In a year like no other for public schools, it’s important to step back and take stock of all that was accomplished.
While the disruption to schools was unprecedented, and the disproportionate devastation that COVID-19 had on communities of color is yet another illustration of an unjust society, those of us in education had to hold on to a vision of a better future in order to keep going.
That vision manifested this month in a high school graduation that reminded us why schools and teachers are so vital.
Across the country, students from low-income communities vastly slowed their pace of enrolling into college in 2020. Overall, immediate fall enrollments fell 6.8 percent at the average high school, but in schools where most students are Black and Latinx, the decline was 9.4 percent. For Uncommon Schools, which educates 21,000 students from low-income communities in a network of schools that includes Rochester Prep, the decline was 6.4 percent.
And that was a year where we had our students in front of us until March.
So this year, when we launched virtually before opening up our classrooms in a hybrid model in the fall, we knew we had to be focused in order to fulfill the promise we made our families about seeing their children to and through college. Our teachers and staff worked so hard—learning new skills as Zoom-based teachers and counselors, donning masks and adhering to safety protocols in order to be in classrooms with students, and finding new ways to engage with college administrators to ensure our hard-working students got the audience they deserved.
In May, 219 Rochester Prep students sat for a combined 493 Advanced Placement exams across 16 Advanced Placement courses. Contrary to slowing down during the pandemic, this was actually the largest number of Advanced Placement exams administered in the school’s history. For some of our students, taking the AP exam at our schools was the first time they sat in a non-virtual classroom all year.
Why is that so important? We know that passing an AP exam is correlated with college graduation. It’s an access point that is routine in the suburbs, and all but denied to a large percentage of students from low-income communities in America. At Rochester Prep, where 92 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, nearly 80 percent of our students participated in at least one AP class, and 34 percent passed at least one. That’s higher than the state average of 32 percent and the national average of 24 percent.
This hard work paid off. Members of the Rochester Prep class of 2021 were accepted to over 75 colleges and universities earning more than $4 million in scholarships. This is our largest graduating class to date.
A record 13 of our students are attending Rochester Institute of Technology with full tuition scholarship, 11 of whom are city scholars. One student is going to serve our country in the Navy and another student will start college abroad in Spain. Others are going to colleges across the Northeast. Many of our students made their voices heard by advocating for—and winning—more resources from the colleges they are attending.
But it really wasn’t just about the number of tests they took or the colleges our students were accepted into. Of course, we are proud of that. But we knew coming into this year that the most important thing we could do as educators is to make sure our kids and families felt seen, heard and loved. So, we started each day with a community building block where students and teachers cultivated relationships with each other and set their intentions for the day. We also prioritized our family partnerships through weekly phone calls home and periodic home visits to every family to make sure that they had what they needed outside of school as much as within school.
Our operations staff became experts at entirely new skills—making sure every student had the technology and connectivity they needed, as well as paper-based learning materials. And we ensured that families could continue to get food safely—either because they came to pick it up or we delivered it—throughout the entire year.
We know that every student has dreams. When we look at a student like Janeishka Cruz, we see the full potential and power of helping kids see the brilliance they already have inside. Janeishka wasn’t sure college was for her, and her junior year wasn’t her best. But surrounded by the support of her teachers, she decided that junior year was her “eye opener,” and that she really did want to go to college.
“I started staying up late and studying and passed junior year better than how I started,” she said recently. “Coming into this year, I made sure to do everything and make everything look good before applying to college. I want them to see the shift from the end of junior year to the end of 12th grade.”
All of this work has paid off immensely, because Janeishka’s GPA rose from 2.4 to 3.64, and she will now be the first in her family to go to college. Janeishka has been accepted by St. John Fisher College, where she plans to study psychology and English.
Rochester is filled with students like Janeishka, still finding their way, and yet taking decisive action to ensure their future. We are proud to support them on this journey and believe they have a vital role to play as Rochester emerges from the pandemic. We can’t wait to see what they accomplish.
Paul Powell is assistant superintendent for Uncommon Schools, a network of public charter schools. He oversees Rochester Prep, which was established in 2006.