Jeremy Heyman: College Access, STEM, and Data Specialist

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About the Author

Jeremy Heyman, PhD, is a 3rd-generation Western Pennsylvania native who moved to Washington Heights, New York City, in 2008 to be a founding Science/ESL teacher at ELLIS Preparatory Academy, New York City's first and only public high school for 16-21 year-old newcomer immigrant English language learner students regardless of prior education. (Never interested in living in the ridiculous City of New York, he intended to spend 2-3 years at ELLIS and then bounce for physically colder, emotionally warmer locales with a slower pace of life, lower cost of living, more nature, and less extravagant shows of materialism. The students really drew him into the school and made him feel like a part of the school community*, alongside the support of mentor Maribel Tineo and principal Norma Vega.) He has a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Chemistry from Brandeis University and pivoted into a career in urban science education after initially training in structural chemistry and pharmaceutical sciences research. His overarching passion revolves around expanding access, opportunity, and persistence in fields related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) among first-generation students and students often marginalized from such studies. This interest drove his doctoral research in Science Education at Columbia University, where he worked with Dr. Christopher Emdin, as well as his recent book, Without a Margin for Error: Urban Immigrant English Language Learners in STEM. He sees a great need for novel pipeline programs that change the equation around which young people have access to engaging in these fields at a high level. Jeremy initially moved from chemistry into science education in response to a growing sense of indignance with the vastly inequitable sorting mechanisms by which students were "weeded out" of science and pre-med tracks in colleges, which alongside his love of data, spreadsheets, demographic data maps, and infographics led his interest of effecting change at the undergraduate level back to considering -- and then working -- in secondary schools that ultimately help determine who makes it to college, and to which colleges.

*I've started reflecting in recent years, following a comment made by a friend and alumna from ELLIS's first class, that maybe part of why I've enjoyed ELLIS so much is that I never truly fit in anywhere, in any community or place, and that in its opening days and years, ELLIS was this new place where everyone was new, where nobody really knew exactly what they were doing, where we all learned and struggled and grew together, where all of us were looking for a sense of community and belonging. Arriving in New York the same month as many of my students, I certainly feel like I was discovering and deciphering New York alongside my early students, while of course recognizing that I faced a far easier transition from just a few hundred miles away within the same country. And, I mean, I don't exactly look like my students or share their background experiences beyond a sense of affinity with the "immigrant striver" experience that I get from older members of my family, as the grandson and great-grandson of immigrant-family strivers who mostly settled across cities and small towns of Western Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. On the surface, in New York I joined a Jewish population that makes our people not even seem like a minority group at times. On the other hand, I did not quite know how to integrate into a community that has always seemed large and overwhelming. I grew up as a minority - a religious minority - in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. My older sister and I became religiously observant as teenagers, and for most of high school, I was the only Orthodox Jewish person in my town of 29,000. I felt a sense of solidarity with other religious minority students; most of my friends back home were Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim students from immigrant backgrounds who were understanding of my own observances and shared my love of science and math. While I can only imagine some of the things that my ELLIS students have gone through, I definitely know and understand the experience of feeling isolated or different from my own being different religiously, or from feeling at times out of place culturally in New York, or from my bout with a mental illness when I was 17, and I think my tendency to form bonds or feel solidarity with those different from me has been key at ELLIS.

How did you start working with immigrant students? 

I had tutored or mentored students from immigrant backgrounds a little in high school and college (as they were among the students with whom I was in contact), but in terms of specifically working with immigrant students, that started with ELLIS.  I applied for dozens of jobs, a few of which were high school teaching positions, as I had heard how hard it was for high-poverty schools to find science and math teachers and knew that working at a high school would provide me with invaluable context for making a change on a larger scale from the high school and college sides in the future.  I was intrigued by I-START, a new teacher training/residency model (now-defunct) run in conjunction with the Internationals Network for Public Schools to train aspiring educators with a disciplinary specialty to become TESOL-certified teachers, stemming from the Network's belief that its teachers must be teachers of both language and content.  I found the posting on Idealist right before the deadline and applied.  I visited a few of the schools and received the fateful email from Norma Vega on June 24, 2008, an email about a school that did not yet exist (even on the Network's website) from a person I'd never heard of.  I almost deleted that email, but I'm so glad that I read it instead!  Norma and I spoke on the phone, and she was standing waiting for me when I arrived in New York City and got off of my bus in midtown.  She convinced me to work at her school within 10 minutes of meeting me, and I started at ELLIS in late August 2008.  The first student I met on the students' first day was Luis Ramon Diaz, a 16-year-old who had just moved to Washington Heights from the Dominican Republic.  Luis is now my good friend and a math teacher at ELLIS, was a main character in my book and dissertation research, and is one of the reasons I decided to return to ELLIS in 2016 after completing my PhD.

