Connecticut is one of the most educated states in the nation, but that statistic does not always extend to its high schools. Some students of color in the state’s inner city schools have stellar academic records — but are still struggling in college.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jessika Harkay to discuss her article, “How CT’s college-readiness system leaves students of color behind,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

You can read the story here.

Episode Transcript

WSHU: Jessika, you write about some top students at Connecticut high schools finding that they’re not fully prepared for university courses. Why so?

JH: Yeah, it’s interesting, because I started this research after the state Board of Education was talking about how students are more college-ready than ever. And something I’ve kind of been seeing is, that’s true for a lot of students, but it’s not true for all students.

A lot of factors can contribute to why a student isn’t college-ready. And it’s also how we’re defining college-ready: the hard part about AP tests is it comes down to a single score at the end of the year, a test where you have to score a 3 or higher on a scale of 1 to 5, to determine whether you get college credit, whether you learned anything that year, which isn’t really conducive to how college courses really are. I don’t think there’s a single college course I ever took that depended on one test. There’s also dual enrollment classes — those are college classes taught either at the high school or with a neighboring institution where you get direct credit right there.

So a lot of factors kind of contribute to whether Black and Latino students, or any student, really, is successful in these classes or college-ready. Part of that is recommendations, having someone pushing you, saying, “You can do this, I think you would be a good fit for that.” There’s a lot of times where people and students fall between the gaps, not having those interactions with teachers or counselors who are kind of pushing them to do these things.

But there’s also things that are systemic, like the type of courses that are being taught. Even if you have an AP Spanish course and a Puerto Rican student taking this class, they can still struggle with it because the Spanish that’s being taught is from Spain, and you may have different words if you’re a Puerto Rican student.

So yeah, a lot of different factors can happen internally, but there’s also external factors of chronic absenteeism, illness, different things like that.

WSHU: And also having the right direction. So you give the example of Aniyah Parker-Ricketts and her friends. Tell us a little bit about her and what happened with her as she was preparing for college.

JH: Yeah, I mean, Aniyah was such an interesting character just because this is your top student in a Waterbury High School — you would expect a student who has straight As and is taking these classes should be a perfect representation of being college-ready. She got accepted to UConn, she has multiple scholarships to UConn. And the interesting part was, even though she was this top student in the beginning of her academic career, she was never having these conversations of someone sitting down saying, “You could do even more, you can go to college with a few credits, save some money, cut your time at UConn shorter — even though you’re having these scholarships, there’s more money.”

She said that she was a 4.0 student her first two years of high school. Her older sister was already being recommended to these classes, so she knew that they existed. And by her junior year, she said, “Okay, if no one’s coming to me, I have to go to someone and talk to them.” And she’s kind of lucky on that front, that she had this exposure of knowing that these courses are offered.

But Gianni Bonval makes an interesting quote in the story where he says, “There are students who would be amazing in these classes. They’re so smart, they’re so talented, but they may not know that they exist, because we’re not having people come up to us and say, ‘You would be a good fit for this, and this is what this course can do for your future.'”

WSHU: Connecticut has been dealing with this issue for years and years now. There’s a landmark case, the Sheff v. O’Neill case that was supposed to try and deal with these issues. How is that playing out? How has that helped in any way? What’s been the situation as far as that case is concerned, and trying to level up education in Connecticut?

JH: I mean, you see school choice, right. And there’s busing options that a student in Hartford can bus to West Hartford for a better education. But I think what we’re still seeing is that these schools are underfunded and under-resourced, and they’re not having the opportunity. Even though Sheff v. O’Neill was trying to desegregate schools, you still see a bunch of these inner-city schools, very concentrated with students of color, and they’re not having equal access. What a lot of experts say is you shouldn’t have to get bussed for a better education elsewhere. You should have that access in Hartford or in Waterbury, and we’re still not seeing that despite these efforts to bring more resources to the schools or take children to different schools where they can succeed. But these inner-city schools are still struggling.

WSHU: So what is being done?

JH: Yeah, I mean, I was able to talk to a few school districts. All of them are some of the bigger cities in Connecticut, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury. They’re saying that the first step is really just that awareness aspect. Get parents involved in these conversations — let’s start having these conversations before students get to high school, let’s make them aware of these efforts and different classes that we’re offering.

The second part is educating teachers to be able to identify these students, and also putting teachers in training to be able to offer more of these classes, because that’s the other side of it, teacher shortages, right? You’re just trying to get your bare minimums done. Offering an AP class can encourage more training, which can be another barrier to offering these classes. They also talked about offering new tutoring, and also just expanding those courses. If AP Spanish doesn’t call your name, maybe AP Environmental Science will call your name or AP U.S. History, and just having those resources where students have the option to choose what interests them.

WSHU: You talk about Senate Bill 1, which was a type of omnibus kind of thing where a lot of things were put into one bill, but the focus there was creating a different climate in schools. Could you just tell us a little bit about that? And also, they were pushing for more teachers of color, recruiting more teachers of color, and that might make a difference?

JH: Yeah, I mean, the school climate standard is national now. And Connecticut is now talking about adopting some of these practices, just to ensure that when students go to school, they do feel comfortable. And that was another aspect of my stories. You have students in these AP classes where they’re the only Black student, they’re the only Latino student — let alone you have the pressure of trying to perform even better because you’re representing your background, you’re representing your community.

So Senate Bill 1 is kind of looking at how we make this climate easier on children. How do we make school, especially in the topic of mental health, an easier transition for students when they’re looking to either advance in their coursework or even just try to do better academically?

WSHU: So how effective have they been as far as recruiting more teachers of color and trying to direct their efforts that way?

JH: Yeah, I mean, they’re starting new apprentice programs, which I think are going to be interesting once those take off, where if you’re studying education in college, now, you could go directly to a high school or a middle school or an elementary school and start getting that hands-on experience and seeing if that’s really for you.

And after you’re done with those apprenticeships, then you’re placed into those schools where you already have a little bit of that background. There’s a lot more mentorship programs that they’re talking about — having veteran teachers mentoring a younger teacher, making sure that they’re successful in the classroom, because again, we talk a lot about students and feeling that pressure. But imagine being an educator, your first year, you’re a Black teacher, a Latina teacher, an Asian teacher, and none of your coworkers really look like you and you’re trying to represent a certain group and connect to students from a certain background.

What I’ve seen from the state is they’re trying to make these bridges a lot more comfortable, a lot easier, so not only do these students feel more comfortable in these classes in these schools, but so do the teachers teaching them.

WSHU: So basically, what we have here is that current students are finding that they’re not fully prepared and that something is being done. So there is some brighter future. Because I have covered education in Connecticut for so many years, and it seems as if this is an intractable problem, that it’s just so hard to fix.

JH: Right? Yeah. And I mean, it’s something that we’re seeing nationwide, it’s not just Connecticut-specific. It’s, how do we make the playing field more equitable for all students? And the hard thing is there’s not a black-and-white answer to that, right. We want to say, “Oh, you just fix this one thing, and everything is going to be solved.” That’s a lot of just moving variables and seeing what works.

Is tutoring after school helpful to some students? Sure. But what other things can we do within the classroom? Is it Saturday school, is it summer bridge programs? And it’s just hard because every student is so different, but a lot of this is relationship building, and that really determines how a student’s trajectory is going to work out in their academic career.

Long Story Short takes you behind the scenes at the home of public policy journalism in Connecticut. Each week WSHU’s Ebong Udoma joins us to rundown the Sunday Feature with our reporters. We also present specials on CT Mirror’s big investigative pieces.