The disparities in access to education have led to dismal outcomes. Students who drop out of high school or college are disproportionately low-income, particularly students of color; black and Hispanic students are 12 and 9 percent less likely than their white peers to graduate from high school in four years. These inequalities have far-reaching consequences, not just for individual kids, but for society as a whole. They hamper social mobility, exacerbate income inequality, and stifle economic growth.
More and more, alongside school districts, cities are creating their own programs to ensure that all kids, especially those in underserved communities, have access to a high-quality education and of the many benefits that education guarantees them in the future. In California, San Jose and Oakland are among the cities leading this charge, taking a highly targeted approach that focuses on the students who are consistently being left behind. By developing programs to lower the barriers that students face, these cities are helping reduce disparities in access to educational opportunities.
Extending Learning Outside of School Via the Library
San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is a place of limitless opportunity, and one of stark inequality. Nearly half of the city’s public school students are not proficient in grade-level skills. Despite improvements in recent years, more than 2,000 middle and high school students drop out each year, most of them black and Latino. The problem is compounded by the digital divide, in which roughly one in ten residents lacks access to the internet.
The San Jose Public Library (SJPL) is emerging as a key part of the city’s strategy to equalize out-of-school learning opportunities — classes focused on coding, literacy, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), popular with upper- and middle-class families, but financially out of reach for many low-income families. In 2017, SJPL took over SJ Learns, a program initiated in 2015 by Mayor Sam Liccardo to help youths in low-income communities improve academically. Every year, the program provides up to $1.5 million in grants for out-of-school education initiatives focused on children in kindergarten through third grade.
In 2018, SJPL rolled out its Education and Digital Literacy Strategy, which aims to empower children and families to learn through equal access to free educational programs. “School can’t be the only place kids are learning,” said Lauren Hancock, an educator and former FUSE fellow who worked with SJPL for two years and now is the community program administrator for SJPL’s expanded learning unit. “On average, students spend only about 20 percent of their time in school. For our students to thrive and succeed, we as a community need to support and empower them.”
Hancock had helped map the landscape of after-school enrichment activities in San Jose, particularly outside of school campuses. The city partnered with InPlay, a nonprofit focused on connecting underserved youths to after-school activities, to gather information about how kids were spending their time after school, as well as which activities were available and where.
To offer access to technology classes in underserved neighborhoods, SJPL rolled out a Coding5K Challenge pilot, which initially provided free coding classes to students in five SJPL locations. Now available at all 26 SJPL locations, the program has served more than 12,000 students.
More than 300 students have participated in a partnership Hancock developed with NASA to provide after-school science programming in two branches, both in underserved neighborhoods. Another program, a six-week summer robotics series, was attended by about 700 students, Hancock said.
Given the large number of students in the city who are reading below grade level, another major focus for the library is literacy. One of Hancock’s first recommendations was seemingly simple: “Get every student a library card,” she said. SJPL also eliminated library-card fines for juveniles. To ensure every student has a library card, SJPL is reaching out to partner with the city’s 19 school districts. So far, eight districts have signed on, and more than 58,000 students have library cards.
In addition to developing programming, Hancock is trying to streamline quality standards across library locations and with other city agencies by working to define such topics as skill-building, safe and supportive environments, and diversity among the various stakeholders, including the city’s Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services, the YMCA, and service providers like InPlay. “That’s part of making services equitable,” Hancock said.
By investing in its libraries, San Jose is hoping to connect more underserved students to learning opportunities outside of the school day. “The library is a place that’s safe for everyone, whether you have a home or you don’t, no matter your age,” Hancock said. “It’s the most democratic place in any community.”
Taking Advantage of Every Available Scholarship Dollar
College affordability is among the biggest barriers to economic mobility in the U.S. Annual college tuition ranges from around $10,000 for a public college to $40,000 or more for private universities. For some students, it is impossible to pay for higher education without financial aid.
The largest provider of aid in the country is the U.S. Department of Education, which requires that students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be considered. Each year, an estimated 13 million students receive more than $120 billion in federal aid to pursue a college or technical-career education.
And each year, an estimated $24 billion is left unclaimed.
Oakland, Calif., is working to address this gap and other barriers to college affordability. Only 30 percent of Oakland high school graduates attended a two-year college in the fall of 2018; 31 percent attended a four-year college. Many others got in, but they didn’t have the funds, or they chose not to attend for other reasons, a dropoff referred to as the “summer melt.” “After high school graduation, it’s easier for students to lose touch with the people and resources that supported them through the college admission and financial aid processes,” said FUSE fellow Patrice Berry. “This disproportionately affects students from low-income families and students who are the first in their families to go to college, who often need that support the most.”
Berry is working with the Oakland Mayor’s Office to help students access the resources they need to pursue their post-secondary goals, whether that’s going to college or entering the workforce. Through its Oakland Promise program, the city has established “future centers” in 10 middle and high schools. Each center has a college and career readiness specialist who provides personalized support, such as college application assistance, technical support, and access to internships. They also help students navigate the FAFSA and California Dream Act application (the state’s financial aid process for undocumented and nonresident students), both of which include reading dozens of pages of directions and reporting detailed information about school preferences, demographics, dependency status, and income. “It is really hard,” Berry said.
Compounding the already difficult process is the high number of students that advisors support at each school. “Staff want the time to have meaningful interactions with the students who might need more support,” Berry said. “But getting to the students who need one-on-one support is challenging, especially with a class size of 200 to 400 seniors, like it is at some schools.” Big classes also make it hard to begin the postsecondary planning process earlier in a student’s high school journey.
To help advisors make the most of their time, Berry implemented a tech solution. Signal Vine is a text-based communications platform that allows advisors to pre-program a series of message prompts. For example, students might receive a text asking if they’ve completed the FAFSA. If they respond “no,” they might receive a programmed response asking if they plan to attend an upcoming informational workshop, and so on. Advisors can then aggregate the responses to identify the subset of students in need of further support. “Without the technology, it could take hundreds of separate communications to get to that point,” Berry said.
Berry also produced a college access guide that was distributed to all 10,000 of the Oakland Unified’s ninth through 12th graders. The guide helps educators and students understand the minimum steps needed to effectively prepare for the college admission and financial aid application processes. And she mapped all of the school system’s college access programming in Oakland so the city would have a comprehensive picture of relevant organizations, the support they provide, and where they provide it. “It allowed us to see who was being left out of this network of support in Oakland,” Berry said.
By facilitating the process of applying for financial aid and the support that students receive, Berry hopes that more students will be able to take advantage of financial aid. “We need to make sure that there aren’t unnecessary barriers keeping young people who want or need the degree most from accessing public funds to support their post-secondary education,” she said.
This story was produced by FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.
Rikha Sharma Rani is a Bay Area-based freelance journalist who writes about urban and social policy. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, CityLab, Politico Magazine and more.