At Risk Students: Lessons from the Post High School Scene


Summary: Community colleges struggle with the same deficits in low income students that handicap their progress in elementary and high school. Here are a couple of very different approaches to this pivotal dilemma.

Serendipity sometimes informs the writer. Shortly after I argued in my last post that the real tale of low income student academic insufficiency was told outside the classroom – in their poorly informed self-perceptions, the paucity of an academic road map in their life experience, and in their set of social skills less than well trained to school and job success – along comes an article in the latest Atlantic which in effect makes the same argument in a community college context. “How to Escape the Community College Trap” by Ann Hulbert sketches a program at the Borough of Manhattan Community College which provides support structures crafted specifically to bring low income students over such difficult “soft” psychological ground on their way to a two year diploma.

In the Hulbert story it is with a shock of recognition to read of the struggles of low income students in the standard community college that so strongly echo those which I saw in my own low income high school students, as though a karmic reminder that we revisit the same issues over and over until we resolve them.

The national community college graduation rate is barely a third within six years, and in urban community colleges, presumably with a higher concentration of low income students, the three year graduation rate is 16%. (Guess the problem is not being solved in elementary or high school.)

The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) at Borough of Manhattan Community College has set out to solve the problem, and by returns of the last two and a half years, is on pace to meet or exceed their goal of program participant graduation rate of 50% within three years. To make the point blunt, note the national and urban graduation rates just cited.

The strategies are not rocket science, and well recognizable by experts and lay folk alike, but sparsely applied outside of the ASAP program. Required for program participants is a “College Success Seminar” which deals with such standards as goal setting, study habits and more generally communication and life skills. Tutoring and remedial classes are heavily used as needed. Mandatory advising sessions provide the core of support and a primary human relationship in the belly of this beast, and are the hub via which various strategies are administered.

Each advisor has approximately 120 students on their case load, which at first blush seems a lot. By way of contrast a typical high school counselor has between 400 and 500 students or more. From where I sit 120 students would give me far more leeway to consider myself effective in my job, whereas with 400+ students I was leaping from hole to hole on the dike.

Incentives include the payment of tuition and books, in recognition that one major barrier to completion of college is money. Metro transportation cards are distributed as students demonstrate continued commitment and progress. Most subtly, by setting its program goal at what initially might seem astronomically high, ASAP sends a message that the standards for its students are high as well.

In fact, the program seems to serve as a surrogate parent, with all the goading, caring, support and problem solving the concept of parent usually evokes. I like particularly Hulbert’s rendering of the ASAP implicit philosophy:

“Students, especially the least prepared ones, don’t just need to learn math or science; they need to learn how to navigate academic and institutional challenges more broadly, and how to plot a course – daily, weekly, monthly – toward long term success. Pushy parents, an asset many of them don’t have, could tell you what it takes to make that happen: a mix of enabling and persistent nudging.”

Of course this successful venture costs money, an extra $3900 per student per year. The argument here is one of pay now, or pay later in the form of welfare or incarceration costs, not to mention the costs to the economy of the failure to produce enough workers with sophisticated new economy skills.

So the ASAP program engages the same elements I saw restraining the success of my low income high school students. First and foremost, each student is able to form a strong bond with a supportive professional who has at hand a variety of remedial tools and incentive systems designed to keep the boat afloat, and who stand ready to remind students they have made a commitment to themselves and to the program, and can’t quit when the going gets tough, which it mostly does. The program by this report fights for its students, much as would a dogged and maybe somewhat enabling parent.

The net effect is to keep students pointed in the right direction, and to breathe in to them faith in self, which translates into self-perception as an effective student. Skills needed to fill in the picture are provided by remedial classes, tutoring, and the College Success Seminar, through which advisors address some of the subtle social and communication skills needed in the middle class environment of school and job market exchange.

This kind of support enters through a radically different metaphorical portal and in altered form as reported in a recent TIME magazine article by Rana Foroohar, “The School That Will Get You a Job.”

