From High School to Real World

For Graduates Skipping College, the Future is Now

By Amy Waldman

For most high school seniors, the months leading up to graduation mean decisions about where to go to college.  But for Johana Santos, Anthony Rose, Angel Ramos, Michael Loza and Coreen Reid, all seniors at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, the decisions they had to make were about what to do instead.

As their high school days waned, the five seniors found themselves among a distinct minority of New York City students – those finishing high school but, for reasons of money or temperament or ability,  not going on to college. Each year, according to the Board of Education surveys, fewer than 20 percent of graduating seniors say they do not plan to go on to college in the fall, although the board keeps no data on how many students actually enroll.

For Ms. Santos, 17, and Mr. Rose, 18, both dedicated members of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps and both unable to afford college, the choice was simple:  for her the Air Force, for her the Army.  For Mr. Loza, 18, the family cook and a student of culinary arts, the choice was to find a way to the French Culinary Institute, or find a job on a cruise ship or in a restaurant.  For Ms. Reid, 19, who has been an intern for two yeas at Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center in the Bronx, it was to seek vocational training to become a nurse’s aide.  For Mr. Ramos, 18, the future stretches before him like an empty essay page.  “I’ve got a lot of thinking to do this summer,” he said several weeks ago.

With at least a stab at college now an American rite of passage, the economic and psychological pressures on students like those at Evander Childs seem to have only increased.  For such most students letting go of one trapeze bar before the next one is in sight: scary, unstructured and rarely exhilarating. “It’s finally hit me,”  Mr. Loza said.  “I’m getting out of here and I’m not going to have this place to protect me.

Their decisions not to pursue college can be traced to a mix of shared circumstances and individual concerns.  Some of the students lacked confidence or had a mind or temperament unsuited to academic pursuits – or much better suited to something else.  For others, being the first member of their generation in their family to graduate from high school was accomplishment enough. And, for all of them, money was a driving factor; either as a bar to higher education or as an impetus to start working now to secure their own income.

Mr. Ramos, whose mother is a nurse’s aide and whose father is dead said he wanted to go to college and study computer engineering but he did not apply because he was unsure that he would pass his Regents Competency Tests.  He is the only one of his friends to successfully complete high school but he still feels as if the train is leaving the station without him.  He decided not to go to Friday’s graduation ceremony anyway, he said, but if he were going to college (toughness and sadness fighting mastery of his thin face) “I would go on a long cruise or something.  I’d be thinking differently.”

Mr. Rose, a lanky, serious youth whose father is a carpenter and whose mother does not work, said he did not want to have to work and study at the same time.  After boot camp, he will work for the Army as an operating room specialist in Oklahoma.  Eventually he hopes to go to college and study computer engineering.

Ms. Reid whose mother, a widow, is a home care aide, said she had hoped that the military would pay her way to college, but she did not pass the test for the Army.

Mr. Loza, the son of a nurse and a carpenter, said that for now he wanted to do something he enjoyed, like cooking.  He said he would go to college and study psychology “later in life, when I’m planted with a car.  Mr. Loza, for example, has been taking classes in the culinary arts program at the School of Cooperative Technical Education in Manhattan for a year and a half.

But Evander Childs’s principal, Richard Urovsky, said he did not believe that the schools were doing enough to prepare students not headed for college.  He is among many principals and guidance counselors who are questioning how the new graduation standards being phased in statewide will affect the students uninterested in college or unable to pursue it.  Now that each student has to pass five Regents exams, he said, everyone will be on a college track.

“What if someone doesn’t want to go to college want to go to college?  Does it prepare him for a job?” he asked of the standards.  Critics of the new standards say students unlikely to go on to college may not, only have the hardest time meeting the new requirements and obtaining a high school diploma, but also may have less time for vocational training.

“The Board of Education is making a major error in putting everyone into a ‘one size fits all’ category – that’s not the way the world works,” said Robert Yurasits, the retiring principal of the School of Cooperative Technical Education, where about 800 high school students undertake part-time study in trades like welding, horticulture and air-conditioner repair.

Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Board of Education, said board members hoped that the new standards would leave students better prepared for college and therefore more would choose to go.  And Mr. Feldman said students who were not planning on going to college needed the same basic skills as those who were. Mr. Ramos seemed to agree that the current standards have not adequately prepared him, even in basic skills.  “I want to get my diploma so I can pay a tutor to teach me to read,” he said.

The ambitions of the Evander Childs graduates are shaped partly by what they know – what their parents and siblings have accomplished or not accomplished – and party by what they do not know.  At the ceremonies, Ms. Santos proudly boasted the flag on the high school stage.  For her, things did not work out as she had planned – they worked out better.  Just as she was about to send in her form committing herself to the Air Force, she got word that she had won a scholarship to Norwich University, a military academy in Vermont. Things did not work out exactly as planned for Mr. Ramos, either.  He failed one class, government.  His guidance counselor said that was no problem – he would just take summer school. But then he failed to show up last week for the two Regents Competency tests that he still had to pass.  Mrs. Scherz wondered whether he was trying to sabotage himself, she said, so that he could stay in school longer and postpone figuring out his future – a common phenomenon among graduating senior who have no plans.

Asked whether this was the case, Mr. Ramos said, “In a way, yeah.” And conceded that he was scared because he did not know what to do after high school.

“Degrees of Success” captures short inspirational stories of every day people who became successful without a college degree.

“Claudia Fox has written an enlightening book that will demonstrate to you, that although education may be the key that will unlock doors, with only dedication and desire, you can blow them right off their hinges.”
– John Roland, WNYW, FOX 5