What is your specific role at ELLIS?

These days I tend to refer to myself as a College Access, STEM, and Data Specialist.  I help run the college office and special programs and partnerships related to college coursework and other challenging learning opportunities with a focus on STEM internship/outreach opportunities. I also keep track of data related to student progress for the school administration and staff.

After teaching for 3 years, I transitioned into building and leading our college office, fighting to change the status quo around the kinds of post-secondary opportunities our students would have.  Our founder and principal (Norma) as well as our founding school counselor (Hedin, my inspiration for moving into a counseling/advising role along with students like Maciel, another one of my original students who is now working at ELLIS as a social worker!) shared a strong belief that we needed to change the way that English language learner students were perceived within higher education.  In places like the Bronx, for far too long, far too many ELL students have been underestimated and funneled into extensive remediation at struggling community colleges.  A lot of my work has focused on maximizing our students' opportunities for postsecondary success, which has included a jointly relationship-driven and data-driven approach to optimizing students' college options.  Very few of our students may look like 4-year college "material" to most college admissions officers, so a lot of the work especially in the early years was around advocating and helping them to buy into our students and school, even when at first we had no track record and were an unknown school that seemed to serve a high-risk population.  At this point, a lot of my work continues to revolve around college access as well as expanding college readiness vis-a-vis challenging course opportunities such as dual-enrollment college courses, and outside opportunities, such as STEM internship and enrichment/outreach opportunities.  I am also involved in advocacy and support for our DREAMer students and run a small scholarship fund to help these students and alumni.

What are challenges that the students at ELLIS face? How do they overcome these challenges?

They bring such strength and resilience and lived experience with them, and so many also face such a variety of challenges.  About 2/3 of our students did not consistently attend school full-time (7 hours per day) growing up in their home countries, with some out of school for a couple years, sometimes for most of their childhoods, and with many students accustomed to a 3-4 hour day of class.  As such, adapting suddenly to a 7-hour day is really tough, AND in a new language.  Plus they're usually no longer with the family members who were their key supports growing up; indeed, it is very common at ELLIS for students to be living with a parent whom they barely knew, attempting to form a bond with a parent with whom they've never lived before, or with whom they haven't lived since they were 5 or 6 years old.  Some are ultimately on their own without any support from family, and some are here to work and support family back home.  There is also the call to work, and the need to work, in some cases long hours.  Which doesn't exactly support mastering a new language and/or high school academics in that new language.  Plus they're all arriving at the ages of 15.5-18, which can be tough adolescent times in the best of circumstances.  They're also not exactly getting access to middle-class educations in this country either.  I think for many of them they call upon their lived experiences and inner strength to overcome challenges; for many students, anything they face in school may pale in comparison with things they've overcome outside of school here or in their home countries.  I mean, we do lose a lot of students to full-time work but with those who stay, I think it's a combination of the grit they bring with them and learn over time, their maturity and time management skills, and the supports of the school that help them.

Talk about the college application process for students at ELLIS and how this differs from typical American born high school students. 

To be honest, it looks really different for different ELLIS students depending how "on-track" they are for graduation when they enter their senior year.  (For those who aren't so on-track for a definite on-time graduation - which means something different now as a PBAT school than when we were a 5-Regents school - it's not such an extensive process, and on a case by case basis students may learn about free alternative training programs to motivate them as well as well.)  

For those on track, the actual applications look similar, but how they get in, and how they get to that point, does look different than for a lot of American-born students, or at least for those who come from middle-income-and-above backgrounds.  We are blessed to have an administration that believes strongly in the work, which also helps our work to look different than it would otherwise.  We try to help each on-track student with crafting an individual list of schools, including CUNY schools but with a focus on state and private universities with state-funded Opportunity Programs ("OP," as in HEOP or EOP) that are like alternative, but highly competitive, admissions and support routes for our students and others like them who have faced significant financial and educational disadvantage.  Landing an OP spot can seem like winning the lottery, especially at mid-level colleges and higher, and requires a lot of follow-though, detail-orientation, and paperwork in addition to being a strong candidate.  Helping our students to prepare and then land these spots at good-to-great-fit schools that will provide strong financial, academic, and social supports to help talented, resilient ELLIS students to get in AND succeed in college is one of the things we probably do best in our college office, and it's something in which we take great pride.  Our students who attend 4-year colleges persist at a rate of 81-85%, far outperforming national averages despite lower SAT scores and less access to advanced high school coursework and resources.  A lot of that comes down to ELLIS (teachers AND counselors) knowing our students well and helping them to find the best place for them to succeed AND to avoid having crippling debt.  The vast majority of our college-bound students have grants and scholarships covering their tuition and fees AND THEN SOME (with the exception of our growing number of DREAMers).  Our 4-year-college students tend to have their tuition/fees covered by grants/scholarships, as well as 55-85% of room, board, and books.  Their average indebtedness is well below national averages.  I think in some ways the attention that we are blessed to be able to provide to them looks a lot more in some ways like what some small private schools offer than what is typical in a comprehensive public high school (but may be similar to what you'd see in certain other college access-focused public schools like those in the Urban Assembly network, for example).

