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Making College Access for All More Than an Ideal

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This post is by Anne Vilen, Staff Writer for EL Education.

Last week, more than 1,000 seniors from 21 schools in 11 cities participated in the College March, walking with their senior classmates through throngs of parents, teachers, younger students, and community members to the local post office, where they mailed their college applications.  The College March extends a tradition started in 2011 at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in New York City (sponsored by NYC-Outward Bound Schools and Capital One Bank). Now seniors in EL Education high schools across the country are taking the ideal of college access for all to the streets--literally.  

College March.jpg

 The College March is more than a great photo-op and a celebratory press release.  It's a reflection of the deeper learning that living and working in a complex world now requires. The event recognizes that for students who are second language learners or whose parents didn't graduate high school (much less go to college), or for those who simply don't have the information, motivation, or confidence to apply to college, educators need to lean in. Middle and high schools need to provide the tools and the time to help students get on the road to higher education.

Schools like the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, MA, where most students come from low-income families and 100 percent have been admitted to college for the last six years, create a college going culture with deep intention by involving everyone in the school community--not just students in AP classes, not just college counselors--in the process of getting all students--ALL students--to college. How do they do it?

In EL Education schools, students meet daily in small advisory groups or "crews" where the curriculum is a blend of relationship building, reflection on academic mindsets, and pen-to-paper practice analyzing one's own academic data, setting goals, and determining strategies for improvement.  Over the course of their junior and senior years, students zero in on the crew learning target "I can prepare for success in high school and college." They interview former classmates who are now attending college, visit local colleges together, and investigate the logistics of how to apply for college. They research the best match for their own interests, financial means, and credentials. 

All students at Renaissance write their college admissions essays in crew and get feedback from both peers and teachers. They practice speaking eloquently about their preparedness for college with evidence from their own high school work by leading student-led conferences and passage presentations before their parents and community members. And within the supportive boundaries of crew, they process their emotional readiness for leaving the family and entering a very different community.

College March 2.jpg

In crew, at Renaissance and in EL Education schools across the country, learning--beyond the false "finish line" of graduation--is the currency of belonging, succeeding, and collective glory. Students are eager to buy in. Perhaps the most compelling component of the College March is the impact it has on younger students, who line the halls to cheer on seniors. In many schools, seniors deliver mentor speeches to younger students about the challenges they faced in school and in life and the academic habits they honed to overcome them.  For elementary and middle school students, participating in the College March as a spectator is the equivalent of watching "the Big Game," and imagining yourself out there on the field, being part of the team, shining with pride as you cross the goal line in front of cheering crowds.

The College March tradition, backed by a steely-eyed focus on preparing all students to aim for college and to navigate the minefield of college admissions, demonstrates that students from low-income households and urban high schools, like their suburban peers, can achieve the American dream of a college education. And with this entry ticket in hand, they can also become leaders and citizen-scholars capable of contributing to a better world.

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