a season of searching

A dream to leave Brooklyn, play football, and go to college — with applications in the way

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Jamal Trotman, a senior at Eagle Academy for Young Men II in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, finishes a study hall period where he works on college applications.

Jamal Trotman is a star at Eagle Academy for Young Men in Brooklyn.

He made the All-State football team and was a team captain. He wants to be a journalist, and he’s interned at NBC and at the investment firm Blackstone. His counselors say he’s a dedicated student and selected him to be his school’s spokesman at a college fair last fall.

But his college options could be limited by a misunderstanding: He didn’t realize he needed to answer most of the questions on the SAT.

The mistake could have been a small one. (Like many students, he eventually retook the exam after preparing more seriously.) But the SAT trouble, and a series of other recent setbacks, might have significant consequences. Though he still has time, months into the search process, he hasn’t sent off many applications, overwhelmed by his long list of schools.

“This process is more of a nightmare rather than an experience to me,” he said.

We first met Trotman, who was born in Guyana and lives in Flatbush, at a college fair this fall. He agreed to let Chalkbeat check in throughout his college search — and his story illustrates just how many opportunities there are during the application process for students to get tripped up.

Oct. 23: The college fair

Eagle Academy II, a small, all-boys public high school that serves mostly black and Hispanic students, is focused on helping its students get to college. The school had a 95 percent graduation rate last year and has a dedicated college counselor.

At a college fair at Eagle Academy’s other campus in the Bronx, Trotman explained that he already had a dream graduate school in mind: Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. But he was still unsure where he wanted to go first, though some applications would be due in a few months. The end of football season would mean more time to look into schools, he said.

Trotman has a B average and a passion for writing. But when he was younger, Trotman thought he would attend a trade school and enter the construction industry.

“After I found my love for writing, it just made me want to go to college,” he said.

The college adviser's office at Eagle Academy for Young Men II.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
The college adviser’s office at Eagle Academy for Young Men II.

Nov. 2: A massive list

By November, the college search had taken on a life of its own.

Trotman’s dream to study journalism had spawned a confusing list of about 50 potential schools — and he had no idea how to pare it down. Northeastern, Syracuse, and University of New Hampshire were under consideration. If it weren’t for football, he said, he’d think about Brooklyn College.

He knew he wanted a school with a good journalism program and low tuition bill. He also hoped to move out of state — and to play football. Still, schools made his list when family members or advisers suggested them, and he had trouble deciding which would best match his résumé and need for financial aid. This confusion lasted well into his college application process.

“The minute I try to take a school off my list then I realize, oh, I put that school there for a reason,” he said.

Trotman isn’t on his own as he works toward his goals. His three older brothers went to college, an aunt went to Rutgers, and he has mentors from his internships. Eagle Academy provides a college counselor and a host of other advisers to students. (Citywide, 79 percent of high school students said someone at their school was helping them plan for after high school, according to the city’s survey, but many high school counselors are stretched thin.)

Trotman’s grateful to have the help, but sometimes it can be overwhelming.

“It’s just everyone,” he said. “‘Hey, you should check out this school, you should check out that school.’”

Hefty tuition is about the only reason Trotman had removed a school from his list. He’s doesn’t want to apply to schools that cost more than $35,000 each year out of fear that he would end up with the bills.

Monteka Maddox, the school’s college counselor, says that’s a misconception about financial aid that a lot of students come to her with.

“There are plenty of guys here who graduated last year who aren’t paying anything,” she said.

Nov. 28: The offseason arrives

For the second year in a row, the Eagle Academy football team made it to a city championship game. Playing in the championship with his “brothers” was a milestone Trotman had worked toward for years.

In the third quarter, Trotman was blindsided by an opponent from Frederick Douglas Academy. His foot slammed into the ground and his body twisted in the opposite direction.

“At first I thought it was just a cramp in my calf,” he said. “Then I realized I couldn’t get up.”

His team won the game. But Trotman began the offseason — the time he had waited for to select schools and finish applications — at the latest possible date, with two torn ligaments and and a torn meniscus. He scheduled surgery on his knee and began walking with a brace and cane.

Eagle Academy for Young Men II senior Jamal Trotman talks to Wallace Niles, the school's operations director, about his college application process.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Eagle Academy for Young Men II senior Jamal Trotman talks to Wallace Niles, the school’s operations director, about his college application process.

Dec. 16: Waiting for his SAT scores

Trotman hobbled into his college adviser’s office on Dec. 16.

He still hadn’t applied to SUNY or CUNY schools, and he still had about 40 schools on his list. He was also deep into the 800-page “Ultimate Scholarship Book.”

“This is even more effective than FAFSA to me,” he said, referring to the basic federal financial aid form, “because I can just look through the book, skim through it real quick, and apply.”

Trotman hadn’t applied to schools yet because he was waiting on his SAT scores, he explained. He took the test in May 2015, and was under the impression that he could reach his goal of scoring a 1,000 on the reading and math sections combined by answering only about half of the questions. (It was a strategy he acknowledged later — with his typical good-natured attitude — was “kind of stupid.”)

He ended up with an 890. That’s 20 points below the average score in New York City for the reading and math sections in 2015, and 97 points below the national average.

Determined to boost his score when he took the test again in early December, Trotman enrolled in an SAT prep class. He had studied hard, sometimes skipping homework to complete practice questions. He knew the new scores would be released soon.

“I know it’s going to be better,” he said.

Dec. 21: Expecting SAT scores but getting something else

Trotman stayed up until midnight on Dec. 21 to check his scores. When he logged on, he faced an unwelcome surprise: His scores didn’t exist.

Confused, he called the College Board, which administers the SAT. No one could provide answers because staff members were out for the holidays. The next Monday, Trotman had surgery on his knee.

News arrived just three days before the Jan. 1 application deadline for some colleges. His test was under review, which his counselor said was likely because his score increased so much.

College Board officials told Trotman that he’d have to wait until mid-January to receive his scores. In the meantime, he will miss a few early January college application deadlines. (College Board did not respond to questions about the reason for Trotman’s delayed scores to protect his privacy. They said scores can be delayed for a number of reasons.)

The questions almost certainly won’t prevent Trotman from going to college. Plenty of colleges have rolling admissions or later deadlines. After he gets the scores, he’s hoping to get his applications sent out quickly.

But in the meantime, he’s waiting to take the next step.

”It’s kind of a setback,” he said. “This right here is my make-it-or-break-it for my future.”

A Whole New World

Strict rules, Snapchat, and eerie quiet: A first-generation college student adjusts to life on campus

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Daviary Rodriguez, a freshman at the University at Albany.

Daviary Rodriguez, who goes by Davi, sat in the back of his calculus class at the University at Albany on a recent afternoon, taking notes as his professor sprawled math equations across the board.

When she told the class to work on problems, Davi, 18, grinned he had already finished a couple questions while she was talking.

“I think it’s pretty easy,” he said, smiling.

As a freshman at the university, which is part of the State University of New York system, Davi is confident, excited about his newfound independence, and enjoying his classes. Still, as a first-generation college student from a working-class family in the Inwood neighborhood in New York City, Davi will have defied the odds if he makes it to graduation.

In New York City, officials have pushed to get more students like Davi to enroll in college and it seems to be working. But a major hurdle remains: helping students persist once they get there. Less than 30 percent of students from average-income neighborhoods in the city graduate college in six years, and that number drops to 16 percent for those from the poorest neighborhoods, according to a recent NYU study.

With that grim statistic in mind, nonprofits, colleges, and even high schools are working to help students get to and through college. Davi is relying on several such programs to help push him across the graduation finish line.

With Thanksgiving days away and finals around the corner, we spoke with Davi recently about the highs and lows of his first semester in college.

Davi during his calculus class at the University at Albany.

A summer of strict rules and study hours

Davi got an early start on college — five weeks early, to be exact.

This summer, he took part in an intensive college-prep course through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a 50-year-old program that provides academic and financial support to students from low-income families at public colleges across New York.

While his middle-class peers spent the waning days of summer bidding farewell to old friends, Davi was sitting through hours-long orientation lectures and silent study hours each night. In fact, the popular program — which enrolls motivated students who don’t meet SUNY’s typical admissions requirements — enforces a dress code during the summer orientation, bans cell phones outside of residence halls, and forbids participants from interacting with students who aren’t in the program, according to program rules obtained by the campus newspaper.

Maritza Martinez, the university’s Educational Opportunity Program director, said the strict rules are necessary to cram the basics of college life and academics into a brief summer course.

“We don’t have the luxury of not having a structured program,” she said. While low-income students typically are less likely to graduate than their peers, Martinez noted that the graduation rate among EOP participants is actually higher than the university’s overall rate.

During the summer crash course and throughout the school year, the program helps students develop study habits, apply for financial aid, and tend to their mental health. Davi was required to clock eight hours of library time each week, meet with counselors, and write an essay about stress management.

In addition to the academic guidance and money to help cover non-tuition expenses like textbooks and supplies, the program also provides a support network of peers from similar backgrounds. Davi, who was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Upper Manhattan, said it’s reassuring to be surrounded by students who can relate to one another.

“The thought of college kind of scared me because I thought I was going to be surrounded by white people,” he said. “But that’s not the case now.”

A high school teacher who’s only a text away

When Davi’s group took a trip to the mall this summer, and later when a fellow participant was booted from the program, Davi shared the news via text message and Snapchat with a trusted confidant — his high school English teacher.

“The way I see my role is just to hear them out,” said Valerie Hennessy, who taught at Academy for Software Engineering in Manhattan. “They vent or tell me what they’re going through.”

Davi and Hennessy have kept in touch through a program at OneGoal, a national nonprofit focused on college readiness. (Hennessy now works for OneGoal coaching other teachers.) The program trains high school teachers to have frank conversations with students about picking and attending colleges, and then helps them stay connected with their former students through their first year of college to help troubleshoot problems.

It’s a response to statistics showing that a large proportion of low-income students don’t make it beyond the start of college, said Nikki Thompson, the executive director of OneGoal in New York City.

“In the first year of college, many, many students drop out for a variety of what we were argue are preventable reasons,” she said.

Davi said more high school teachers should keep in touch with students who are transitioning to college, since their former teachers can be a calming influence.

“College is a big place and not everybody can get help there,” he said. Students “should get help from the people they know more, from high school.”

An expensive investment

Even before stepping on campus, college was foreign territory for Davi.

Like many other first-generation college students, he relied largely on his high school to help him figure out where and how to apply. His parents supported his decision, but had scant advice to offer since they hadn’t gone through the process themselves.

“They didn’t really have input on what college I should have gone to,” Davi said. “My dad said that’s my own choice.”

Once he was accepted to college, the next hurdle was paying for it.

Though state and federal grants cover his tuition expenses, Davi still expects to rack up about $30,000 in debt, mainly to cover the cost of housing. (Like most low-income students, he did not qualify for the state’s new “Excelsior” scholarship, which targeted middle-income families.)

Kristin Black, a research fellow at New York University, noted that the high-school graduation rate for New York City students who are low-income, black or Hispanic is starting to get closer to that of their white, Asian, and higher-income peers. But the graduation gap widens when those students reach college.

Difficulty affording college tuition and all the expenses that come with it could be part of the problem, along with being unprepared for college-level work, said Black, who wrote a report on the graduation gaps but did not investigate the causes.

“The number of black and Latino students graduating from high school and all of that is great,” she said. “But we don’t necessarily see them maintaining those gains as they go through college.”

Getting used to the quiet

As his first semester winds down, Davi is slowly adjusting to college life.

He loves the free time between class, participating in the school’s marching band, and playing piano in the college’s rehearsal rooms.

But he’s still getting used to other aspects of campus — in particular, its location in a sleepy upstate city that feels nothing like the bustling metropolis where he grew up.

“I’ve been out in the night with friends and it’s really quiet, it’s really dark out,” he said. “When I’m in the city, hanging around, I see people, there’s lights everywhere, Times Square. For me, it’s just normal…But here, it’s just quiet.”

Fact check

To back up claim that schools must change, DeVos cites made-up statistic about the future of work

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a remarkable claim: “Children starting kindergarten this year face a prospect of having 65 percent of the jobs they will ultimately fill not yet having been created.”

This statistic bolsters DeVos’s view that schools need to radically change to accommodate a rapidly evolving economy.

But there’s a problem: that number appears to have no basis in fact.

A version of the 65 percent claim has been percolating for some time, across the world. After a number of British politicians repeated some iteration of the statistic, the BBC investigated its source.

That report found the claim gained popularity in a 2011 book by Cathy Davidson, a CUNY professor; this in turn was cited by a New York Times article. But attempts to track that claim back to an actual study have failed, which Davidson herself now concedes, saying she no longer uses the figure.

Others making the claim offer an even flimsier citation. For instance, a report released by the World Economic Forum says, “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types,” and simply cites a series of popular YouTube videos (which doesn’t even appear to make that precise claim).

Some even say the number is higher: A Huffington Post headline said that “85% Of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet.” The piece links to a report by Dell, which bases the claim on “experts” at a workshop organized by a group called Institute for the Future.

In short, no one has pointed to any credible research that lands on the 65 percent figure. When asked for a source for DeVos’s statistic, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said the 65 percent figure “might be an underestimation,” pointing to the Dell report, which offers no specific sourcing.

Of course, making predictions about the future of work is inherently tricky. But a recent report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated areas where the most new jobs would be created between 2016 and 2026. The positions included software application developers but also personal care aides, nurses, fast food workers, home health aides, waiters, and janitors — and though that’s less than 10 years in the future, these are mostly jobs that have been around for some time.

Sweeping, unsourced claims like this about the future economy are not uncommon — and seem to be a driving force behind some policymakers’ approach to education. The fact that DeVos’s go-to number isn’t backed up by evidence raises questions about the foundation of her view that schools need dramatic overhaul.

After citing the 65 percent figure, DeVos continued, saying, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”