HISD’s College Success Program Uncovered Inequities and Is Changing the Status Quo

After two rejection letters, Austin High School senior Beksy Hernandez packed it in. She would go to work for an insurance agency. College was not for her. College was not for kids like her. Why had she thought that it was?

A misguided sense of independence had worked against her. “I’m not the kind of person who asks for help,” she says, so instead she churned out mid-level grade work throughout her high school career topping out at a 2.5 GPA. Her SATs weren’t much better. Not ready to read one more “you’re declined” letter, she simply stopped applying.

High school graduation would be her crowning achievement, which was more than her parents from Nueva Leon were able to do and would equal what her two older sisters had done. She was a member of Future Farmers of America and the school’s welding program, but even the one thing she did extraordinarily well — soccer — wasn’t enough to swing her entry into UH-Downtown or UH-Victoria. At 5-1 she is an improbable goalkeeper, but — “I jump” — and this May the Houston Chronicle named her the goalkeeper of the year for her 20-5A district and her school won the district championship.

So end of story. End of soccer. End of education. Except that it wasn’t.

Victoria Salinas was having none of it. The blunt-talking Salinas told Beksy her opt-out decision was ridiculous.

“She said, ‘You’re insane. You’ve got to go to college,” Beksy says. “I said ‘OK, where should I go; I got declined everywhere.’ And she’s like ‘Do an essay, appeal their decision, make them change their minds.’”

Salinas is part of the Houston Independent School District’s College Success program now in its first year. The program, funded in part by the Houston Endowment at $1 million a year for three years and matched dollar for dollar by the district, is headed up by HISD’s Rick Cruz and provides college advisers in all of the district’s 54 high schools. These advisers, many of whom talk about equity and social justice, have adopted an aggressive approach to counseling — pulling kids from their classes for one-on-one sessions rather than passively waiting for them to find their way (or not) to the standard counselor’s office known as a Go Center. They target kids based on data-driven research developed through HERC (The Houston Education Research Consortium) agreement the district has with Rice University.

“When we conducted an audit last year we discovered 28 of our high schools didn’t have a single counselor or college adviser,” Cruz says. “The suggested ratio of counselors is supposed to be 250 to 1 and in the district it was closer to 1,800 to 1. Some campuses had a team of advisers and counselors and other campuses didn’t have a single person. It was disheartening.”

A school year later, the work of 28 advisers and 15 managers of those advisers in all the district’s high schools has brought about improvement, some of it remarkable. At Austin High, college applications more than doubled from 30 percent of seniors in 2015 to more than 66 percent by this June.

At Davis, applications went from 48 percent to 83 percent; Furr, from 57 percent to almost 72 percent; Lee , from 47 percent to almost 80 percent. Reagan, from 52 percent to 93 percent and Wheatley, from 56 percent to 89 percent. FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) applications went up as well, though not as dramatically.

According to Cruz, this paid out benefits in other ways:

“Last year, our graduating seniors received $264 million in scholarship and financial aid offers (this includes multiple offers and is calculated over two or four years). This year, because of the increase in the number of students applying to college, the increase in FAFSA completion, and the increased awareness of and support through scholarship opportunities, our seniors received $314 million in scholarship and financial aid offers. The $50 million increase is the greatest the district has ever seen from one year to another. “

When Beksy, at Salinas’s urging, appealed to UH-Victoria she explained the mistakes she’d made in not asking for help. “I thought 70s were fine as long as I passed,” she says. She told them she would work very hard. “I want to do better.” Revised again and again, the appeal went to UH-Victoria, which relented. She was accepted. She’ll even have a tryout on their soccer team.

“Teachers here will give up on you if you don’t keep on trying,” Beksy says of Salinas. “But she doesn’t give up on us.”

All of which is incredibly inspiring and where a Lifetime movie would end, if it wasn’t for the harsher realities it reveals about an urban district like HISD, where expectations are low for too many kids who dead-end with their walk across the high school stage. Sizeable inequities have been allowed to exist, depending on what school a student attends, involving not only the college application process but the high school course of study as well.

And these kids and their College Success advocates know it.

Another student, Na’keya Jordan at Kashmere, transferred there from North Forest because her mom thought it was safer and because their family has a history at Kashmere. The salutatorian with a 3.9 GPA is going to UT-Austin in the fall on a Presidential Scholarship, and thinks Kashmere is better than North Forest but wonders if she’s prepared well enough, that she might be in better shape if she’d gone to the more highly regarded Bellaire or Lamar.

