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74 Interview: Achieve Atlanta’s Tina Fernandez on Doubling the Number of Atlanta Public School Students Graduating From College by 2025

By Laura Fay | February 20, 2019

Courtesy of Tina Fernandez

See previous 74 interviews: Sen. Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms, civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks equity in education, Harvard professor Karen Mapp talks family engagement, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration, and more. The full archive is right here.

For Tina Fernandez, educational equity is personal. After growing up in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Fernandez attended Harvard University, where she says she came “face to face” with the inequities of the education system.

“I was able to see firsthand what my peers in college had received in their K-12 education and what opportunities they had had in their schooling that we just didn’t have back in my community,” Fernandez said.

That realization inspired Fernandez to get involved in education, especially in underserved neighborhoods like her own. After graduating, she worked as a bilingual teacher in the South Bronx in New York City. She then went to Columbia Law School and eventually worked on social justice issues involving young people and taught at the University of Texas School of Law.

Now, Fernandez is continuing that calling as executive director of Achieve Atlanta, a nonprofit organization focused on helping Atlanta Public Schools students enroll and persist in college. Launched in 2015, Achieve Atlanta helps APS students make it to college graduation by providing operational and financial support to students, schools, and Achieve’s nonprofit partners.

Achieve Atlanta provides need-based scholarships and collaborates with other organizations to improve and expand college counseling in Atlanta Public Schools and support students once they enroll in college. So far, the organization has awarded more than $11 million in scholarships to 2,235 students. The district has about 52,000 students and 17 high schools.

Achieve Atlanta is also building a platform that will use data from Atlanta Public Schools graduates to help future students find colleges that are both a good match and a strong fit, using a $622,000 grant awarded in 2018 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A college match is one that aligns to a student’s academic profile, while fit includes other factors that contribute to persistence, such as affordability, school culture, location, and programs.

The 74 recently spoke with Fernandez about Achieve Atlanta’s goals and her own education story.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The 74: Could you talk a little bit about how Achieve Atlanta started and its history?

Fernandez: Sometime around 2014, the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, Atlanta Public Schools, and the Woodruff Foundation, which is a large private philanthropy here in Atlanta, started having conversations around really trying to understand what the state of postsecondary degree attainment was for students graduating from Atlanta Public Schools. And so they commissioned a study to really kind of dig into the issue and understand what was happening, and the consultant that they hired looked at public data and issued a report that basically said that of an entering class of ninth-graders in Atlanta Public Schools, only about 14 percent of them were projected to earn a postsecondary degree of any kind within six years of their high school graduation.

And so, given the state of degree attainment and given that projections are that by 2025, 60 percent of the jobs in the state of Georgia are going to require some postsecondary credential, the Woodruff Foundation felt like it really wanted to make a large targeted investment in helping to address these problems. And so the launch team came up with the idea of establishing an organization that would be singularly focused on dramatically increasing the number of APS students to earn a postsecondary credential or degree. That was really the genesis of Achieve Atlanta. I was hired as the founding executive director, and we launched the initiative in July of 2015.

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I know that Achieve Atlanta uses data to help students find a college that’s a match and a fit for them. Can you explain what that means and why that’s so important?

This is actually a new initiative for us. Achieve Atlanta’s mission is to help students get to college, pay for college, and succeed in college so that they can persist and earn a degree. And we do this through facilitating cross-sector collaboration involving the district, nonprofits in the community, and higher education partners, the technical, private, and public universities. … We’ve helped establish a college advising program at APS, so that students are making good choices about where they’re going to college and can actually do all of the technical things that need to be done to be able to get a college admission and enroll on a college campus. And then we have a need-based scholarship, the Achieve Atlanta scholarship. And then we partner with higher ed institutions and also a couple of coaching and advising nonprofits so that our students get the support they need while they’re on the college campus to be able to succeed and graduate from college.

As part of our scholarship program, our students sign a FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) agreement and share data with us on how they’re doing in school, both from an academic standpoint and also from a financial standpoint. And we also have data-sharing agreements with all of our partners. And so, over the course of the last couple of years, we’ve been able to see that while we are increasing first- to second-year persistence for our students, there’s still a good number of students, especially students going to two-year colleges, who are not persisting at high rates. And so we really wanted to make sure that students were making strong choices around where they were deciding to go to college and have done all of their research around match and fit … And we work with the College Advising Corps and then also Atlanta Public Schools counselors, and so they’re already advising students on match and fit concepts, but they don’t have at their disposal easy-to-use data around what makes a good match for a student from an academic perspective.

