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Long IslandNassau

High schoolers bank college credit with 'Smart Scholars' program

Roosevelt High School graduates Jada Dunn, left, and

Roosevelt High School graduates Jada Dunn, left, and Jacian Wright, at the SUNY College at Old Westbury campus Monday, August 10, 2015. Both enrolled in an Early College "Smart Scholars," program that allowed them to take college-level courses both within high school and once-a-week on the Old Westbury campus. Credit: Barry Sloan

Jada Dunn, 17, a June graduate of Roosevelt High School, starts classes this month at SUNY Old Westbury with 24 course credits already accumulated -- the result of a collaboration known as "Smart Scholars" that helped boost her school's academic status.

Three weeks ago, Roosevelt High emerged as one of a handful of struggling schools across the state that won their appeals not to be placed under state-imposed receivership. A total of 144 schools were put in that category, giving superintendents in those districts special powers to hire and fire principals and teachers and take other steps aimed at improving test scores and graduation rates.

State education officials said they granted Roosevelt High a reprieve because the school had raised its graduation rate. Roosevelt administrators, in turn, credited programs such as Smart Scholars for encouraging more teens to graduate and go on to college.

"The teachers work with you. They're trying to train you to be more independent, but they help you," said Dunn, who recently completed orientation at Old Westbury and plans to major in accounting there. "If more high schools had programs like this, I would definitely recommend it."

Smart Scholars, offered at six schools on Long Island and about 25 statewide, was launched in 2010 with initial funding from a foundation supported by software billionaire Bill Gates. New York has since taken over, and the program this year cost $3.3 million. Similar efforts, known generically as "early college high schools," are in more than 30 other states.

One idea behind Smart Scholars is letting students living in low-income communities know they have a shot at college, even if they may be the first in their families to attend.

To that end, students selected for the program in the 11th and 12th grades meet regularly with counselors experienced in college admissions and travel to campuses for information tours. Simultaneously, the students attend college-level courses taught both in their own high schools and on campuses such as SUNY Old Westbury and Farmingdale State College.

Old Westbury officials said that since 2010, a total of 190 Roosevelt students earned 3,268 college credits while still in high school.

Those numbers have captured national attention. The July edition of "District Administration," a trade magazine for school officials, named Roosevelt as one of 30 "Districts of Distinction" across the country, largely on the strength of its early college project.

The publication concluded that Roosevelt High and SUNY Old Westbury, working together, had created new opportunities for students in a school system that in the past had been "persistently marginalized."

The New York State Council of School Superintendents, an Albany-based advocacy group, cited that article last month in urging the State Education Department to grant Roosevelt High its requested reprieve from receivership.

Robert Lowry, the council's deputy director, told Newsday at the time that Roosevelt's superintendent, Deborah Wortham, "has worked hard and has made progress."

Wortham, in a phone interview last week, said Smart Scholars is just one part of a broader program aimed at making students college-conscious. College banners hang from walls even in elementary schools, she said.

"It permeates throughout the entire school district," Wortham added.

Roosevelt Middle School, unlike the high school, was placed in receivership by the state. A school board trustee, Willa Scott, told a public forum Saturday that the district plans to send petitions to Albany challenging that decision.


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