Rather than releasing even its graduates to the diaspora finding their way unguided into local institutions of high learning, at the Sara E. Goode STEM Academy in Chicago the Pathways in Technology Early College High School program, or P-Tech for short, combines in one program the two years of technical training after high school with the high school, and thereby guides its students more seamlessly to job ready two year technical educations.

The six year high school innovation at Goode provides a useful parallel to the ASAP experiment in Manhattan, because it address the same demographic, namely low income students during their entry into post-secondary education, in the case of Goode, specifically vocational education.

The trick at Goode seems to be the presence of IBM, as a spiritual, financial, and curricular partner of the Chicago schools, for a concept that had its first litmus test in a school in Brooklyn. Though IBM is a corporate luminary, it turns out according to the TIME article that wherever there is “deep” business involvement in schools student outcomes are “hugely improved.” Such an infusion of context and deepened curriculum appears to give a weight to the opportunity students perceive, and early returns from Goode, as well as a predecessor school in Brooklyn, are promising.

Oh, yes, IBM goes one step further to guarantee a job upon graduation. Now we’re talking. Shades of those programs we hear of from time to time where a wealthy person promises a college education for students (again low income) who finish high school, in the process raising significantly the finish rate for the kids under that umbrella.

Aside from the Wow value of these arrangements, it is useful to speculate about the underlying psychological mechanisms traversed by kids who demographically we can expect to struggle, when they come to Goode and have a better chance of success. First off, it seems to me that arrival at Goode may change self-perception about the possibility of success. The individual has arrived at a school with a clear ramp to a good job, and so enrolled kids can own that possibility.

Secondly, though these students will arrive with a decidedly mixed bag of readiness and skill set, the perception that they have entered an arena of real possibility can in turn have a clarifying effect on attention to task, and leave their minds more open to the teaching of “soft” psychological skills we have been discussing, as well as to doggedness in “hardcore” academic tasks.

Finally, the longitudinal nature of the six years gives the teachers and other staff at Goode a longer term opportunity to effect these transformations both academically and in the various dimensions of psychological habit.

I have to believe that Sara Goode and other schools of this ilk address issues of personal and social infrastructure in something of the manner of the ASAP program – that is, by advisement, the teaching of study habits, and the like. In fact relatively short shrift is given to these realities in the TIME article other than to acknowledge the “the curriculum also emphasizes the soft skills of presentation, self-marketing, and communication that better off kids…..take for granted.” But the guarantee of a job and the presence of an estimable corporate presence may substitute for some of these more traditional support networks.

It is clear that P-Tech will cost more money than the status quo, as does the ASAP program in Manhattan.

The aim of the P-Tech program is to bring along far more students into two year technical success, students who might have shown up in a technical college but not have graduated, as well as a significant number who would never have matriculated at all. From a fiscal point of view P-Tech simply extends high school to six years at public expense, with the public benefit of raising potentially chronic low income folk into the middle class, where they will contribute to the economy at a relatively elevated level. Win for student, win for society.

Here we are again at “money” and social investment. To bring more graduates than currently enter the mainstream into economically useful technical competence will cost more public investment.

Around the turn to the twentieth century the ethic of the Progressive era led to rising graduation rates from high school and in turn increased public education costs, as well as investments in a new network of vocational schools.

A similar leap forward in educational funding occurred in the aftermath of World War II, when the demands of the emerging more technical industrial period required a more skilled workforce. High school became compulsory.

Now the historical forces gather to impel another leap forward in fiscal commitment to our kids. The forces of globalization, increased competition for jobs, and the parallel acceleration of technology in this time compel us to think long and hard about the hazards of not funding forward reaching reforms in how we educate children.

Finally, this conversation begs the question, if we can see some resolution of low income student struggles in programs such as ASAP and P-Tech, could resources applied in parallel ways in elementary or middle school years be equally or more effective, and in the long run less draining of public coffers?

Just asking.

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