“I feel like I would have got more out of high school than I did here. There’s a lot going on here I can’t lie. Teachers going in and out of classrooms, not keeping a teacher in a classroom for more than a few months. I think it hurt me. And in going to college I think if I fall off any little bit I feel like I won’t make it,” she worries.

“We didn’t even have a math teacher this school year. We had one a couple months; they ran him off. The kids run teachers off. I’ve had so many English teachers. It hurt my education having a sub in a classroom for so many months and not really doing anything. I can only do so much myself. I wish I had gone to another school which was more stable,” Na’keya says.

“I don’t feel there’s equity in services [across the district],” Salinas says. “Even though I think the program is great, I’m one person to 338 students. I was lucky that I was able to help Beksy but I also missed so many. At the district level I wish we spent an equal amount of money on each student. Not just because you go to DeBakey or Bellaire we’re going to spend more money on you.”

And even if kids have the requisite grades, test scores and drive to attend college, they are routinely discouraged from considering it by some of the very people who should be pushing them.

Salinas, who like most of the advisers works with more than one high school, relays this story: “We had a trustee come talk to our students and the first two schools out of her mouth were HCC and U of H. And my salutatorian was standing next to me and I didn’t notice it because I wasn’t really paying attention and he said ‘Miss, did you hear what she just told us?’ He’s like ‘Would she have said that at DeBakey? Would she have said that at Lamar or Bellaire?’ And I said ‘No.’ He said, ‘Miss I’m going to school in Boston. Why is this what she’s telling us? Why is this OK? Because you know for a fact she would never have given that message at DeBakey.’”

“We had a kid who got into Harvard and the counselor says don’t go to Harvard; you’re going to fail there. And we’re saying, well, clearly Harvard knows what it’s doing when it accepted the kid,” Cruz says.

Under HISD’s campus-based management, principals juggling salaries and teaching needs can decide counselors are luxuries they can’t afford. In other cases there were counselors, but they were being pulled off for lunch duty, the bus line, and scheduling classes, Cruz says. And in some cases the counselors just weren’t very good, he agrees, lacking the training and in some cases being shuffled into that position by a principal out of other options. “I’ve heard that at least three times. I couldn’t fire that person, I couldn’t get rid of them so I just made them my counselor,” Cruz says.

College Success attacked this by hiring its own advisers and managers, many of them coming from top local charters like YES Prep and KIPP, social work backgrounds and in some cases, teaching. The principals are not their bosses. Managers meet with the principals, advisers are embedded in different schools, but when advisers pull kids out of class to talk to them, they don’t need anyone’s approval except from their managers.

Left to their own devices, students fill in information gaps with misconceptions and despair, Cruz and others say. Most HISD students are low-income and qualify for federal aid through Pell grants. Most don’t know that, Cruz says. Even those that do have no idea how to negotiate the system of college applications and financial requests and can’t turn to their parents for help.

Or kids pick a school that isn’t a good fit for them either academically or because there’s no support system, he says. And then they just drop out.

“Our philosophy was we need to meet each kid where they’re at and make sure that they are aware of these opportunities and support them,” Cruz says. “Our goal in this is not just college enrollment but college persistence. Meaning a lot more kids from Houston get through college.”

Yale honors graduate Cruz has been a shining star in HISD since, as a fifth grade teacher at Moreno Elementary, he and teachers at the school came up with the EMERGE program. Designed to introduce top students in HISD to the top universities in the country (including the Ivy League), EMERGE was often cited by former Superintendent Terry Grier as a remarkable program that every year was getting more kids into Tier 1 schools. Earlier this year, the Houston Press named EMERGE one of its MasterMind Award winners given each year to organizations and individuals doing creative and important work.

But Grier is gone and with him some of the luster attached to Cruz, who recently has been demoted from his position as chief of major projects and no longer reports directly to the (interim) superintendent. Now with the title of Officer, College and Career Readiness, Cruz appears equally committed to his new program, reaching the type of kids through the district who historically haven’t gone on to college, by adopting the college-bound tactics from some of the best charter schools. Talking in rapid-fire bursts, he interchanges enthusiasm for the gains they’ve made and barely concealed frustration for the roadblocks they’ve discovered kids encountered.

