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Creating a College-Bound Culture

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This post is by Karen Dresden, Head of School of Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, DC.


The College March is a new tradition in which high school seniors march together in early December to mail college applications as part of a school celebration. The tradition began in 2011 at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in NYC, with the support of NYC-Outward Bound Schools and Capital One Bank.  This year seniors from 21 schools in 11 cities participated in the College March, promoting the ideal of college access for all and reminding every student who marches --and every younger student who watches--that when their with perseverance, resilience and hard work is met with academic preparation, school support and solid college matches, each of them can earn a degree.

At 2pm on Friday, November 6, students lined the hallways in anticipation.  Lower and middle school students held posters and signs showing their support: "We are proud of YOU!"  "Congratulations Class of 2016!" The Capital City drum line led a procession resembling a pep rally as our seniors marched through our PK-12 building.  Winding first through the high school hallways, then the middle school, and last past our youngest students who gazed admiringly at our seniors as if they were rock stars.  The procession culminated outside of our school where a mail truck awaited and a representative of the post office officially collected college applications from each one of our 56 seniors while parents and community members cheered. 

Capital City's March to the Mailbox is a culminating event for College Application Week and, in its fourth year, has become one of our most important traditions. The entire school celebrates our senior class when each senior mails at least one college application. The expressions on the faces of the seniors say it all: Pride.  Students, including many who have faced significant challenges personally and academically to get to this point, are beaming.  

Prior to the College March, all Capital City students completed college applications and Capital City is proud that 100 percent of seniors in each graduating class have been accepted to college.  Before we instituted this tradition, what happened on the senior hallway often stayed there.  What the March does is share the success and work of the seniors with our broader community and this is important for many reasons. 

The majority of Capital City students are the first generation to attend college, and many students are actually the first in their families to graduate from high school.  Our seniors are important role models for our younger students, showing them what is possible.  I hear younger students talking about college in ways that I didn't before.  A fourth grader told me, "I can't wait until I can go to college."   This is extremely motivating for our younger students. The March has helped us in building a college going culture across our school.

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The celebration is also just the motivation that our seniors need. Senior year is very challenging for students. In addition to college applications, they persevere under the pressure of advanced and college-level courses, college entrance exams, and the senior expedition that all seniors at Capital City complete before graduation.  The March encourages our seniors at an important time and lets them know we are proud of them. We know they will succeed. 

For the 2014 March we were excited to host a special visitor, First Lady Michelle Obama.  Mrs. Obama gave an inspiring talk to our whole school community and especially acknowledged our seniors for their accomplishment.  Mrs. Obama commented, "You all have so much to offer, and with the education you're getting here at Capital City, you have everything you need to follow every last one of your dreams. I cannot wait to see everything you will go on to achieve in the years ahead."  The First Lady's words continue to motivate us. 

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While we didn't host special guests in 2015, the event itself was incredibly special because we had our own celebrities: the class of 2016, who join with hundreds of their peers at other EL Education high schools around the nation on the road to college.  As they prepare to graduate from high school, they know that the foot they already have out the door is going somewhere that will improve their lives. It's firmly planted on the threshold of college.

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