We applied for a Gates Networks for School Improvement grant and were awarded a grant [in 2018], and so we’re really deepening our efforts around understanding the current state of match and fit for APS students, and then building a technology platform that will pull APS-specific data and student academic data and generate a list of good-match colleges for students, so that counselor and advisers and students can have stronger conversations around where students are choosing to go to college.

The reason that this is important is because all of the academic research around student persistence across the country points to the fact that many times students, especially low-income students, will under-match, meaning that they’re going to a school that is less selective than what their academic profile would qualify them for, and that students who under-match also persist at lower rates. So, a lot of times the students can go to more selective institutions, they tend to persist at higher rates. We think that that’s because often these institutions just have better resources to support students on their campus. And so we’re really trying to use data available to us to help students make better decisions about where to go to college.

Is that system still in a data-gathering stage right now?

Yes. We’re in the beginning. We got the grant this year and have been spending the last couple of months analyzing APS data and conducting focus groups with a variety of stakeholders to really understand how many students are in fact under-matching and what some of the root causes are for that under-match.

And when do you expect that a system like that will be available for people to use?

Our plan is to launch the tool in the fall of 2019.

Could you talk a little bit about the specifics of how you and your staff at Achieve Atlanta work with Atlanta Public Schools, educators, counselors, and students to reach students and to help support them?

We have a formal agreement with the district. We have a memorandum of understanding that includes how we will work together, how we will share data, and what the objectives are for supporting students. And our role is to provide financial, operational, and strategic support to the district to really build a comprehensive college advising program across the district and all of the high schools in the district.

What we’ve done is we have, with the district, analyzed where there were gaps, specifically around college advising from a capacity standpoint, and we funded two nonprofits to come into the district and help increase the number of advisers available to students. So we have a grant out to the College Advising Corps, and then to an organization called OneGoal. We have placed 27 additional college advisers across APS high schools, and then we have several cohorts of OneGoal classes happening at different high schools to really strengthen the college advising that students are receiving their junior and senior years of high school.

We also identified some barriers that students were facing in their ability to take the SAT and take it their junior year so that they would have time to retake it if necessary, or have a score on file for when they’re applying to college. And so we worked with the College Board in this district to implement SAT in the school day, which has been shown to increase the number of low-income students who take the SAT, and has also been shown to lead to better matches for students in their college selections.

So those are two examples of some of the things that we’ve done with the district. In addition, we work with the data team at the district and the counselors, advisers, school teams, district leaders, to align on a few key indicators that we were going to focus on. And these were research-based leading indicators that will lead to college enrollment, and with the data team and our partners, we developed a process for collecting data on these indicators, creating a dashboard both at the school level and the district level, and providing monthly reports for how we’re doing in terms of making progress against these leading indicators, and so all of that has been institutionalized across the district.

What kinds of indicators are you talking about with that?

For college access, this year we’re tracking things like how many times a student meets with their college adviser each semester. We set targets around the number of students to apply to at least three colleges, and we want those colleges to be at least one safety, at least one match, and at least one reach school. We also have set targets around FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] completion, around the number of students that apply for the Achieve Atlanta scholarship, and then ultimately the outcome that we’re driving toward is increasing the number of APS graduating seniors who seamlessly enroll in college [in the fall following high school graduation].

Could you talk a little bit about the numbers of students who are enrolling in college now versus when you started?

When we started in 2015, the data for that class showed that of a senior class, 1,071 students were seamlessly enrolling in college. When we say seamless enrollment, that means that they’re enrolling in college the fall immediately following their high school graduation.

For the class of ’17, which is the class where we have the most recent data, 1,416 students seamlessly enrolled in college. So that was an additional 345 students and a 32 percent increase in the number of students seamlessly enrolling in college in two years. We’ve gotten the class of 2018 data from the National Student Clearinghouse, and the district is in the process of reviewing that data to see what that seamless enrollment number and rate is for the class of 2018.

