When I hear the phrase college and career readiness, I immediately remember what it was like to be in a school where my homeboys and I were expected to not graduate from high school, let alone attend college or have a successful career. I was part of the massive number of students who are not considered college and career ready. Ensuring all of our students are college and career ready is extremely important, but I especially focus on the students who are at risk of dropping out of school. They must be targeted in middle and high school to ensure they are prepared and empowered to attend and succeed in college and within their careers. Although in education we spend millions of dollars on programming, materials, personnel, and countless other wonderful attempts at preparing our youth for college and/or careers, within schools there is one step that can not be skipped. This step is fostering in students the belief that they are college material and can see themselves at a college, feel that they belong on a college campus, believe that they can achieve success in school, and know that they can work their way toward a successful career. Once we inspire, empower, and transform student perspectives so they see college and careers within their reach, then we can begin to implement the many fantastic college and career resources we have to offer students.
For the past several years, my answer to this has been College 101: Combining Passion and Education to pave a new road toward success for students at risk of dropping out of school. This is a first step in working with middle and high schools to ensure that students are college and career ready. As a former faculty member, I collaborated with teachers and college students to create this program to serve middle and high school students from around the state of Michigan. Although foundationally based on concepts from my book The Pedagogy of Real Talk: Connecting, Engaging, and Teaching Students At Risk, the program was made possible by the enormous amount of support and collaboration from diverse sets of people.
College 101 is a one day, specially tailored college experience. It is driven by a committed and passionate group of College Positive Volunteers (CPV) who are specifically trained to work with the visiting students. Engaging and connecting with students is the number one priority from the moment they meet the visiting students. This connection ensures that they develop an understanding of the visiting students in order to foster belonging on a college campus and visualization of opportunities and paths to attend college. The CPVs are also an intricate part of a series of diverse stations created to connect with the students. These stations vary from the station “finding your passion” where a volunteer shares his or her story on how they combined their passion with college to help make their dream jobs a reality to “expressing your passion” which reveals how students utilize their passions to connect with extracurricular or other campus activities or hobbies. Another station is the major fair, which exhibits over 20 volunteers representing different majors spread out around a large exhibition room. Each volunteer is thoroughly prepared in knowing details surrounding each major, for example, required classes, duration of studies, career opportunities, and salary ranges. Each volunteer stands next to a team created poster board that gives visuals to further deliver the information they share with students which stimulates visual learners as well. Additionally, each volunteer understands that it is their responsibility to engage and have an informative conversation with the visiting students the moment they walk into the room. Watching this scene unfold is surreal as you witness the visiting students engaging the new topics and sharing their interests as they gather information about future possibilities.
Another station is an actual or mock college lecture where visiting students mix with current college students in a college class. It is phenomenal to see a group of students who at times are not engaged in the learning process in the classroom become so captivated and eager to participate in what is being taught in a college classroom. Other stations include sharing practical and important information regarding getting into and attending college and breaking down myths of college by sharing information that visiting students don’t know about college. During the station “getting into college” volunteers share their own diverse criteria that got them into college as they debunk the notion that you have to be a “perfect student” to get into college or pursue certain career fields. Information is shared on how college requires hard work and balance as some students work and go to school but also make the time to have some of the most memorable moments of their lives. Stations are about teaching students while allowing them to experience the realities of college and build feelings of connection to college rather than feeling disconnected, fearful, or disheartened by the many unknowns surrounding the mere idea of college. As educators, like these examples from College 101, we can infuse our interactions with students using alternative pedagogy and language about college readiness to inspire and transform the lives of our students who may realize the opportunities for them through college.
School teachers, staff, and administrators participate as College 101 chaperones and their experiences are an important part of the day. Focusing on educators being a part of the College 101 experience is extremely important as they too learn new things, gain insight into their students, and build new powerful, positive connections with their students. As one teacher whose student asked if he could play the piano for his classmates shared, “In my one year of knowing this young man he has never spoken a word! I can’t believe he is so talented and shared that with us.” A school counselor shared, “I can’t believe the students are so engaged and share so much with me about their aspirations for the future. They never share these things with me in school.” The program intentionally creates an atmosphere and space for genuine and powerful experiences to occur between educators and their students. It is important that not only the students have a transformative experience but that there be a positive transformation in the relationships between students and educators.
