WASHINGTON – Take risks, challenge students to take more rigorous courses to prepare themselves for college, and imagine your school as a hub of academic excellence and equity for all students.
Such were the bits of advice offered Wednesday during sessions of the College Board’s Middle States Regional Forum and the College Board Forum 2010 in Washington, D.C.
Though the events—which drew some 2,500 attendees, largely high school guidance and college admissions counselors—were heavy on promoting the College Board brand and the organization’s college prep products, it also drew veteran experts as well as up-and-coming educators who are on the front lines of school innovation and reform aimed at taking the whole “college readiness” mantra from being a buzzword to a reality.
Rashid Davis, principal of the upstart Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy (BETA), cited research that showed the most important factor in academic achievement was for school administrators to reject the “deficit thinking.”
He also said it’s important to invest in staff training and development so that educators can actually put the idea that every student can succeed into effect.
” It’s not just about believing students can succeed, but knowing how to make that happen,” Davis said at a workshop titled Expanding Access: Increasing Achievement for Underperforming Students. “You have to become a completely different person.”
Davis related how at BETA, which opened in 2004 as one of the “school-within-a-school” projects funded by the Gates Foundation, taking Advanced Placement courses is a requirement, not an option. So far, he said, the policy has paid off once the students enter the realm of higher education.
“The more AP courses they took, the higher their GPA was after their first semester in college,” Davis said.
Educators, he said, should not shy away from challenging students to take more difficult courses to prepare them for the college experience, but to also provide the support needed to help students succeed.
“I want you to take the risk and work through the supports needed for teachers, families and students to expose them to that academic rigor, so we can accelerate the learning curve,” Davis said. “You want to give them academic difficulties so they change their behavior.”
Debora Jewell-Sherman, senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former superintendent of the Richmond Public Schools system, spoke of the various things she did to help put the school district on track to go from the second-lowest performing school district in Virginia to one where all of its high schools met state accreditation standards, a feat it achieved under Jewell-Sherman’s predecessor this year.
Perhaps the most radical and relevant step she took toward improving things in the arena of college planning was to have all non-essential central office staff trained in reading transcripts and performing other guidance counselor duties so that they could pick up the slack and help guidance counselors deal with their heavy caseloads—a common reality for guidance counselors at public schools throughout the nation.
“We met with every single 10th, 11th and 12th grade student and most of their families,” said Jewell-Sherman during a plenary luncheon speech.
Consequently, the school district not only hit a 50 percent graduation target, but “91 percent of my babies graduate,” Jewell-Sherman said to loud applause.
She challenged the attendees to imagine their schools as sites of excellence and equity for all their students.
“Harness the power of vision,” Jewell-Sherman said. “Inspire people to go where you want them to go.”
Jason Hamilton, executive director of the Arkansas Commitment, a nonprofit organization that bills itself as a leadership development institution for Black students, stressed the importance of arming first-generation college students with information about various financial aid opportunities as well as the rules that govern the college admissions process.
“If you don’t know the rules of the game, you can’t play the game,” said Hamilton during a panel discussion titled Black Men Speak on Access and Success in Higher Education.
Among other things, he said, the Arkansas Commitment has students meet on Saturday mornings, where they discuss and write about various items in the news to practice reading in different contexts.
“We want them to get into the habit of writing and writing in different forms and contexts,” Hamilton said.
To participate in the organization, students must take four years of the core subjects of English, history, math, science and a foreign language.
When students complain, he tells them, “If you want to be status quo, then opt out.”
At the same panel discussion, Kevin Hudson, manager of College Readiness for the District of Columbia Schools, said it’s important for guidance counselors to give thought to making sure students enroll in colleges that match their interests and capabilities.
“Over and over again, students were mismatched and undermatched,” Hudson said. “This is a huge issue.”
He said it’s important for students and families to understand the impact that a college’s graduation rate has on their own chances of graduation.
“Schools that graduate students are more likely to graduate students,” Hudson said, using an animated look to drive home the deceptively simple logic behind the statement.
“So how do you help people understand that that means something,” Hudson said of college graduation rates and their impact on students. “It’s not just about prestige,” he said of the kinds of colleges students opt to attend. “It’s about the tools and support to help the student be able to graduate.”