Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Only 1 in 5 New York City Students Graduates from College. This Nonprofit Is Going to Change That

February 20, 2015
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Only 1 in 5 New York City Students Graduates from College. This Nonprofit Is Going to Change That
Students at the 2014 OneGoal Graduation Gala at the Palmer House in Chicago. Courtesy OneGoal
Role-play teaches low-income kids to succeed in the real world.

It’s a sad fact that fewer than one in 10 American kids raised in impoverished neighborhoods will graduate from college. But in two major U.S. cities, one organization successfully has flipped that statistic on its head.

OneGoal, an educational nonprofit geared to low-performing students in low-income Chicago and Houston neighborhoods, has demonstrated its worth: 83 percent of OneGoal fellows have earned or are actively pursuing a college degree.

That’s why the organization’s leadership is ready to take OneGoal’s proven model to New York City, America’s largest school district and the place where education reforms either make it big or fall apart. Once there, they’ll be graded alongside Harlem Children’s Zone, InBloom (which, it should be noted, got an F), Amplify, Knewton and other innovators changing the way classrooms work.

The city has an acute need for OneGoal: 12 years after entering public high school, only one in five New Yorkers will earn a college degree. Plus, a quarter of the city’s high school grads drop out of college during their freshman year.

“We have been in Chicago for the last eight years, and we’ve really proved what’s possible with a set of students. Once we started to see real results, we almost had a moral imperative to work to serve more students,” explains Nikki Thompson, executive director of OneGoal’s New York operation. After the expansion to Houston in 2013, “it became clear that we could replicate it in other cities. And in the world of social justice, there’s no school system like New York.”

OneGoal’s key belief is that students succeed by empowering themselves. The program’s teacher-led model focuses on training educators to boost the lowest achievers by conducting an intervention with the ones who are usually overlooked: OneGoal’s fellows begin with an average GPA of 2.7 (B-) and a 729 SAT score. Half are black, 42 percent are Latino and 90 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. In contrast, QuestBridge, an organization with a similar mission, tries to pluck out what Thompson calls “the talented tenth,” students most likely to succeed at a selective college.

Pioneering a form of character development, OneGoal’s unique three-year curriculum spans from junior year of high school to freshman year of college and is centered on shattering stereotype disadvantaged students’ carry about themselves so they come to see college as “realistic” and “attainable.” Project directors hone a student’s ability to ace standardized tests, admissions essays and financial aid applications, instilling them with leadership skills of “professionalism, ambition, integrity, resilience and resourcefulness” early — all of which puts them on a path bound for college, and from there, gives them the tools to succeed.

In classes of 25 to 30 kids, “we do actual role-play with the students, not just reading the material,” Thompson says. Analyzing real-world situations, they discuss what actions to take when you and your roommate get into a fight, for instance, or how to manage when there isn’t a teacher saying, “Make sure to bring your homework.” “Once they’re in college,” Thompson says, “it becomes almost muscle memory.”

In New York City, OneGoal is looking to replicate success stories like that of Kewauna Lerma, who was profiled in Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Lerma was barely pulling in a C- average and already had a rap sheet when she became a OneGoal fellow. “I didn’t really have a family. I was scattered all over the place, no father, with my grandma sometimes,” she says in the book. “It was all messed up. Jacked up.” Through the program, she went from being the girl who scored in the bottom percentile on a practice ACT test to having straight A’s on her report card senior year of high school.

Freshman year at Western Illinois University brought Lerma new difficulties, like a tough biology class that seemed far over her head. She didn’t know half the big words her professor used, but she sat in the front row. After class, she always asked him to definitions the words that stumped her. Money was always tight, and Lerma says she once didn’t eat for two days when she had no cash. But she persisted, as OneGoal taught her to do. Her biology grade? A+.

Like Lerma, OneGoal will face many challenges when it makes the move to the Big Apple, particularly in winning support from key political players and making sure they don’t overstep any boundaries with the powerful teachers union. “New York is just so different when you talk about size and scale and competition. There are 100 high schools in Chicago. In New York, there are over 500 high schools. It’s just a different ballgame,” Thomson says. “The challenge is differentiating ourselves.” Additionally, the New York City pilot will need to navigate through a few changes OneGoal is making to its Chicago model, including a fee structure to help fund the nonprofit’s work and a data systems program to help track academic and non-cognitive progress.

But Thompson, a Teach for America alum and chief of staff while Joel Klein served as NYC’s school chancellor, has a network of connections she can draw on. Her efforts so far are showing results. After a roundtable last year, Acorn Community High School in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights signed on to host one of the seven to 10 pilot classes that are anticipated for fall. And the Arbor Brothers, a philanthropic organization that funds social entrepreneurs in the Tri-State area, gave a $60,000 grant to the expansion efforts.

After New York, the group plans to take on five more school districts by 2017. For all their rapid success, OneGoal’s staff has never lost sight of their mission. Whether for seven students or 7,000, the group’s “one goal” remains the same: College graduation. Period.

LISTEN: To This American Life episode, which features former OneGoal Fellow Kewauna Lerma.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that there are 40 or 50 high schools in Chicago. The correct number is 100.

(Homepage photograph: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
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