Lake Pontchartrain glistened as Rinata Williams rode north from New Orleans. She watched from the backseat in August 2012 as the city gave way to the causeway, miles and miles of concrete bridge she hoped would ferry her to the future she’d been promised.
No one in her family had ever left home for college. Before Hurricane Katrina, just half of New Orleans public school students earned a high school diploma, and few went on to succeed at a university. But as her mother steered toward Alabama, Williams believed she would be different. She’d spent four years at a high school determined to send minority students like her to college. She’d earned a high GPA, an above-average ACT score and a scholarship worth tens of thousands of dollars. She’d been one of the first graduates in a new charter school landscape that many in New Orleans believed could fix a broken education system.
They cruised east, and her favorite R&B station crackled with static as the signal from New Orleans faded. Her uncle turned around in the front passenger seat. Soon, he told Williams, everything would be new. He twisted the dial and landed on a station playing Tim McGraw. Williams listened to a few lines, then began to sing. She actually liked the country song.
The sun blared bright as they pulled close to Birmingham Southern College. The campus looked as beautiful as it had when Williams visited with a high school chaperone a few months earlier. Williams loved the way its brick buildings sat on a hilltop, the way the grass stayed green and mowed. But her stomach tightened as she looked out now. She was the only student with dark skin and the red-and-black braids that had been popular back home.
Her mother killed the engine, and Williams started to cry. Newspapers had reported that nearly everyone in Williams’s graduating class at Sci Academy in New Orleans had been accepted to college, as if they were a group moving toward one unprecedented future together. But her friends had left for universities in Vermont and Colorado and Massachusetts. Her family would drive back to New Orleans that afternoon.
Williams opened the car door, then cried harder. To succeed here, she realized, she would have to face college alone.
Williams had always wanted to go to college. She dreamed of attending a historically black school out of state, maybe pledging a sorority at Spelman College or Clark Atlanta University. But she wasn’t sure how she’d make it out of New Orleans until 2008, when she met a skinny white guy from Washington, D.C.
Ben Marcovitz was unlike anyone Williams knew. He was 28, but already had degrees from Harvard and Yale. He’d studied English and theater in college, and moved to New Orleans for a girl. After a year of teaching there, he’d come to believe that he could help any student get into college.
Marcovitz knew some people might think his goal unachievable. Just a third of adults nationwide have bachelor’s degrees, and New Orleans’ students, most of them black and from low-income families, face particularly bleak odds. Only one of every ten low-income students nationwide finishes college on time. But, Marcovitz told himself, people thought the four-minute mile was impossible until Roger Bannister ran one in three minutes, fifty-nine seconds. Statistics are only true until someone bucks them.
His was a brash mission shared by a new breed of charter school leaders who said they could succeed where traditional neighborhood schools had failed. By 2008, education reformers had opened charters in Texas and New York with similar “college for all” promises. Nowhere was this movement stronger than in New Orleans. The city’s public school system had been such a “disaster” before the hurricane that Education Secretary Arne Duncan later called Katrina the “best thing” that ever happened to education in New Orleans. After the 2005 storm, in a state effort to reinvent the city’s schools as charters, the school board fired nearly all of the city’s public school teachers, most of them black. Eventually, every neighborhood school in New Orleans either closed or became a charter, many of which were staffed primarily with novice, white teachers.
“She’d spent four years at Sci Academy learning how to improve her writing and study habits, but no one in high school had talked about what college would feel like if your only friend dropped out and your roommate couldn’t bear to live with you. She’d never learned to navigate being the sole black woman in a residence hall full of white people who didn’t understand her.”
Williams was just 14 when Marcovitz told her she could be part of something historic at Sci Academy, the charter high school he was opening on the east end of town. But she’d been around enough adults to discern which ones were genuine, and she believed Marcovitz. Plus, she had little to lose. She’d attended three middle schools since the hurricane and assumed she’d go, as her family members had, to George Washington Carver Senior High, a 9th Ward institution that the state had long ranked “academically unacceptable.”
