Lowering The High School Dropout Rate
As high school dropout rates reach 50 percent in low-income communities and the global economy becomes increasingly competitive, College Summit, a national nonprofit that strives to reverse dropout trends by empowering high school students in poorer areas to aspire to college, is showing success in dramatically improving graduation numbers. Its program in New York City has spread from two schools in 2005 to 46 schools and 6,000 students currently. It strives to create a college-going culture in high schools through a required year-long course on college/postsecondary planning for all seniors, professional development of college-going expertise for all teachers and counselors, the training of a select group of influential seniors to encourage peers to “think college,” and monthly data tracking of progress indicators such as completed applications and financial aid forms and higher education enrollments. The argument that the program’s premise is unrealistic because some students are “not college material” is countered by studies that show that the same level of skills in reading and math is needed for entry-level jobs as for college. The college-ready culture appears to encourage more students to remain in school and graduate by conveying to students that the purpose of high school is to prepare for college and career.
Changing a school’s culture is critical. All students, not just high-performers, must be included, and teacher expectations of students must be raised. College counselors, together with teachers trained to be college-positive and college-savvy, must engage all students. A cohort of college-thinking influential peers, called “Peer Leaders,” must be trained as models for their classmates. Skills in the college application process must be taught, monitored, and measured with a detailed classroom-based college-planning curriculum. Graduating students must be “college-ready.”
At a gala celebration of the program, “A Night of Visionaries,” Miriam Nightengale, principal of New York’s High School for Law, Advocacy & Community Justice, was given an award for transforming her school and achieving dramatic results through implementation of the College Summit strategy. Assigned to a failing high school (“two-thirds of the children were still in ninth grade”) as the third principal in three years, she created a very strong support system starting in ninth grade that included heavy personalized teacher and guidance counselor involvement, a full academic program, and high expectations. College was the goal for all students, and work ranged from establishing relationships in ninth grade that would culminate in college recommendations to writing applications in twelfth grade. The graduation rate has jumped from 30 percent when she arrived to 74.6 percent this year. Still, some students accepted into college do not enroll. “We are working on this,” explains this can-do principal. Nightengale wants her students who enroll in college to complete their higher education and urges them to keep in touch. Some come back and encourage and advise current high school students.
New York City’s Department of Education supports College Summit aspirations. In remarks at the celebration, Gregg Betheil, executive director of the new Office of Post Secondary Pathways & Planning, spoke of doubling the number of young adults who graduate with employment potential. “Our job is to make sure that when current eighth-graders graduate, the question is not whether they go to college. We must help get them there.” He spoke of the “scary numbers” in city colleges where only 28 percent graduate in four years. “We must make sure we look at things all the way through … The goal isn’t just getting kids to college. The goal is college success and completion for kids so they can lead productive lives in a rapidly changing world.”
Deloitte & Touche, the global accounting firm, is a major supporter of College Summit, reflecting a corporate culture that supports and encourages volunteerism and service. Several hundred employees participate in four-day College Summit summer workshops, often on college campuses, where they help students write college essays, prepare applications, and develop job-readiness skills. Irene Kiraithe, a volunteer and Deloitte manager of ethics and compliance, spoke of intense twelve-hour days and “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had … Kids tell you really personal stuff. For the first time someone tells them they have the potential to go to college … At the end, you realize you’ve really had an impact.” Deloitte’s Jo Ann Hernandez did a volunteer workshop at West Virginia State University, where local students “were in shock that a New Yorker would come down to help them.” She reports, “It is intense and emotional. It is not about writing a check, but about hands-on action that will make a difference in young people’s futures … It’s not so much your writing skills, but the chance to connect with someone who wants to help.” The positive impact of Deloitte volunteers who helped her with college choices and applications was expressed by Jelissa Thomas, a senior at Brooklyn Preparatory High School in Williamsburg. “I was unsure, but they gave me support and pushed me so I now plan to attend college.” She will be the first in her family to do so. #