Saturday, June 25, 2011

College Connections Team works to Create "College Going Culture"

Last fall, I was invited to join a local group selected to work with the Minnesota College Access Network.   Our goal was to develop recommendations that would lead to a stronger "college going culture" in our school district.  Our group consists of  educators, two school board members, counselors, representatives from St. Cloud State University and the Technical College, a high school student among others.  One of the motivations of the "College Connections" project is to significantly increase the number of "first generation" students in our community who graduate and enter post-high school programs that lead to a successful career.   It could be a four year traditional college program, but it might be a technical college program leading to careers in a health profession, technology, manufacturing or a trade.   As Minnesota's population diversifies, we need to recognize that the number of minority students, for example, who are graduating from high school and then enroll in a college or other post-secondary program that prepares them for a career is unacceptably low.

The Minnesota College Access Network tells us that of the ninth grade students enrolled today in Minnesota high schools, only 3 percent of American Indian students, 5% of Hispanic students, and 3% of black students will get a bachelor's degree in Minnesota within 10 years.   We can work to address this problem, in part, by  working more effectively to increase the number of students in elementary school who reach proficiency, and all across the State there are efforts underway to achieve that goal.   We are spending more time on core subjects; raising standards; intervening earlier to challenge students who get behind.  We are monitoring performance in the classroom more effectively and asking more of teachers, students and parents.  College Access Network says According to the Committee for Economic Development in their document, Cracks in the Education Pipeline: A Business Leaders Guide to Higher Education Reform,” demographic changes will make it increasingly difficult to maintain a skilled workforce without engaging more students in higher education.

The idea behind "college going culture" however is to connect these efforts to a sense of purpose -- that high standards aren't just to make our teachers and schools look better, but that they are part of an effort that leads to college and career.   College Access Network says that in education, we've been in the business of providing college going opportunities, but now we need to be in the business of providing a college going culture.   If we want Minnesota to remain a leader in technology, the health professions, and many other fields, we need to continue to produce highly educated career ready young people, and part of doing that is creating a sense that school is about learning for a purpose that leads to a rewarding career.

For the last six months, our college connections team has been taking a full day each month, to get training on strategies and skills that we can bring back to St. Cloud on what works to increase our capacity to graduate more students to college and career.    We spent time as well, studying what we are currently doing in St. Cloud, and what is being done successfully in other communities.  We learned about programs in some elementary schools, for example, that create a college and career oriented atmosphere in the early grades.  For example, in elementary school, on Fridays teachers may wear their college sweatshirt to celebrate their own colleges.   On bulletin boards, teachers provide information about their own educational background, where they went to college, and other career oriented personal stories.    In the early grades, students are encouraged to talk about their career goals and learn about the educational requirements for those careers.  Elementary school students take a field trip to a college, meet college students, explore the kinds of career preparation available.   In the junior high grades, students work with the PLAN and EXPLORE testing inventories that tell them whether they are on-track to be accepted to post secondary education, and set goals for their remaining education to reach their career goals.

On Thursday, June 30, our college connections team, from St. Cloud, will make a presentation to the College Access annual meeting, on recommendations for improvements here in St. Cloud to create a more effective "college going culture."   Our team believes that we have already a number of quality programs that are seeking to increase the number of our students who graduate college and career ready.   But we can do more.  We are proposing that we begin next year to examine ways to significantly improve our efforts in this regard.   We know, for example, that more students graduate college and career ready when they get early college readiness counseling.    It's too late to discover in 11th grade that one hasn't got the reading, math, or study skills necessary for success.  Yet, budget cuts are reducing significantly the available counseling resources in many school districts, making it difficult for counselors to provide individual attention to students who are not on track.  

One approach to this problem is to build college readiness skills into the regular curriculum, so that teachers become counselor extenders.   Another approach would be to develop a network of volunteer mentors who can work with students in the middle grades, to make sure that they understand what they have career objectives, and that they are developing the skills and work habits that are necessary to succeed.

 Our district is participating now in a four year long partnership with St. Cloud State University and the Technical College, called "Access and Opportunity."   

We spend a lot of time pushing children to get proficient, testing and retesting, and urging them to study harder so that they can past tests.   The college going culture idea says, maybe we can be more successful if young people are studying hard not merely because their parents and teachers exhort them to pass proficiency tests, but because they are internally motivated to graduate career and college ready.

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