When Williams enrolled in mid-August 2008, she found that Sci Academy was different from the schools she’d attended before. The hallways, lined with black tape, created lanes that forced Williams and her classmates to walk single-file. Students had to sit up straight, make eye contact and talk in “a scholarly voice.” Classes lasted until 5 p.m.
The black tape reminded Williams too much of the jails some of her family members had spent time in, but she loved hearing her homeroom teacher call their class UCONN after her alma mater, and she didn’t mind staying late because her instructors never seemed to stop working. They answered the phone after dark if Williams called when she stumbled over homework.
Williams was “extraordinary,” Marcovitz said, deeply curious and capable of the kind of complex thinking not common in most high school freshmen. She trawled the dictionary for new words and spent school bus rides proofreading friends’ papers. She tutored other kids from public housing. Her initial test scores were below grade level, but nearly every student came to Sci academically behind. Most still read at an elementary school level. Some couldn’t read at all.
Both Williams and Sci Academy thrived during her time there. By her sophomore year, Williams was earning all A’s and B’s, and Sci’s test scores were the best of any open-enrollment high school in the city. Sci’s students performed so well, Oprah gave Sci Academy $1 million in 2010 and called Marcovitz and other charter leaders “real-life superheroes.”
When Williams and her classmates began considering colleges, Marcovitz wanted the teenagers to have the same experience he’d had at Maret, a prestigious private school he’d attended on scholarship in D.C. He brought in an ACT expert, and hired an admissions counselor away from Wesleyan University to help with their personal statements. Sci even paid for the students to visit dozens of colleges across the South and Northeast.
Williams considered Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, a historically black university in Tallahassee, but when she toured, the dorms reminded her too much of New Orleans’s public housing projects. College, Sci Academy’s teachers had told her, was about new beginnings, so Williams scrapped her application.
Researchers have found that low-income students are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they attend more challenging institutions, so Sci’s teachers encouraged the teenagers to enroll in the highest-ranked schools that would accept them — no matter how white, how far away, how foreign.
As graduation neared in 2012, Williams narrowed her choices to Louisiana State University, Sewanee and Birmingham Southern, schools whose campuses were pretty and whose populations were majority white. That April, Sci officials rented a church auditorium down the road for the school’s first Senior Scholar Signing Day. As cheerleaders rallied the way they did for football teams elsewhere, Marcovitz announced that 49 of Sci Academy’s 52 graduates were headed to college — a then-unheard of rate for a New Orleans public school with open admissions. Some were going to Wesleyan, Amherst and Smith, selective institutions with near-perfect graduation rates.
Williams, who’d never missed a day of class and finished with Sci’s top honors in math, chose Birmingham Southern. The private liberal arts school wasn’t the historically black college or university she’d once dreamed of, but it was bucolic, the “new scenery” she’d come to believe college should be.
In recent years, charter high schools with Sci’s “college for all” mission have celebrated as “100 percent” of their graduating classes enrolled in college. Few have publicized how their alumni fared after enrolling, but in 2011, the nation’s largest nonprofit charter school network released a report criticizing its own outcomes. Yes, KIPP officials wrote, their first students in Houston and the Bronx had gone to college at more than double the average rate of their peers. But KIPP had tracked its alumni and found that only a third earned a bachelor’s degree — above average for low-income students, but a long way away from KIPP’s goal of 75 percent.
Still, Marcovitz believed that he and his staff could help Sci’s graduates hurdle any obstacles. As Williams and her classmates moved away in the summer of 2012, Marcovitz expected they’d all have “a happy ending with college.” Then, “pretty much immediately,” Marcovitz said, he realized he’d underestimated just how tough college would be.
Williams wasn’t sure what to do after her mother and uncle dropped her off in Birmingham. She looked around her dorm. She hadn’t brought any decorations, so the walls were bare. The wood desk was empty, too, but her mother had made the bed with a brand-new sheet set and comforter, so Williams sat on the twin bed, opened the laptop her godbrother had sent, and downloaded Skype and ooVoo so she could chat with her friends long-distance. She looked around again. The sun was still shining, but she pulled back the covers, climbed in and fell asleep.