“We had an issue for years, any kid from HISD who wanted to go to A&M to the engineering department was automatically precluded because our system was set up that our kids wouldn’t get their ranking, their GPA, until after the priority deadline because of someone not wanting to go on a computer and changing that with the exception of a couple high schools in the district,” Crus says. “This was crazy. You’re telling me kids can’t go to the engineering school at A&M because of a registrar issue?”

An absence of counselors meant other things didn’t happen.

“Out-of-state schools require a school profile. A lot of our schools didn’t have one. We had to manually go in and help them create a school profile,” Cruz says. “Similarly there was no counselor at the schools to write a letter of recommendation so a lot of the kids weren’t getting that. There were systems where kids had to go through hurdles to get their transcripts. There was all this systemic BS.”

Jeremy Tatum, director of the College Success program, reports to Cruz, moving over from a similar job at YES Prep. He’s learning to deal with a new scale — “in HISD there are 11,000 seniors and almost 50,000 high school students,” he says — and they are trying to serve all of them.

“There were certain pockets where a dean or assistant principal or guidance counselor were doing great things at some of these campuses but that role can differ from place to place,” Tatum says. “Our advisers are 100 percent advisers. They meet with students individually,” he says. “They’re not having to do scheduling, they’re not having to do academic planning and they’re not having to do a lot of extra duties. They’re focused on the pathway to college.”

Beyond that, Tatum says, it takes a certain kind of person to do this work.

“We look for really passionate people who know how to get their hands dirty. We’re looking for people who have soft skills and know how to work through extreme challenges with students because that’s the reality for our kids,” he says. “It’s not bringing a kid in and saying we’re going to talk about college and it’s going to be magically fixed right now. It involves soft skills as well as the technical college know how.”

Justice Blake, a senior at Reagan High who says everyone calls him Blake, knew he wanted to go to college but didn’t have a clue how to accomplish that. “I didn’t know the process. My parents didn’t go.” He did have an older sister and brother who each went to community college, but he remained at a loss. “I didn’t even know we had a Go Center.”

And although he was in Advanced Placement classes with many of the same small group of students throughout high school, a 2.3 average was what he had to show for it. He says he can’t remember his SAT score but thinks he was told it was a good one. Teachers were of little help, but he doesn’t hold that against them. “Teachers have 188 students, they can’t really fit this into class time because we’re always doing work. They’ll ask you if you’re going but they never really give you information.”

His College Success adviser, Courtney Riley, having seen it from both sides, agrees. Riley was a college adviser and then became a teacher for two years before returning to advising. “As a teacher I would try to allot students time to work on their college essays and applications,” but that wasn’t always possible. As a counselor in this program, “There are more students I got to interact with that would not have been sought after.”

Picking the right school for a particular student is emphasized by everyone in the College Success program — and that includes everything from community colleges to the Ivy League. In Blake’s case the right fit turned out to be Lamar University in Beaumont. Blake dedicated lunch periods to working on his application while Riley made sure the senior didn’t miss any deadlines and that Blake applied for financial aid he had a good chance of getting.

The smart kid who wants to major in biology with an eye to someday being a pharmacist says if he had to do it all over, he’d have studied more in high school, made sure he didn’t miss any days of school. He’s glad he took AP classes, though, thinking he’s better prepared for what’s ahead.

Asked what he thinks college is going to do for him, he responds: “I don’t really know. I’m gonna go and find out.”

Data on what was happening to kids leaving HISD has been available for years through the National Student Clearinghouse and the Texas Education Higher Coordinating Board. But the district wasn’t paying any particular attention. Cruz says when he first came to HISD, he’d introduce himself to principals. “I’d ask what percentage of your kids are going to college, what percentage of them are graduating? And they had no idea.”

School board trustee Anna Eastman says about four or five years ago the board asked that the data from the College Board be added to the board monitoring materials. She’s a proponent of the College Success program and doesn’t want to see it end in another two years when the Houston Endowment yearly $1 million grant ends. “I would like to see it transition to where we carry the program on our own,” she says.

Cruz says he has a love-hate relationship with counselors. “I know how important they are and how they can change kids’ lives. But people’s perception of counselors and advisers, the perception tends to be very negative. There’s a lot of studies that show that. It just blows my mind when you’re talking to any random group of people and you ask ‘How was your college counselor?’ and nine times out of ten they’re going to give you a negative response. That was the person who told me I couldn’t or I shouldn’t. That was the person who was the gatekeeper, or the person who just didn’t find out who they were. “

Many of the College Success advisers and managers took significant pay cuts to come to work for the district, Cruz says. “For them it’s personal because they know there is a need here that has been neglected for all too long. A good number of them are the first in their families to go to college. There’s a strong sense of social justice and equity that’s embedded. “

Adviser Mansoor Mahmood, who works with students at Kashmere and Wheatley seems to be a case in point.

