The Courage to Be College-Bound
This post is by Deidre Cuffee-Gray, the Guidance and Counseling Department Chair at the Springfield Renaissance School, and Libby Woodfin, Director of Publications for Expeditionary Learning.
"Our kids will be more than high school and college graduates. They will be the leaders our cities, our nation, and our world need."
-Stephen R. Mahoney, Ed.D., Principal, Springfield Renaissance School
As high school counselors with more that 15 years of experience between the two of us, we are deeply familiar with the typical trajectory towards college in most high schools. Some students will go--from the hyper-motivated with Ivy League dreams, to those who have a vague vision of college and need cajoling every step of the way. And some students don't see college in their futures at all--they may need cajoling just to graduate or they may opt for vocational training.
But what happens when a high school makes college its mission? At the Springfield Renaissance School--an Expeditionary Learning school in Springfield, Massachusetts, that is also part of the Deeper Learning network, and where Deidre is chair of the Guidance and Counseling Department--all students know from the moment they walk through the door as sixth graders that they are on the path to college. They all prepare, they all apply, 100 percent have been accepted since the school opened in 2006, and almost all of them go. Last year, of the 93 graduates, 83 of them matriculated in the fall. This is in a district where only half of students even graduate from high school.
For schools like Renaissance that have made college their mission and are primarily in underserved urban districts, college access is a civil rights issue. Rather than thinking college is only for their wealthier peers, students in college-bound schools know that college is for them too. It is a place where they belong. Being college-bound is a different mindset. It impels students to develop their intellectual courage--they learn to take risks, grapple with challenges, make mistakes, present their work publically, and give and receive productive critique. They learn to push and support each other to display this intellectual courage because they are all working toward the same goal.
If we want our students to have the courage to go to college--which for many of them is indeed an act of bravery--we have to have the courage as educators to help them get there and to instill in them the belief that they belong there. So, what does it take?
- Make it the mission: All students don't necessarily have to go to college, but going through the process of applying and getting accepted gives them options and a new academic mindset. From the Renaissance handbook: "Because the stakes are so high, we believe that every high school graduate should be able to make that choice, and to make that choice in an intelligent, informed, and supported manner. So at our school, every student, no exceptions, is 'college bound.'"
- Support students to become leaders of their own learning: Schoolwide structures such as portfolio presentations and student-led conferences help students reflect on their learning and growth. Renaissance students must present evidence of their readiness to progress at the end of eighth and tenth grades to a committee of faculty, parents, community members, and students.
- Push and support students to take academic risks: Every student takes four years of each core academic class, including foreign language. Counselors always fight this fight with students, trying in vain to convince them not to drop classes. When school policies back this up, it takes the negotiations off the table. Wouldn't it be nice if students didn't have to find out that they couldn't even apply to the college of their dreams because they didn't have enough language or lab science courses? At Renaissance no student ever has to pay the piper because they dropped a course. The transcripts are a college admissions officer's dream--four years of everything--and they help students stand out because not every student they will compete against for admission has made such good choices.
- Ensure that every part of the curriculum builds the skills students will need in college: Because of the school's college-bound mission, all Renaissance teachers can focus on teaching skills students will need in college. As David Conley says, college students need to "make inferences, interpret results, analyze conflicting explanations of phenomena, support arguments with evidence, solve complex problems that have no obvious answer, reach conclusions, offer explanations, conduct research, engage in the give-and-take of ideas, and generally think deeply about what they are being taught."
- Make the application process part of the curriculum: Allow the curriculum to authentically support the application process. At Renaissance, senior English teachers make the application essay part of the curriculum. Math teachers use the Accuplacer as a kind of formative assessment that helps some students avoid remedial courses should they choose to go to college.
- Make "college knowledge" everyone's business: At Renaissance most students will be first-generation college students so advisories are used for a meaningful college-bound curriculum that teaches all students what Conley calls "college knowledge": admissions requirements, cost of college, purpose of college, types of colleges, college culture, and relations with professors.
When senior Zahra came to Renaissance via a British school in her home country of Tanzania and one other local high school in Springfield, she was neither a strong nor a confident student. Now applying to highly selective colleges and asked what the moment was that changed her academic life, she said: "It's all these things you do here, like cold calling, Socratic seminars, and student-led conferences. They've helped me become who I am as a student. When I go to college I'm going to be able to share what I think. I'm a lot more confident now."