She forced herself to go to orientation that weekend, but as her classmates went around in a circle introducing themselves, she grew nervous. Every school Williams had attended in New Orleans was nearly 100 percent black. Only a tenth of the students at Birmingham Southern were black, a fraction that felt even smaller that first week. Williams was one of only three black students in her residence hall, and she worried her New Orleans accent might make her seem unusual. “You don’t want to seem uneducated with these people,” she told herself, “so just stay real quiet.”
Williams was relieved when classes started the next morning. In high school, classes had always come easy. At Birmingham Southern, she strolled toward Introduction to Film, smiling, but when the instructor asked the class to write two pages explaining what they hoped to do in film, Williams froze. She had chosen to major in music business because she wanted to help people make art. She believed movies, like music, could be therapy for people who might never go to a counselor. But she couldn’t find words to explain her goals, so when she tried to write the paper later that week, she sat motionless in front of her laptop. Finally, a few hours before class, she scrambled together a few dozen sentences. The professor returned the paper graded a C-.
Williams tried harder in her courses, but no matter how well she did on essays or tests, she still felt uncomfortable. She didn’t talk in class, and she never went to the cafeteria. Instead, she survived off packs of ramen that her godbrother sent in bulk. She grew close to the only other black woman in her dorm, a first-generation student named Ashley. They went to the gym together every day for a month before Ashley decided to drop out. She had a kid; the college wouldn’t let her keep the child in her dorm, and she couldn’t afford a babysitter.
After Ashley left, Williams spent most of her time alone. She didn’t have money or a car, so when other students explored the city, she stayed behind. She wrote letters to her 11- and 9-year-old sisters, then taped their replies to the wall above her bed. When her roommate asked to be transferred mid-semester, Williams didn’t blame her.“I’m very awkward,” Williams thought.
Williams had no idea how to make Birmingham Southern feel right. She’d spent four years at Sci Academy learning how to improve her writing and study habits, but no one in high school had talked about what college would feel like if your only friend dropped out and your roommate couldn’t bear to live with you. She’d never learned to navigate being the sole black woman in a residence hall full of white people who didn’t understand her.
At the end of 2012, Williams packed her clothes and letters for Christmas break. She hadn’t told anyone, but she’d decided she couldn’t go back to Birmingham in January. As her mother drove her home, Williams daydreamed about transferring to the University of New Orleans. UNO wasn’t as prestigious as the private school Sci’s counselors had steered her toward, and she’d have to repay Birmingham the tens of thousands of dollars they’d given her as scholarship, but she imagined she might be happier in Louisiana.
10 percent – Proportion of Sci Academy’s college-bound graduates of the class of 2012 who had dropped out of college by Christmas that year
Her mother drove across Lake Pontchartrain, then Williams’s old neighborhood appeared. It wasn’t as idyllic as her college campus, but Williams didn’t care. The air smelled familiar. Her sisters rushed out, and she was home.
By Christmas, 12 percent of Sci Academy’s first graduates had either dropped out or transferred to a community college.
Most couldn’t point to just one reason they’d stumbled. They missed their families or needed to find jobs to pay for gaps in their scholarships. Students who enrolled in a North Louisiana university found that the food was too bland. No place in America is like New Orleans — not even North Louisiana — and it hurt too much to lose the city again after they’d been displaced by the hurricane. Others grew unfocused after they freed themselves of Sci’s scaffolds. For years, Sci’s teachers had controlled the way the teenagers sat, talked and studied. In college, on their own, students said they weren’t sure how to structure their time.
Some earned their first-ever F’s, and the failures depressed them. Eddie Barnes had been one of Sci’s most celebrated students. He’d finished with the fifth-highest GPA and won nearly every social accolade the school doled out. When he got into Middlebury College, a selective school in Vermont, Barnes felt confident he would earn a degree by 2016.
Only 4 percent of Middlebury’s students are black, but Barnes found “other ghetto kids,” students who’d grown up, as he had, hearing guns firing in the middle of the night. His Intro to Russian class was tougher than Advanced Spanish had been at Sci Academy, and he couldn’t always bring himself to trudge through the snow toward his 8 a.m. psychology class. But he spoke up in Romantic Literature, and he helped other students with their African American Religious History papers. Still, none of those wins mattered after his grades came back lower than he’d expected. By the second semester, Barnes was on academic probation. He stayed in his room, shivering even when everyone else thought the dorm was warm, and told himself he was a failure. He dropped out his sophomore year.