In addition, we have seen that more students are accessing funds to pay for college. Before we launched Achieve Atlanta, less than half of seniors were completing the FAFSA, which is the federal application for student aid. In 2015, about 1,134 students completed the FAFSA; in 2017, 1,540 students completed the FAFSA, which is an increase of over 400 students. And we estimate that the increase in the number of students applying for FAFSA has meant that more students have qualified for the Pell Grant [federal aid for low-income college students] and think that we’ve sort of helped students get an additional $2 million in federal aid, just as a result of the number of students applying for FAFSA.

And then on the persistence side, we set goals for the number of students that persist from their first to second year of college and then every year thereafter. And so, in 2016, which is our first cohort, 100 additional students persisted to their second year of college than the year prior to that, and we’ve actually done some analysis and our first- to second-year college persistence rates are outpacing the national and Georgia state rates for similar students. We serve mostly African American, Pell-eligible students. And so our persistence rates are showing some promising results.

We still don’t have a class that has been in school for four full years. That’s the 2016 cohort. And so next year, we will be able to see how many students actually complete in four years, and compare that to completion rates prior to that. And then we will continue to track them through to six years, which is what a lot of colleges calculate their graduation rates on, is a six-year graduation rate.

And what are your goals going forward?

Our goal is to double the number of APS students who are earning a postsecondary degree by the year 2025.

Courtesy of Achieve Atlanta

What does Achieve Atlanta do to support students and help them persist through college once they get on campus and enrolled?

The first thing we do is we provide the Achieve Atlanta scholarship. The state of Georgia is one of two states that doesn’t have full-scale, need-based aid for students. And so, our district is predominantly low income, and up until the Achieve Atlanta scholarship, most of the students going to college from APS could only access federal grant dollars, like the Pell Grant, which is typically a little bit over $5,000 a year for college. We estimate that the cost of attending a public institution in the state of Georgia is anywhere between $15,000 and $20,000 a year. And so when you’re talking about low-income students being able to pay for college, they were still facing a pretty significant gap in terms of being able to pay for the cost of attending a university.

The Achieve Atlanta scholarship for a four-year student is $5,000 a year, and so that doubles the amount of aid that they can access. And so that removes a significant barrier for students. Some of our students still have to take out loans, but for the most part they can finance their college education without having to take out high-interest private loans so they can rely on federal loans, which are lower-interest loans, to be able to go to college. And then some of our students get additional aid from their institutions, or qualify for the merit-based scholarships that the state provides, and many of our students can go to college without having to raise additional dollars as a result of the Achieve Atlanta scholarship. So that’s the first thing we do.

And then, for our students who stay in the state of Georgia, we have partnerships with 10 colleges and universities across the state. And those include a technical college, two associate degrees programs … and seven four-year colleges and universities, including both private and public institutions. And where we have partnerships, we partner with the higher ed institutions to really serve our students using a cohort model. So there are designated people on the campuses who are the liaisons for the Achieve Atlanta scholars that attend every year on that campus. We have data-sharing agreements, and we agree upon targets for the students around things like meeting with their advisers on campus, getting connected to academic and social-emotional support services on the campus, filling out their FAFSA, and renewing their Achieve Atlanta scholarship — so a couple of goals around financial aid — and we meet with our partners on a regular basis to see how our students are doing, connect them with the supports that they need to connect with, if we see that some of our students are having trouble. And we really just partner around what are some of the obstacles that student are facing on campuses and how can we tap into university resources to be able to address those obstacles.

For our students who don’t attend a partner institution, we have made grants to two nonprofits. One is a national organization called Beyond 12, and the other is a local nonprofit called Edu-Tech [Enterprises]. And these organizations provide coaching and advising to our students using a case management approach.

Beyond 12 uses near-peer coaches, and really relies on more of a virtual model. So, texting, FaceTime, calling, connecting with the students using technology on a regular basis, and helping the students navigate some of the issues they’re facing on campus. And then our Edu-Tech model is more of a high-touch model, and they are focused mostly on our two-year colleges, where students have additional constraints given that they’re commuter students and often are dealing with transportation issues, family obligations, etc. So, through those partnerships, our goal — and so far we’ve been able to do this — is to connect all of our Achieve Atlanta scholars that are in this state to that coaching and advising support that they need to be able to be successful in college.

Where does most of the funding come from for the Achieve Atlanta scholarships?