Can you tell me about what it's been like making connections at colleges for our students? What has been difficult? What has been rewarding? 

It's definitely been a process. In the early days, we had absolutely no reputation and were seen as a total unknown and, often, a great risk, especially since 4-year colleges, even those with Opportunity Programs for low-income students, were generally unfamiliar with serving students like ours -- newcomers who started learning the language at 16-18 years of age, are graduating from high school at age 19-22,  whose test scores are often not so competitive, who attend a small, unknown, high-needs school without many advanced classes that makes students seem potentially "untested."  My approach in building the college office from the early days has been about optimizing students' college access and success, looking to maximize the "fit" and academic, financial, and social supports that students receive, by means of what I call a jointly relationship-driven and data-driven approach.  I gathered and examined lots of data around various public and private universities' admissions profiles and graduation rates, as well as various other pieces of information, while forging relationships with colleges through conversations regarding specific applicants as well as our unique school overall.  We owe a lot to our first graduating class, a phenomenal group of pioneers whose hard work and resilience truly forged pathways for future ELLIS graduates and served as the best possible vetting for our school.  Their success helped their colleges, and ultimately other colleges, to see just what ELLIS students could do.  Some parts of the work don't seem quite as difficult, and certainly not as novel, now that we aren't a total unknown, and fortunately I've been able to work with teachers and our admin team to further the advanced coursework that we are able to provide at ELLIS, which helps a great deal, too (alongside showing off some of the high-level internships that some of our students get in Columbia University labs and the like).  It's super-rewarding that among our alumni who go on to 4-year colleges -- most of whom don't look to most admissions offices like "4-year college material," with composite SAT scores generally in the 700s-800s, some having attended school only part-time prior to coming to ELLIS -- their persistence rate is over 80%!  Remaining in touch, and trying to continue to be a support to them, and visiting some of them, is a lot of fun, and it's so cool seeing their continued growth.  Five of our alumni have returned to work at ELLIS as well, which is super-inspiring to all of us.  On the other hand, it's certainly challenging finding ways, together with our colleagues, to help more of our struggling students, and certain other sub-populations (such as DREAMers) to see and pursue postsecondary educations, and for those who do go on to community college programs, it can be a real fight to make it through, even as we target the higher-performing of those respective programs.  It's also tough since we rely so heavily on Opportunity Programs (this is how nearly all of our 4-year-bound students get into and through college), which are super-competitive to get into, when a student doesn't qualify for these programs due to their family income being a little too high, or due to being a DREAMer (including the majority of our DREAMers who have an immigration case currently in progress or stalled).  The high turnover within higher ed also makes maintaining relationships hard with many institutions, and sometimes makes the level of supports and quality at some institutions' programs vary year to year.  We are also working toward the day when at least some of our real standout students can get in with full-need scholarship/grant aid to a variety of strong universities in and outside of New York state beyond the strictures of Opportunity Programs.  Much of this comes down to our "strength of schedule," to the advanced classes that we're able to offer.  Of course, we also realize that as a high-needs school, these are tough decisions, as so much school energy rightfully HAS to go toward supporting struggling students, to supporting attendance and graduation efforts, but that can make it harder to foster truly college-prep-level academic rigor and coursework.  (We are certainly further along in this work than we were a few years ago, although I think there were also certain benefits of rigor when students did have to complete 5 Regents exams.  And the more we can prepare students, and offering college-credit courses as a type of "bridge" during their senior year, by which time students also generally feel like they really shouldn't be in high school anymore, this also helps to ease their transitions to the work they do, and experience they have, once IN college.)

Have you seen policies that have helped these students thrive?

I've seen practices and policies at some colleges that have really helped our students.  In general, holistic admissions practices that don't highly emphasize SAT scores can be helpful, but even this is nuanced as different admissions offices read test-optional files vastly differently.  As I mentioned before, state funded Opportunity Programs like HEOP and EOP are also super helpful to helping our students to get ACCEPTED to quality institutions AND then to help support them to make it.  I'm also excited about the recent NY DREAM ACT that will really help more of our DREAMers and status-in-flux students to continue their educations and keep their hopes up for their futures.  It's also good, especially for students who aren't able to make it to an upstate 4-year college for various reasons, that there are some higher-performing, open-admissions, higher-support Associate's programs as well. (We wish that local public 4-year colleges would become more holistic such that these local city colleges would look to welcome more of our students with open arms in line with their original mission.)