“It was the saddest point in my life,” Barnes said. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything. I felt inadequate. I didn’t have any type of positive thought about anything.”
Jordan Pierre, after one semester at Louisiana State University, also landed on academic probation, but he worked harder the following spring and pulled his grade point average up to a 3.2. He hoped to earn a degree in business law, but during his sophomore year, Pierre fell $8,000 short of the money he owed the university. He’d maxed out on loans, so Pierre applied for grants and scholarships, but none materialized.
“It was the saddest point in my life. I felt like I couldn’t do anything. I felt inadequate. I didn’t have any type of positive thought about anything.” – Sci Academy graduate Eddie Barnes, on dropping out of college in his sophomore year
In 2014, Pierre enlisted in the Air Force, intending to use his salary and the G.I. bill to pay for his education. But he had to take semesters off for basic and technical job training, then the military deployed him to Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey. He squeezed in online classes when he could, and earned an associate degree through the Community College of the Air Force, but as he passed his 22nd birthday, Pierre couldn’t help feeling ashamed that he hadn’t earned his bachelor’s.
“It weighs heavy on me,” Pierre said. “I didn’t want to leave, but I really didn’t know how I could continue.”
Williams withdrew from Birmingham Southern just after Christmas 2012, and enrolled at the University of New Orleans. She felt more comfortable at the local university, a diverse school with a sizable black population, but she found UNO’s larger classes overwhelming. She sat in the front row for the sociology and biology seminars, but couldn’t concentrate in a room with more than 30 classmates. She missed the way Sci’s teachers had locked eyes with students, the way instructors adapted their styles to make sure she understood every lesson. Williams wanted to ask for help, but couldn’t go during her professors’ office hours because she’d taken a full-time job as a Save-A-Lot cashier. Most nights, she got off at 1 a.m. She didn’t have a car, so she spent hours waiting for buses in a system with infrequent service. She had to be up again by 5:30 to catch the 7 a.m. bus, the latest she could ride to make it on time for her 8 a.m. math course.
In biology, she found a seat in the back where she could doze as her professor droned on in terms she didn’t recognize. In her dreams, the instructor sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher, a muted trombone going wah wah wah.
Sci Academy officials tried to help their graduates. Marcovitz hired a woman to track the alumni; she and other staff emailed students and visited a few out of state. They bought college textbooks for some, and gave internships or jobs to a fourth of the class, including Eddie Barnes. Sci even paid back Birmingham Southern so Williams could try UNO without worrying about the money she owed the Alabama college.
Williams didn’t want to ask for help after she fell behind her first semester at UNO. Instead, in August 2013, she transferred to New Orleans’s Delgado Community College. That fall, Williams switched her major from music business to psychology in hopes of becoming a counselor. She still worked long hours, and she didn’t have a car, but she felt more at home. Strangers introduced themselves when she sat in the courtyard. She started helping other students with their classwork, and soon she no longer felt isolated as she had at Birmingham Southern. Even big classes didn’t bother her. Students lined the walls in her packed medical terminology course, but the professor made eye contact with everyone, and that connection helped keep Williams focused.
Williams loved Delgado so much that she kept going even after she had to take a second job in 2014. The cost of renting an apartment in New Orleans rose sharply in the decade after Hurricane Katrina as developers and AirBnB rentals helped gentrify once-affordable black enclaves. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment rose to more than $1,400 a month, a rent Williams couldn’t afford with her Save-a-Lot job. She took another full-time position at a Winn-Dixie; by the end of the year, she was working 85 hours a week.
Some days, Williams missed the bus, so she walked or paid for a taxi. When she was too late to walk and too broke to call a cab, she skipped classes. Eventually, a professor told her that she’d never pass if she continued missing days. Williams knew she could reach out to Sci, but her high school counselors couldn’t buy her a car or pay her rent. Marcovitz couldn’t sit up with her at 3 a.m. while she puzzled over psychology homework in the one hour she had to spare.
