In a Pandemic, a Path Forward: New Orleans Schools Team Up to Offer ‘Bridge Year’ to Get More Grads to College, Careers

Next Level NOLA Executive Director Rhonda Dale with students at Abramson Sci Academy. (Collegiate Academies)

As an upperclassman at Livingston Collegiate Academy in New Orleans East, Jerranisha Marshall imagined herself at Dillard University, the alma mater of one of her teachers. At the top-ranked historically black college, she would not have to choose between her passion for acting and her goal of becoming a nurse.

But the first time Marshall took the ACT, she scored a 14, four points below Dillard’s minimum requirement and six points under the threshold for the state scholarship she would need in order to attend. She studied and took the college admissions exam again — and got another 14.

“I had a picture of what I wanted to do,” says Marshall. “I just didn’t know what steps to take.”

She was working as a cashier at her local Fresh Market and trying not to get too discouraged when the universe delivered her both the complicating factor of the pandemic and a path forward. Marshall learned she was eligible to enroll in a brand-new program her school’s network was creating to help students like her. In August, she will be one of up to 100 new high school grads to attend Next Level NOLA, a free program intended to provide young adults with a unique “bridge year” that school leaders hope will put them on firmer ground in pursuing their postsecondary options.

Over the past decade, leaders at New Orleans’s top-performing high-poverty high schools have watched students’ college acceptance rates soar. But as they tracked graduates’ experiences over time, they heard the same vexing story over and over.

A student would earn enough credits to graduate from high school but had ACT scores too low to win a merit scholarship that would minimize loans needed to pay for a four-year college. Instead, the student would enroll in a local community college, paid for with Pell Grants, which are awarded to low-income students regardless of academic achievement.

Without adequate support in the two-year programs, however, only a dismal 2 percent would earn a degree or finish a desirable career training course. Which meant the other 98 percent would use up their Pell Grants and still not have the academic credentials to go on to a four-year college or university, or a career certification to go straight into a good job.

At Collegiate Academies, which operates Livingston and four other high schools in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and KIPP New Orleans, which counts three high schools in its eight-school network, information about which alumni were not earning college degrees identified the same troublesome pattern.

The pandemic was not even on the horizon when the two school networks set a launch date for Next Level NOLA. But with COVID-19 shutting down options for young adults, the program will be especially timely, says Rhonda Dale, who is leaving her job as principal of Collegiate’s Abramson Sci Academy to start it.

Colleges and universities are waiving entrance exams and admitting candidates who in a normal year might not have been competitive applicants — which is not necessarily a good thing, she says: “I’m still afraid students are going to go set themselves up for an experience they’re not going to be successful at, and they’re not going to qualify for financial aid, so they’re going to take out loans to go to a university now because they can get in.

“We’re trying to do a lot of education right now to families about the choices and the least risky option for next year,” she continues. “Yes, if you have a full ride somewhere, please go, but if you’re about to take out a bunch of loans to go to a school that you wouldn’t have previously qualified to get into, I’m raising some red flags here about that.”

Not only does Dale want students to be confident that they are ready for college, she’s cautioning them that with campuses closed, or open with restrictions, they aren’t likely to get the same freshman experience as they would have pre-pandemic. “I’m telling people right now, ‘I don’t think you’re going to get that experience that you want, all of the dorm living and all of that. I don’t think you’re going to get any of that this year.’”

Indeed, it’s unclear whether Next Level NOLA participants, known as fellows, will be able to report to the downtown office building that will house the program — as originally intended — or whether the program will operate at a distance come August. Atop the stresses of running a high school throughout the spring and establishing Next Level NOLA, Dale has had to create contingency plans for both programs so that when school opens in August, students will be able to stay enrolled and learning — whether in person, remotely or in some combination.

The original plan was for fellows to be physically present while attending their first year of college online at Southern New Hampshire University, with intensive support, and working to bring up their ACT scores in hopes of becoming eligible for Louisiana’s unique TOPS college scholarship program, which offers sizable aid to students who earn good admissions test scores and enroll in a college located in the state.

But no matter where they take their online college classes, fellows will simultaneously work toward a certificate in health care management, education or business, committing to a schedule that includes 25 hours of on-site or remote activities a week plus 15 to 20 hours of off-site work. They will also participate in mentorships and internships, which, if students can attend in person, will be made convenient by the program’s downtown location.

“In the beginning, we’ll do an orientation with them as well, create a five-year plan and goals and map out that, and then backwards-plan their year with us to set them on a pathway for achieving that five-year plan,” says Dale. “That could include going straight to work after they do Next Level NOLA into a career or a technical high-wage/high-demand career.”

Before the pandemic, the program was to offer a career certification track to prepare fellows for jobs in Louisiana’s then-booming petroleum industry. Now, with demand for oil at a record low, that plan has been put on hold. Other certificate programs will be reworked if the program must operate remotely.