What is your hope for these students and for our policies as a country?

I hope that the state DREAM ACTs keep spreading to other states and that together with the federal House's recent passage of a form of the federal DREAM ACT, we move toward a space where all of our most vulnerable students have pathways to permanent, bright futures in the US.  Policies like these will help to keep students engaged in school and looking and planning toward their futures.  (We have a student from this year's senior class, a young man from Central America who fled a brutal situation back home, with the last straw being his brother's murder, who struggled immensely in his early years at ELLIS while he was unaccompanied, supporting himself, and dealing with being undocumented in addition to not having such strong academic skills, like many ELLIS students, SLIFE or even otherwise.  His case ultimately went through faster than most others, he received his green card last summer, and the hope that he drew from his process going well was a huge part of the absolutely incredible evolution we have seen from him over the past 2 years, where he has truly risen to the occasion and become one of the strongest and most mature, consistent, dedicated, insightful students in our senior class; he ultimately earned scholarships worth $65-70K each at 3 different elite universities.  I can only imagine how differently things might be for some of our other students who are essentially in holding patterns for 4-5 years while they wait for USCIS to determine their fates all the while dealing with their own respective traumas and situations.

Can you talk about your experience with SLIFE students.

I taught chemistry (as well as a little math) to a number of SIFE and SLIFE students and have also worked with them in college/postsecondary advising.  Sadly I haven't had the opportunity to get to know as many of our SLIFE students in the college & career office as I'd like because we do struggle to retain these students.  With the most severe cases, it comes down to a Regents diploma unfortunately not being a timely option for them.  It's hard when you come in behind the 8-ball academically, linguistically, and literacy/numeracy-wise at age 17-18, and have needs to work to help support yourself and your family, to finish a full high school program and pass 2 state exams within 4 years, and unfortunately due to age and outside challenges, these students often aren't able to commit more than 4 years (and often find that 4 years is too much for them to be full-time students as well).  Their high school graduation prospects are definitely better now that the school has a partial ELL Regents waiver that changed graduation requirements from 5 state exams to 2 exams plus 5 Capstone PBAT portfolios/projects, but there are still many who we sadly lose.  There are also good-news stories, of course.  We now have staff members at ELLIS who are alumni of the school who hadn't attended school for 7 hours per day until they came to ELLIS.  One of them wasn't yet familiar with the mathematical operation of division when he first came to our classrooms at age 16, but he now holds a Bachelor's degree!  We also have the remarkable autodidact, a brilliant young man with whom I forged a close bond years ago, who was out of school for 6 years due to illness, and out of school the majority of the time while at ELLIS as well for hospitalizations and other reasons, and he graduated last year, in his early-mid 20s, with a Regents diploma and is now finishing his first year of college!  

With SLIFE students I think there's a pretty broad continuum.

How is their education equitable or not?

I think having just 1 route to completing high school, 1 type of diploma, can be a disservice to our students entering at an older age with the most limited or interrupted educations.  These students often have significant lived and work experience but in terms of passing exams to earn a diploma within 4 years, it can just be demotivating for many of them.  We have seen so many students lose hope over the years (albeit more in the 5 Regents, pre-PBAT period) when they just feel like passing these exams and everything is too much.  Of course this is also complicated by many of them having to work, and many having to and/or choosing to (depending on the situation) work really heavy hours.  And of course there is a gaping inequity stemming from residential segregation and related issues.  Our students often realize just what they have and haven't been offered or exposed to until or unless they're in a different setting exposed to individuals from places that are, well, different from the Bronx and upper Manhattan.  

Can you speak towards policies that have helped/hindered these students (ELLs and SLIFE)

I think I did some of that above.  Not having a DREAM ACT up to now has been a big hindrance.  Having only 1 type of diploma can be a hindrance too for severe SIFE/SLIFE students. I don't know the perfect solution to this, but maybe some sort of parallel structure to what some states have for students with severe learning differences, applied to students with more severe SLIFE situations in terms of their literacy/numeracy skills.  Because it's just really demotivating if a student makes all this progress, like we've seen from their work with you and Sarah**, and with a lot of us at ELLIS over the years, and then they don't have a clearly defined goal that seems attainable to them within the next 2-3 years.

**Sarah Digby and Orly worked at ELLIS with SLIFE students developing their literacy skills.