As students reported back, Marcovitz told himself he’d been “horribly unstrategic” and naive. He vowed to learn from the struggles Williams faced. He created new college success classes at Sci to prepare students to face issues such as imposter syndrome. He and his team began to question whether the best-ranked colleges were always the best fit for his students. Marcovitz had believed that his students should attend schools like Middlebury and Smith because he’d thought those elite colleges would open the most doors for them after graduation. But what if Barnes and Williams had gone somewhere else, somewhere that made them feel at home?
“It was terrifying at a systemic level. These things are make-or-break for our kids and we hadn’t even thought about them.” – Ben Marcovitz, founder of Sci Academy in New Orleans, on the school’s failure to prepare graduates for the social and psychological issues they would face in college
Marcovitz recognized that he needed a staff who knew, firsthand, how alienated black students could feel on a majority-white campus. He needed teachers who’d attended historically black schools and participated in African American fraternities and sororities. Marcovitz expanded his college counseling program and hired more New Orleans natives and people of color, counselors he believed could better help his students find not just the highest-ranked college, but the college best suited for each teenager.
Marcovitz believed in studying and learning from the ways he’d failed, but tinkering with his model was slim solace for the deep, “heartbreaking” regret he felt about his first graduates. For years, Marcovitz had woken up every morning thinking about those students before he thought about anything else. He’d believed he’d stay just as close to them after they went to college. But that optimistic devotion, Marcovitz realized, had disguised the financial, social and emotional problems he should have addressed.
“It was terrifying at a systemic level,” Marcovitz said. “These things are make-or-break for our kids and we hadn’t even thought about them.”
In the fall of 2015, after Williams failed a third semester, she began to question whether college was the surest path to the life she wanted. The few people she knew with bachelor’s degrees hadn’t found high-paying jobs. And some of her high school classmates had reached the middle class even though they’d dropped out of college. One earned $85,000 a year working for Coca-Cola. Pierre, the student who left LSU for the Air Force, had a good job working in the executive branch of the federal government. Others had joined the Army or the sheriff’s department and seemed fulfilled. Darnisha Gordon left Delgado after a month, but she’d traveled to the Dakotas and Montana with AmeriCorps, and she found work as a certified nurse’s assistant that she said “completes me.”
Marcovitz, too, had noticed that many of his students were happy and prosperous without a degree. As the years went by, Marcovitz came to believe that he had been too narrow-minded in seeing college as the only badge of success. He now runs six high schools. Though his organization, Collegiate Academies, still publicizes the fact that 99 percent of seniors are accepted to college, and his mission still includes a focus on preparing students for college, Marcovitz believes that for some young people, living “lives of unlimited opportunity” — finding careers or vocations they love, even without a degree — might be just as good.
Williams loves learning. She writes down words she doesn’t know to look them up later, and spends her free time scrolling through the Internet to research any topic she can conjure. She didn’t want to quit. So many people had believed in her — Marcovitz, her family, even Oprah Winfrey. If she persisted, she would prove them right. It didn’t matter where you came from, what you looked like, or how much money you had. All children can succeed. But she was tired. She’d been out of high school for more than three years, and she still didn’t have enough college credits for even an associate degree. When the semester ended in late 2015, Williams withdrew from Delgado.
By 2016, four years after their triumphant graduation from Sci Academy, only two members of that inaugural class had finished college. Neither had had an easy time. Erica Willard was so depressed and homesick at Colorado College that she “completely broke down” when she saw a group of upperclassmen cooking fried chicken and cornbread, the soul food she’d grown up eating. Troy Simon, who went on to earn a master’s degree in Divinity at Yale, realized at Bard College that higher education might divide him from the family members he’d left behind.
“You become your own person, and that is scary,” Simon said. “There is a fear of letting go of family, letting go of your community. I struggled with that. There is a feeling that I am an interloper now, an outsider.”