From the [Joseph B.] Whitehead Foundation, which is an arm of the Woodruff Foundation.

From a bigger-picture point of view, what advice do you give to students when they’re looking at colleges and going through this process?

So one of the things that’s interesting about Achieve Atlanta is that we are not the organization that’s directly in front of students. We operate as an intermediary, and so the folks on the front line who are working with the students are the high school counselors and then the College Advising Corps advisers. What we help to do, though, is align everyone around best practices for college advising. I don’t want to speak for these organizations, but in general what I would say is, you know, the advice is for students to get started early building their college lists, to make sure that on those college lists they have a range of options including safety, match, and reach school. They help students talk through their budgets and the financial cost of college and how students and their families can afford to pay for college. And then help the students really put together their application packet and get them to all of the universities on a timely basis with all of the supporting documents, etc.

Once the students start getting accepted to colleges and start getting their financial aid award letters, the advisers and counselors sit with the students, help them understand what’s in those award letters and what the true costs of attending each institution will be. And have conversations with the students, and sometimes with the families, around how to make a good decision, both from an academic and a financial standpoint of where the students should go to college.

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What is your personal education story, and how does that play into what you do now and what you bring to this work?

I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which is a border community between Texas and Mexico and recently has been a focus of national news and our current president. And my mom is an immigrant from Mexico who was not able to complete postsecondary education, and she got her GED when I was 15 years old. My dad was a first-generation college graduate who was a public school teacher. And so I grew up in a wonderful community on the border in one of the poorest areas, one of the poorest congressional districts in the entire country.

My family always promoted education. I was really lucky that I did well in school and when I was applying to colleges, I got accepted to Harvard and received substantial aid from Harvard to be able to go to college.

So I went to college, and when I got on the Harvard campus, I really came face to face with what educational inequity in our country meant, because I was able to see firsthand what my peers in college had received in their K-12 education and what opportunities they had had in their schooling that we just didn’t have back in my community. So I became really passionate about educational equity and also about how educational equity is very tied to racial equity in our country, or racial inequity in our country. And so I started doing a lot of work in college, working with low-income, under-resourced communities through a variety of public service programs. When I graduated from college, I joined Teach for America. This was in 1994, and I taught fourth- and fifth-grade bilingual education in the South Bronx in New York.

And that just deepened my understanding of the educational equity issues that we’re facing. And then also my commitment to doing something with it through my career. I ended up going to law school, spent five years in private practice, and then was at the University of Texas School of Law for almost 10 years, the last five of which I was the director of the pro bono legal services programs and a professor in the clinical education department, and did a lot of work around youth rights and social justice issues involving young people, including undocumented people.

So it’s very personal for me. I am really privileged to have had a wonderful career and a wonderful life, and it was really because I had an amazing opportunity to attend a really prestigious Ivy League school that really changed the trajectory of my life and that of my family. And so I’ve seen the power that education can have on somebody’s life. And I just think that it’s available to too few people in our country, especially too few black and Latino students.

What do you hope that the work that Achieve Atlanta is doing with a focus on college enrollment and college persistence achieves? What do you hope that that can do for the city of Atlanta?

Well, actually what I really hope is what it can do for the students of Atlanta. Our vision is that every student graduating from Atlanta Public Schools will be able to access a postsecondary education and enjoy all of the benefits that a postsecondary education provides. And what we mean by that is that even today, a college degree is still the surest path to the middle class in our country. People with a college degree live longer lives, on average make $1 million or more over their lifetime, have lower unemployment rates, report being satisfied or happy in their jobs. Across a variety of outcomes, people with college degrees just fare better in our country. What we’re really trying to do is to enable and empower our students to achieve their dreams and to be full, productive citizens who can access all the benefits that a city has to offer.

For me, one of the driving factors is that Atlanta has one of the lowest social mobility rates in the entire country. And Raj Chetty’s work in the Opportunity Project highlighted that a couple of years ago. One of the statistics was that a child born into poverty in Atlanta has only a 4 percent chance of moving into the highest-income bracket in his or her lifetime. So in our city, we have one of the highest rates of income inequality across the country.

My goal for the city is that we become an equitable city that really lives up to the legacy of all of the civil rights work that was born here and that continues to be promoted in the city.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to Achieve Atlanta and The 74.

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