Worcester Schools Outpace MA for Low Income Students
Thursday, May 01, 2014
According to a report released by America’s Promise, around 2/3 of low income students graduated from high school in Massachusetts in 2012, as compared to the 85-percent state average. Using the Worcester Public School District’s current figures, 70.6-percent of low income students graduated as compared to the 73.4-percent district average, which shows a much smaller gap.
“I was impressed [by this information] because that means that Worcester is clearly doing something right,” said Pamela Boisvert, the CEO of MassEdCo. “I think that we need to continue to do a good job in serving all of our students because they are our future workforce.”
Low income student graduation rates have been on the rise in Worcester for the past five years. In 2008, only 65.4-percent of low income students graduated from a Worcester public high school. A variety of programs, a push for higher education, and equal opportunities for all students have all been contributing factors in helping to lessen the education gap for low income students in the area.
Equal Opportunities for All
One of the biggest contributing factors for the decreased graduation gap in Worcester public schools is the district’s constant efforts to try to provide increased access to education for all students. Rather than choosing to single out particular demographics of students, the district has a more conscious effort to making education better for all students.
“I would tend to say that there are a lot of thoughts and initiatives that go into equalizing access for all students,” said Tracy O’Connell Novick, a member of the Worcester School Committee. “While not specifically targeting low income students, we do acknowledge the high percentage of students who are considered low income by the state and try to level the playing field by giving them the same access that other students have.”
Although focused on all students, Novick acknowledges that low income students often have more needs than the average student. Because of a lack of finances and a potential lack of support in the home setting, low income students may have trouble with transportation, raising money for field trips and uniforms, and finding the inspiration to move onto higher education.
“We have a lot of programs that we run internally,” said Novick. “We try to focus less on the income barriers of students and more on giving them the opportunities to succeed. There really are a lot of places that you can lose low income students through the cracks. We try to watch many forms that come through the district like hawks; if a student is not able to go on a field trip or raise money for something school related, then we do our best to work with their families to give the student the opportunity.”
Hilda Ramirez, a member of the Worcester School Committee and the assistant director of the Latino Education Institute, says that there are many programs in place throughout the Worcester Public Schools devoted to helping students of all backgrounds get the access to the education that they deserve.
Speaking from experience as an English Language Learner (ELL) and as a member of the Latino Education Institute, Ramirez points to a lot of English language learning programs throughout the schools as helpful tools in aiding students to graduate. Although no conclusions should be drawn between ELL and low income students, it is acknowledged that many immigrant families in Worcester are members of both demographics.
“I think that Worcester is a unique city because it is a gateway city for immigrant families,” said Ramirez. “Because of this, we have a lot of students who have many different needs. We have a lot of students in the district right now that have problems with learning English, which is something we continually try to address. One thing we are working on is an intensive summer camp which would help with English language learning.”
Low Income, High Achieving
MassEdCo focuses primarily on low income, high achieving students who are typically first generation college goers. The organization strives to give these students the tools and the desire to achieve their goals and empower them to better themselves, whether through a traditional four year institution or any other higher education route.
“We run a lot of higher education access programs,” said Boisvert. "We identify students that could succeed in higher education but may not have the support or access needed to do so. We have a lot of one on one advising – we have partnerships with all of the Worcester public schools – as well as field trips and workshops.”
MassEdCo also likes to get parents involved in the process. Because many of the students that MassEdCo are working with are first generations college goers, the parents usually carry misconceptions due to the unknown.
Boisvert likes to dispel any misconceptions upfront, assuring families and students alike that college and other higher education programs are there to better students and make them more prepared for a sustainable career path.
“We like to bring parents along with the students when we bring them on college campus tours,” said Boisvert. “A lot of times when students don’t want to move onto higher education when they graduate high school, it is because of various information barriers. We always try to broaden students’ horizons so that they are aware of their options. But ultimately, students need to graduate high school before they can move onto these other options.”
While there are organizations devoted to helping students graduate and move onto higher education, plenty of high schools in the area are doing their part to motivate students.
Worcester Technical High School boasted an extremely high graduation rate for their low income population: 95-percent. Assistant principal Michelle Phenix attributes a welcoming environment where students' career aspirations are continually reinforced as a primary reason for the high graduation rate.
“There is a degree of personalization that happens at this school,” said Phenix. “That is a major factor in making sure that students are college and career ready. Something we do with our freshman before they begin classes is invite them to campus and begin to talk to them not only about the school but also about graduation. We also take pictures of everyone in a cap and gown and give them a copy of the photograph to keep as inspiration.”
Worcester Technical High School is a place that constantly offers motivation to their students and is always trying to find ways to prepare their students for the future. The school has two sets of classes – technical and academic – giving students many learning opportunities.
Students are trained in both disciplines as a way to give them both technical experiences to apply to a future job, as well as the standard classes that all students have. Rather than keeping the two disciplines separate, the school prides itself on the ability to apply academic lessons in the technical field.
“We like to engage our students in applied learning,” said Phenix. “We like to show students that there is a reason for learning. While students sometimes oppose standard academic classes, we like to show them that there are huge connections in their learning. For example, a student who is learning a mathematic skill like slope could use that information in a discipline like plumbing.”
Even with Worcester colleges opening their doors to the students of Worcester public schools, many low income students see the opportunity as something that is out of reach. Because of cost and an unfamiliarity of the college process (many low income students lack family members who have been to college) low income students stay away from college applications.
In an effort to make college more accessible to low income students, College of the Holy Cross has made a commitment to low income students in Worcester. If a student demonstrates financial need, the college has made a decision to waive the tuition fee.
“We wanted to get the message out that even low income students have a place at Holy Cross,” said Lynne Myers, the director of financial aid at College of the Holy Cross. “We try to offer families who show financial strife the proper resources so that they can attend college. If a student can demonstrate that their family makes less than $50,000, the cost of tuition will be waived.
While free tuition is a grand gesture to motivate students to graduate high school and move onto college, Holy Cross offers other assistances for low income students. If a student lacks proper support at home in terms of filling out paperwork, the college offers assistance.
Holy Cross also works with students on their financial aid packages, to try to get them as much “free money” as possible. In some cases, students can come to Holy Cross for free because of a combination of scholarships, grants, and free tuition.
“We try to show all students, even those who are low income, that if they are conscious of their grades, then there is a place for them at Holy Cross,” said Myers. “We advocate for students to begin to think about college as soon as the sixth grade. Paying attention in classes and high achievement in the middle school and high school settings bode well on a college application. Having a good application could translate into scholarships and other financial aid that could help even a low income student attend college.”
Related Slideshow: Central Mass Schools with the Highest Graduation Rates
Non-grad completers: Students that have successfully completed school according to local requirements, but whose MCAS test scores (scores lower than 220) prevent them from receiving an official diploma.
Students in cohort: Number of students eligible to graduate in 2013.
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