“We underestimated the importance of social integration. We underestimated the cultural gaps between the communities our students come from and the more elite highly selective institutions that a lot of people got placed into.” – Brian Beabout, a former New Orleans teacher who now studies the city’s charter schools as an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of New Orleans
Only six of Sci’s first graduates finished college within six years, the federal standard for on-time graduation. Another three earned degrees this year. Though eight students, including Pierre, are still working toward a degree, 65 percent of the 49 students who enrolled in college have dropped out.
Sci’s parent organization Collegiate Academies is the only New Orleans charter organization that has publicly shared its college persistence results. Most of the city’s charter high schools don’t track the number of alumni who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, and KIPP New Orleans, the one network that does, declined to share data for its students. KIPP’s first graduating class from New Orleans has only been in college for five years, one year shy of the federal cutoff for “on-time” graduation. But researchers at the Educational Research Alliance, a Tulane-based organization that studies the post-Katrina education reforms, found last year that the new high schools have increased college graduation rates by 3 to 5 percentage points since Hurricane Katrina. Though Sci’s graduation rate is slightly higher than the national average for low-income students, neither it, nor any other New Orleans high school has come close to achieving the “college for all” they once promised.
Most made the same mistakes Sci did, said Brian Beabout, a former New Orleans teacher who has evaluated charter applications for the state and who now studies the city’s charter schools as an associate professor of educational leadership at UNO. Most charters hired young white teachers and counselors from selective universities. They steered students toward elite institutions. Those high schools did improve academics for a huge swath of the city, Beabout said, but many did so without preparing their students to succeed socially in college.
65 – Percentage of Sci Academy graduates who had started college in 2012 who had dropped out by September 2019
“We underestimated the importance of social integration,” Beabout said. “We underestimated the cultural gaps between the communities our students come from and the more elite highly selective institutions that a lot of people got placed into. Even if I can hang in my college algebra classroom, can I make a happy life for myself in a dorm with very few people who have had very similar life experiences?”
Over time, Marcovitz came to believe that a more diverse teaching corps could help students. His initial hiring pool, he realized, had been biased. He’d only hired people from within his own network — “circles that rippled out from my white privilege.” That first year, only one of seven teachers identified as a person of color. Today, more than half of the 140 teachers who work at one of his schools do.
As Marcovitz’s staff has focused more on social integration, he’s found that the students who returned to Sci for non-academic help were often the ones who succeeded in college. When Jeon Domingue took a year off Amherst, she moved home to work for Sci. She graduated in 2017 and now works for Opportunities Academy, a post-secondary program that Marcovitz’s organization runs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Raven Matthews attended four colleges before earning her degree from UNO this May, but she remains so close to Marcovitz that she babysits his children, and now works at one of Marcovitz’s schools in Baton Rouge. And Marquisha Williams turned to her old high school for advice after she dropped out of the University of Louisiana at Monroe and grew ill with what she later discovered was lupus. Sci’s counselors helped her find therapy and a low-pressure job. When she enrolled at LSU, they paid for her textbooks. She graduated last December.
Rinata Williams didn’t turn to Sci for help because she was too embarrassed. She’d earned enough to buy a car and rent an apartment, but she didn’t want to feel like a disappointment, so she ignored Marcovitz’s invitations to alumni celebrations. One night in 2017, two years after she left Delgado, she went to pick up a friend from one of the parties she’d skipped. As Williams waited in the parking lot, Marcovitz walked up to her car. He knew she wasn’t in college, but he wanted to be a part of her life.
“We want to see you and catch up,” he said.
Williams stared at him. She considered explaining everything she’d been through, but most people she told didn’t understand, so she laughed and told Marcovitz sure, they could talk some time.
Williams still wants a degree, though pursuing one left her worse off financially. She is deeply in debt and her credit score dropped after she defaulted on the $22,000 she owes in student loans. She tells friends she will go back in a decade when she has money and time enough to think. For now, she works the night in a post office mail room, but she wants to help people. Maybe, she thought this summer, she could stop by Sci a few days a week to talk to any students who need it. Williams knows she isn’t as credentialed as the counselors who will guide graduates forward. But struggling through college was its own kind of instruction, and in that, Williams is more of an expert than most educated people will ever be.