It’s November, which means college application season has officially started. And after two years of stunted enrollment due to the impact of the pandemic, high schools across Massachusetts are hoping for a recovery during the current cycle.
Some charter schools in Massachusetts that specialize in college prep in particular are trying to adapt.
They redouble their efforts to reach out to students: face-to-face, before and after graduation. At the same time, they recognize that college may not be the best option for many of the young people they serve.
“We’re trying to be inclusive,” said Owen Stearns, CEO of Excel Academy Charter Schools, a network of schools serving nearly 1,400 students in Chelsea and East Boston. “There are real, valid paths that don’t involve college … and we want to support that.”
This shift in thinking comes amid a sharp drop in college enrollments since the pandemic began. Historically, the state’s charter schools have outperformed traditional public schools on this metric.
As of spring 2020, 82% of recent graduates from all Massachusetts charter schools were enrolled in some form of higher education — counted as either a 2-year or 4-year institution — compared to 72% of graduates from traditional public schools, state data indicates.
Since the pandemic, that 10-point lead has narrowed by almost a third.
Of the 10 Massachusetts public schools that saw the largest declines in college enrollment over the past two years, six were charter schools.
Excel Academy High School in East Boston is one of them: The percentage of its graduate students who were enrolled in college by spring fell from 86% in 2020 to 63% in 2022.
Charter school leaders point to long-term, institutional forces behind the decline.
“Higher education is frankly broken,” said Thabiti Brown, principal of Codman Academy charter school in Dorchester. Given the high cost, paperwork required, and relative lack of on-campus support: “[college] is not set up for low-income, working-class people,” he said.
Nearly two-thirds of students at the state’s 78 charter schools come from low-income households, compared with 43% who attend traditional public schools. The publicly funded but self-governing charter schools are relatively free to focus on specific educational outcomes. And in many of the schools, getting students into college was a priority.
“When we were a new school and we finished our first grades in 2005-2009, we just pushed for college — and just the four-year college,” said Brown, who was part of the group that founded Codman Academy in 2001.
Many charter schools, on the other hand, are open about their expectations: College pennants hang on the walls and the staff dress in the equipment of their alma mater.
“It’s so important for our students to see people who are consistent with their identities and to see, ‘Hey, they went to college — maybe I can do that too,'” said Kelly Garcia, the transition planner of Excel Academy in East Boston directs secondary school.
Garcia speaks from experience. After graduating from Excel in 2007, she became the first in her family to pursue higher education, earning a bachelor’s degree from Holy Cross and a master’s degree from Boston University.
But even before the pandemic, school leaders were observing a problem with the college-for-all mandate: A sizable minority of graduates didn’t want to leave and didn’t thrive when they enrolled.
“[They] We went for a year and then didn’t move on — walked out with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and no closure, which is the very worst possible scenario,” Brown said.
Stearns, the CEO of the Excel Academy network, noted that he’s tracking about 10 to 15 percent of kids who don’t want to go to college, although that number may be “rising” lately, he said.
Some charter schools have since changed their approach, but without abandoning the culture of high expectations. At Codman Academy, for example, all students are expected to apply to college, but are no longer pushed to enroll, Brown said.
Charter schools also offer support and counseling for students.
In Codman, for example, school principals resorted to government grants to fill the position of full-time dean of alumni. Deans of alumni remain in contact with alumni for several years after graduation and are common at charter schools.
Cori Bodley, alumni dean at Codman, says that Pivot has allowed her to take on a more hands-on role, including visiting recent graduates on their college campus and conducting one-on-one interviews: “A lot of our students really respond well on me,” she said.
The latest state staffing data shows that student support staff at charter schools grew 51% between 2020 and 2022, compared to 27% at traditional public schools. Support staff include social workers, career counselors, school adjustment counselors and family engagement staff.
At Excel Academy, Kelly Garcia is one of eight full-time transition counselors and has a caseload of around 50 students — far below the state average, which ranges from 250 to nearly 400 students per counselor or support staffer.
Excel Academy hasn’t increased its support staff—but expectations have changed. Garcia says she spends much of her time supporting students “outside the classroom” — visiting overcrowded apartments, securing help with rent, food or other basic needs.
“If you’re ever in Chelsea and can visit the days we distribute food, it’s still very clear our families continue to face difficulties – to this day there are long lines,” she said.
This extra support appears to be making a difference, at least when it comes to reviving students’ earlier momentum towards higher education. At Excel Academy, there was a surge in college enrollment for the class of 2022, per school data, although it was “not even halfway back” to pre-pandemic levels, according to Stearns.
None of the charter school leaders surveyed are willing to completely reject college goals.
“There is also a lot of data that a college degree increases your life chances significantly – we want to [students] to be aware of that,” Stearns said.