“I’m a product of HISD’s Lamar High School and I graduated with an IB diploma. I then went to Washington University in St. Louis. I realized there the quality of education I received which is world class. I don’t think every student in HISD is given the same opportunities and that same education.

“The idea of public schools is that we are offering the best to our youth. It’s kind of fulfilling that goal of providing the best education that our students can have and I think as a black male and especially working with schools that I work with, that education is going to be one of the keys for the growths and successes of black people. “

Na’keya Jordan says she knows she’s smart, she’s “always made the honor roll,” but limited her options to Prairie View A&M and Sam Houston. She says Mahmood came in and talked her out of her comfort zone. She visited UT-Austin only a couple times but decided on it saying “I like its vibe. I wanted to do something different. I’m not too far away from home, but far enough to be on my own.” Her dad never went to college, her mom started but hasn’t yet finished.

“I want to prove to myself that I can do it and to others that I can do,” she says. “Sometimes you don’t have to be smart as long as you’re a hard worker, you can make it. UT’s a big school, different people, different variety.”

Asked if he thinks his work has made a difference, Mahmood doesn’t pop out an easy answer. “I’ve seen students grow tremendously. It’s very possible they could have those epiphanies without me. I only know because students say so. I would never say yes there are more students going to college because of me. I’m just saying I’m trying to do the best I can.”

Vansa Shewakramani Hanson is one of the researchers behind the data that gave the College Success advisers a head start on where the overlooked kids were that they needed to reach.

“We looked at their PSAT scores, their SAT scores as 11th graders, their grades,” she says. “We know based on past data that students at specific schools, that students with those kind of grades and test scores were historically not applying to college. These students they just don’t have the information. A lot of us take for granted the FAFSA. This group of students we’re talking about they’ve never heard of the FAFSA. So they see the sticker price if at all and the immediate response is there’s no way my family can afford that. “

Researchers looked for kids in underserved schools who would be potentially first generation college students, whether they are eligible for a free or reduced lunch and if they’re classified as homeless, says Hanson, who has a master’s in sociology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“We said these are the kids we most want to target,” Cruz says. “We’re going to work with all kids but these are the kids that we know based on historical data for the district that aren’t going to go to college,.”

The work doesn’t end with the school year.

This summer, Hanson said she’ll be going through thousands of pages of answers to a survey they distributed to students asking them about their college aspirations and family background. By collecting student answers and creating profiles, they hope to furnish the advisers with biographical data about the student sitting in front of them, providing an effective shortcut to getting to know the student and his needs even faster, she says.

There are summer bridge camps to combat the phenomenom called “Summer Melt,” all those students who are accepted, meet all the deadlines, say they are coming and then never show up at school in the fall.

Austin adviser Victoria Salinas plans to pick 40 students — Beksy among them — from all grade levels but the top tier, ask them to send College Success their syllabus from their college classes and then she will send reminder notes during their first college year about upcoming tests. If they can’t afford books, she says, “We can solve that problem.”

There was initial resistance from principals to the College Success program, particularly the idea that kids would be pulled out of class, Cruz says. “We said, ‘Hey, they’re seniors. This is their future. They need to have someone sit down with them to see what the opportunities are.’” Since then Cruz says he’s seen a complete turnaround. “Instead we get, ‘How do we get more of this?’ They’ve bought into it not because it’s just another initiative from central office but because it something that’s actually making a change.”

And there has been a change in culture at many of the schools, Tatum says.

“A lot of our work is with students who had foreclosed on the idea of college, but are eligible to attend college,” he says. “Kids that at some point decided I’m not college material; I don’t have what it takes; I’m not going to be successful, I can’t afford it. We spend a lot of time talking about the reality of their situation and the options that they have. You can want college. You can go to college. You can get through college, be successful and graduate.”

Or as Salinas says: “I’ve gone to the junior classes and asked them: Do you know the hardest thing about Harvard and these top tier universities and Ivy Leagues is getting in? Once you’re there they care so much about their retention rates, that they’re not going to let you go. They’re going to work with you and do everything to make sure that you succeed.”

And with the help of College Success, more HISD students — wherever they go to school — will have a chance to find that out for themselves.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing