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.”

biding time

Strike vote by Denver teachers no longer imminent due to contract extension

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in 2017.

Although the Denver school district and its teachers union failed to reach a deal on an overhaul of the district’s pay-for-performance system, the prospect of a strike is less imminent.

Earlier this week, the union’s board of directors authorized a strike vote if a new agreement couldn’t be reached by the time the current one expired at midnight Wednesday.

The two sides couldn’t come to terms on how to change the system, but did reach a different kind of deal: District officials agreed to the union’s request to extend the current pay-for-performance agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters will approve a tax increase in November benefiting schools, making teacher pay raises more likely. However, the union did not take the threat of a strike completely off the table.

A statement from the union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the union “will begin preparing to take work actions to ensure progress on the new compensation system. If no agreement is reached by the Jan. 18 deadline, DCTA will immediately ask for a strike vote from union members the following day.”

In other districts that have experienced labor conflicts, teachers have picketed, refused to work extra hours, and even waged “sickouts.” The Denver teachers union did not specify the types of work actions they were considering.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was reluctant to sign a ten-month extension, “but in the end, we are prepared to honor their request for more time.”

“We all have a very clear, common goal and common interest around supporting our kids and giving our kids the very best chances to learn and grow,” Boasberg said. “I’m confident that common goal and common aspirations will help us move toward an agreement.”

Denver’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, was first piloted in 1999. Under the current agreement, teachers earn a base salary based partly on their level of education and years of experience, and partly on how much training they completed the year before and on the outcome of a yearly evaluation that takes student test scores into account.

Teachers can also earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary. This year, for example, teachers who work in a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of students living in poverty can earn an extra $2,578 per year.

The union wants to make teachers’ paychecks more predictable by moving back to a traditional “steps and lanes” salary schedule in which raises are based on education and experience. Union leaders also want higher base salaries. The union proposed a salary schedule that would pay teachers with a doctorate degree and 20 or more years of experience a base salary of $100,000 with the opportunity to earn a more limited number of incentives on top of that.

The district, meanwhile, proposed a salary schedule that would continue to take teacher evaluations into account when calculating raises but would allow teachers to more significantly build their base salaries for more years. While the union’s proposal shrinks some incentives, the district’s proposal grows the incentive for teaching in a hard-to-serve school.

District officials said the union’s proposal is too expensive. ProComp is funded by a voter-approved tax increase that is expected to raise about $35 million this year. The union’s proposal would cost more than twice as much, district officials said.

Union leaders asked to extend the current agreement until January 2019 in the hopes that Colorado voters approve a proposed ballot measure that would raise $1.6 billion for schools. Backers of the measure, which would increase income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 per year, are collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot.

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2013, voters rejected a school funding tax increase that would have raised $950 million its first year.

Boasberg supports this year’s effort. He’s among the Colorado superintendents pushing for a new, “student centered” school funding formula if the measure passes.

“The entire purpose of that funding measure is to strengthen teacher compensation, decrease class sizes, and improve supports for kids,” Boasberg said. “So if that passes, of course we will eagerly sit down with DCTA to discuss how we strengthen our compensation for teachers.”

On the brink

Denver teachers union leaders vote to call for a strike vote if pay negotiations fail

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Teachers watch a master contract bargaining session between Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union on June 22.

The Denver teachers union’s board of directors voted Tuesday to ask its members to strike if the union and the school district fail to reach an agreement Wednesday on teacher pay.

It’s the first time Denver Classroom Teachers Association leaders have taken such a vote since the 1990s, said Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director. He said Denver teachers are fed up with the district and inspired by the recent actions of teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma.

“Teachers don’t think the district is taking them seriously,” Kern said.

Since November, the union and the district have been negotiating an overhaul of Denver Public Schools’ pioneering pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. The current agreement expires at midnight Wednesday. Kern said the union’s preference is “to get a deal done,” but its directors were clear that “if that doesn’t ultimately happen, they will ask for a strike vote.”

Kern said he didn’t know when a strike vote would be held, but it probably wouldn’t happen immediately.

Denver Public Schools officials said in a statement Tuesday they “are committed to reaching an agreement.” If the sides can’t agree Wednesday, the district pledged to continue with the current pay-for-performance system to ensure teachers get their expected pay.

The union has offered a proposal that would pay teachers with a doctorate and 20 years or more of experience a base salary of $100,000.

The current salary schedule goes up to $74,130 for teachers with a doctorate and at least 11 years of experience. Under ProComp, teachers can earn bonuses and incentives on top of that. In 2015-16, the average second-year teacher earned an extra $5,599, according to the district.

In August the district and the union signed a new five-year master contract that included increases in base pay – which the district said were the largest raises in the metro area – and an additional $1,500 for teachers who work in high-poverty schools.

This round of negotiations is for the ProComp agreement, which is separate from the master contract. The district first piloted pay-for-performance in 1999. Voters in 2005 approved a tax increase to fund it. Those taxes will generate about $35 million this year, according to district officials. The last significant redesign of the ProComp system happened in 2008.

The union’s proposal calls for higher base salaries and reduces the size of the incentives teachers can earn for working in hard-to-serve schools or hard-to-fill positions. Union leaders have said teachers want a more predictable pay structure that relies less on bonuses, which can vary year to year.

The district, meanwhile, has suggested increasing some incentives as a way to attract and retain teachers. The district has also suggested providing teachers who earn four years of “distinguished” evaluations with base salary increases equivalent to what they would get for earning a master’s degree.

The union’s proposal to raise the maximum base salary to $100,000 would require more than twice as much money as taxpayers pay into ProComp each year, a district spokeswoman said.

The two sides are set to return to the negotiating table Wednesday morning.