do this for a whole district, not just a few bright kids. They spend thousands on each student, we have just $2 million for everybody.” They’re not trying to get a handful of kids into Harvard, she says, which isn’t a scalable solution. They’re trying to get a city full of kids into college.
YPIE's strategy has worked. In the 2013-2014 school year, Yonkers students made almost 30,000 visits to the YPIE college centers, and 95 percent of seniors used them. Scholarships secured by Yonkers students soared from $23 million in 2009 to more than $61 million in 2014. Over 60 percent of Yonkers high school grads enrolled in college within six months — most to Westchester Community College in nearby Valhalla.
A rude awakening
For many districts, getting kids into college is the holy grail, and at first YPIE counted its college access rate as a success.
By 2013, Nadel, a petite, fast-talking and smartly dressed woman in her early 50s who is often described by others with words like “powerhouse” and “dynamo,” had raised the annual budget from a quarter million to $1.6 million. She was joined by an impressive board of directors, who included David Westin, president of ABC News for 13 years, and Barnard "Bud" Kroll, who spent 27 years working on Wall Street in finance and asset management, and whose retirement obsession is masterminding data for YPIE, to "moneyball" the Yonkers school system.
One day in 2013, when YPIE was basking in the success of its college access program, Bud Kroll ran some data and made some calls to Westchester Community College (WCC) where 42 percent of Yonkers grads were accepted. The news that came back was devastating: after three and a half years, only 6.7 percent of YPIE students were still enrolled. They had essentially all dropped out.
It was a watershed moment for Nadel and the YPIE staff. "We had to wonder — if we are getting these kids into college but they don't have the tools to stay there — what are we doing?" said Nadel. The board held emergency sessions that were part existential crisis, and part reality check.
Around the country, low-income kids that go to college will, by and large, go to community colleges — about 44 percent of kids from low-income families (family incomes of $25,000 or less) attend community college out of high school, while only 15 percent of high-income students will. And community colleges don’t have great “persistence” rates — that’s industry-speak to say that a lot of students don't stay and graduate. Depending on how you measure it, only 20 percent of students at public, two-year colleges earn a degree within three years according to the National Center for Data Statistics.
Bud Kroll took a closer look at the numbers and uncovered the dirty little secret of public school graduation rates and college access — a high school diploma can be far too easy to obtain. In New York, for example, to pass the state Regents exam for math and receive a high school diploma, a student could get a 65 "passing" score on the June 2013 exam by earning only 34 percent of all points on the test.
"The graduation bar is too low," Kroll said. "You have no mastery." Essentially, students were graduating utterly unprepared for college coursework. “They were just being set up for failure,” said Kroll. “It’s kind of cruel.”
So YPIE revamped the program and dived into the much tougher work of college preparedness.
Raising the bar
It’s 9 a.m. in the Yonker’s Saunders high school auditorium, and 43-year old Tara Rutman sits in the dim light with 16-year old Penelope. They talk about school lunch, Rice Krispie treats and Penelope’s upcoming English midterm. They go over the testing strategy — annotate reading passages and “don’t forget to read any written directions,” Rutman reminds her.
YPIE recruited over 65 unpaid community volunteers, called Graduation Coaches, to commit to free mentoring twice a month with the same student — for four years. It's not a small commitment. Rutman, a mother of two from Westchester, and Larry Feldman, a retired engineer from Yonkers, are here every other Thursday morning to mentor sophomores.
“We don’t mollycoddle them, they have to opt in and they have to do the work,” says Rutman. But so far, with the exception of a few at the beginning, students and mentors have stuck with it.
Mentoring is just one part of YPIE's three-pronged attack to get kids through college. Starting in the 8th grade, Yonkers students in seven schools now take one class period each week to talk about college and college readiness. In December, YPIE received almost $500,000, federal grant, some of which will go toward summer school programs in reading and math to get students up-to-speed in those subjects. The program piloted last summer with six-week courses at Westchester Community College.
One issue, Nadel found, was that a lot of kids were getting accepted to college on the condition they take remedial courses because of low test scores. Students were taking two or three remedial courses before they could even get into a credit-earning college class, and burning through their funding. “We spend billions in this country on remedial courses in college,” says Nadel. “It’s really kind of a racket. This is where kids are dropping out.”
Last year, 70 percent of YPIE’s students in summer school boot camp, called FastTrack to College, were able to skip remedial math classes and go straight into credit-earning courses in college.
YPIE also found that Yonkers kids can feel lost at college. It's not the traditional middle-class experience where they live on campus and have fun with their friends, says Nadel. Yonkers students have to take three buses to get to the WCC campus, which is just a 20-minute car ride away. But on a bus, it takes 1.5 hours each way. "These are the kinds of things that make it hard for low-income kids to stay in college that middle-class kids don’t have to think about," says Nadel.
YPIE opened its own counseling support service on WCC's campus for Yonkers students. Bettina Weil runs the counseling center on WCC's wooded campus, and brings bananas and Doritos for students like Guadalupe Negrete, a freshman from Yonkers who meets with her every week. Rodriguez is trying to give students like Negrete a "roadmap" to graduation.
Like many Yonkers grads, Negrete is the first in her family to go to college. She says that meeting with Bettina for help with her schedule and to check in about deadlines for tests and essays helps her feel like she's not falling off a cliff at college.
"Bettina has been really helpful — we knew nothing," says Negrete, whose parents immigrated from Mexico. "She helped me with financial aid — my parents didn't even know taxes were involved. It took a lot of work."
YPIE has its superstar stories — the ones about kids who get into Ivy League schools and get big scholarships. But success for Yonkers and for the rest of the country lies in getting kids like Guadalupe Negrete through schools like WCC.
Nadel can't help but worry about a lot of the Yonkers students — the ones headed to WCC or top schools. "It can take just one thing — a family illness, a parent who loses a job, to jeopardize everything," she says.
But Josh de los Santos, the science-loving kid from Gorton High School, is optimistic. He has been accepted to Georgetown University on a full scholarship, where he plans to study pre-med. It will be his first time away from his mom and sisters, and his mom is worried. He is a little worried too, but mostly, his mind is teeming with visions of anatomy class in the fall.
"College is what I wanted," he says with a shy smile. "Isn't it what everyone wants?"