The impact on students is not a one-time experience as we focus on inviting students to return year after year until they graduate from high school. Students understand that their opportunity to return in future years is contingent on the choices they make regarding school for example, increased attendance, improved or consistent grades, and whatever other achievable criteria their schools identify. We explain that each consecutive year is constructed differently to focus on new things as they near graduation from high school and to help prepare them for options after high school.
The results have been tremendous. One cohort of students who came from an urban, low performing high school, with the tremendous dedication of their teachers who attended College 101, helped them increase their group average on the ACT from a 12 to a 22 over the course of two years. A student from a rural high school, considered at risk of dropping out of school turned her performance around from failing in many of her classes to being accepted to two major universities with scholarships to help her attend. The results have been simply amazing thanks to the collective effort of everyone involved.
How can you create a program similar to College 101? If you are part of a high school or middle school, reach out to a community college or university through their admissions office or contact different departments or professors whose passion or research align with empowering our students most in need. Focus on local or other institutions accessible within a few hours’ drive. Once you identify a faculty member, staff member, or administrator who will collaborate with you to create your own College 101, begin to meet and work together to build a transformative experience for your students. Together, you can identify the “stations” and content that best accommodate the needs of your students. If you find the right partnership the costs should be minimal. For example, the schools we work with only pay for transportation while the university covers the cost of the lunch and space for the visiting students and chaperones. College 101 is not simply a “college visit” but an experience that changes the lives of everyone involved. There is no reason to start from scratch as we have all worked incredibly hard to create a usable blue print for others around the country.
The creation of College 101 was not for business or research purposes; rather it was developed from a moral standpoint to serve our students most in need of support. How can we even begin to discuss creating a college and career readiness culture in our schools when many of our students may not even see themselves as college students or achieving a successful career? Students may not know the terminology to even begin to ask questions that may help them seek out information or apply to college. We can integrate what is needed into our classrooms and interactions. We can begin to paint the picture of opportunity for and reality of college in our everyday language and teaching. We can empower our students through preparation of the basic steps, basic terminology, and basic skills so they are prepared to approach college and its rewarding rigors. We must direct the unstoppable drive of many of our students at-risk of dropping out of school towards a successful education to lead them to a fulfilling career. An inspired, motivated, an determined student at-risk of dropping out of school will become an unstoppable force who will evolve into a college educated professional who will, through their professional and personal endeavors, change our world for the better. That is our commitment to our students.
So what can you do to help prepare your students? Take action; begin creating partnerships and collectively paving the road for your students to help them realize the reality and opportunity of college, believe that they can achieve success in school, and know that they can work their way toward a successful career. Here are just a few ideas that may help you support students to be college and career ready.
- Use terminology of college and careers in your classrooms or in interactions with students. For example, help students understand a syllabus, schedules, importance of time management, etc. Help them understand the role of an academic advisor or other support staff at colleges or career preparation programs.
- Share appropriate stories of your experience in college or throughout your career paths. Share your successes, challenges, and failures and how you learned as you went.
- Connect your students to usable resources. Help them understand the purpose of those resources and show them how to navigate them. A gesture of “check out the admissions website” does not always help as students may not know how to navigate a college site or fully understand the terminology of what they are looking at. Once they have and understand the tools, they will have what they need to explore further!
- Create mock scenarios about college, interviewing, writing, or a particular career situation. Mock scenarios will help students observe appropriate behavior, model possible actions, and learn about situations to expect.
- Foster an environment of asking questions! Periodically host a “College Talk” that offers an open conversation for asking questions, centers on a particular theme (i.e. What is a major? What is a minor? What is a credit? What could a college schedule look like? Are there supportive services for classes in college? Etc.).
- Be authentic and realistic about the rigors of college and career fields. Where there is a will, there is a way. Hard work, determination, and persistence can help students reach their goals but they must earn their accomplishments. They must be willing to “play the game” of university and professional life. Help them load their professional and academic toolkits to be prepared for the next steps.
- Lastly, remind students of the possibilities and opportunities for them through education. Education is something that no matter what, cannot be taken away from you!