While a “bridge” year will come as a relief to many members of the Class of 2020, the problem Next Level NOLA is attempting to solve for is widespread. Students who leave high school without the academic knowledge and soft skills — how to interact with faculty, manage money and plan a manageable schedule — needed for negotiating higher education tend to fare poorly in community college and job training, racking up debt and ending up without qualifications.

Nationally, about half of community college students are required to take high-school-level remedial classes before they can begin earning college credits. Overall, only a fourth of students in two-year programs graduate within three years. In addition to burning through available need-based financial aid, many end up needing to support themselves — but without the training to earn a living wage.

A number of states and school districts have experimented with ways to increase the number of students who can acquire a career credential while solidifying the academic skills needed to pass entry-level college courses. In 2005, community college leaders in Washington state identified a tipping point to mark when adult students were truly prepared to enter the workforce: the combination of an entry-level job certification and a year’s worth of college credits.

That initial certificate in a high-demand field, such as health care, often can give a student a toehold in a career where they have the potential of qualifying for increasingly good jobs. Certified nursing assistants, for example, are likely to earn enough to support themselves while continuing on for a nursing degree. These certifications are frequently referred to as stackable, because each moves a student up a step on a career ladder.

Partly because of its previously booming oil industry, Louisiana between 1991 and 2015 created 111,000 skilled services jobs not requiring a bachelor’s degree, versus 43,000 blue-collar jobs, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce. Slightly more than half of new Louisiana jobs now require a certificate or a community or technical college degree, yet only 31 percent of working-age residents have an associate’s degree or higher.

Meanwhile, more than 18,000 students who graduated from Louisiana high schools in 2018 neither qualified for a TOPS scholarship nor had an industry credential. Under the leadership of former superintendent John White, the state Department of Education created a grant program to fund what is technically a fifth year of high school and invited applications. Both the grant program that now pays for Next Level NOLA and the initial pilot created with the funds were called the Louisiana Extension Academy.

The pilot program opened last fall with 18 students under a state-authorized partnership between the Orleans Parish School Board (since renamed NOLA Public Schools) and the nonprofit YouthForce NOLA. This year, in addition to Next Level NOLA, extension academies will open in Caddo Parish, located near Shreveport, and Calcasieu Parish, west of Baton Rouge. Operated in both places by traditional school districts, those programs are expected to serve about 25 students each.

Before the state announced the grant program, KIPP and Collegiate had been trying to troubleshoot the lack of options for their graduates who were not college-ready. Dale and other school leaders set up a task force, which considered everything from providing full wraparound supports for alumni enrolled in two-year programs to opening a community college of their own.

When the state announced the bridge-year funding, it solved a big hurdle. Collegiate and KIPP had imagined that students who enrolled in whatever program they created would have to use their Pell Grants to pay for it. With the school networks now able to offer the program for free, both Pell Grants and ideally TOPS scholarships will be available for students who complete a year of college with Next Level NOLA and choose to go on. The school networks decided on creating one joint extension academy program that would allow them to offer stronger programming to their fellows.

“We serve the exact same student population,” says Scarlet Cornelius, KIPP New Orleans’s director of postsecondary strategy and programming. During the last academic year, KIPP ran a pilot program in one of its high schools, Booker T. Washington, enrolling 20 juniors and 10 seniors in Southern New Hampshire University. One gleaning from that: Spending a year learning, risk-free, to navigate the differences between high school and college is invaluable.

“Students getting real-time feedback from real professors and having to apply it has been one of the most exciting things to watch,” says Cornelius. “That’s one of the hardest soft skills to teach.”

The online college is also a good fit for Next Level NOLA because its classes are self-paced and students earn credit as they demonstrate competency. So while fellows are expected to earn 24 credit hours — the same level of work they will be required to do at other colleges to maintain their financial aid — they can potentially earn the 60 credits required for an associate’s degree in one year.

Dale and Cornelius are working to make sure that students have options for spending a second year enrolled in the online college or transferring to another institution that will accept their credits without asking them to repeat courses. The University of New Orleans, for example, has agreed to accept Southern New Hampshire credits earned by Next Level NOLA fellows in its business programs.

In addition to logistical hurdles and unknowns, the coronavirus crisis served Dale one more curveball. With the price of oil at rock bottom, it makes no sense to train fellows for the petroleum industry. Finding a replacement technical certificate training program that students will be able to complete no matter the contingencies forced by the pandemic is proving challenging, says Dale.

“What we’re looking for is one that doesn’t require in-person training, that they can do remotely,” she says. “We’re calling people and saying, ‘So, next year, if people have to be socially distant, what are you going to do in your program? Because we’ll partner with you, but we need to know that this isn’t going to fall through and that they’ll still be able to get a credential out of that program.’”

Marshall is not entirely sure what her trajectory at Next Level NOLA will entail. She’ll work that out with counselors as they create her five-year plan. But as she watches her friends try to navigate their options — difficult even without the uncertainty surrounding the next academic year — she’s relieved.

“If I was going to community college right out of high school, I would probably be struggling without help,” she says. “For this one year, I have time to work on my ACT score. It’s really good for me.”

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