In Praise of Student Eruptions

A lot of kids would work harder in school if they were taught to expect to go to college. Here and there you hear of a benefactor promising to pay the college tuition of every child at a particular grade school, with the result, follow-on research shows, that the achievement level of those students is much better than like-situated children who weren’t promised college tuition. A recent example is the Denver Scholarship Foundation, funded by Tim Marquez, an oil patch entrepreneur based in Denver. The foundation will pay the college tuition of every low income kid graduating from Denver public high schools.

The lesson here isn’t necessarily to find a sugar daddy to make the promise to every elementary school in Baltimore City, but rather to recognize that there is a big pay-off in shaping the expectations of school-aged children.

The reality is that there is a lot of scholarship money available to low-income kids who wish to attend college. In a perfect world, there would be a lot more — but then in a perfect world there wouldn’t be low income kids in need of special financial help. In the world with which we must cope, there is lots that can be done, inside the classroom, culturally, and through counseling and intervention, to convince students that they can make it to college, and that they should aspire to do so. Rephrased, there are cheaper ways to inspire children to dream of college than matching each student with a private benefactor.

Consider, for example, Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut, a charter middle school similar in its pedagogical practices and in its socio-economic profile to Baltimore’s successful KIPP Ujima Village Academy in lower Park Heights. At the Amistad Academy, each student is listed along with the other members of his or her class “year” on a school bulletin board. The student’s designated year, however, is not the year of expected graduation from Amistad, nor even the year of expected graduation from high school, but rather the year the student is expected to graduate from college. For example, this year’s graduating eighth grade is not designated as the class of 2009 but rather the class of 2017. That’s not the only signal each child receives that college is within his or her grasp, but it encapsulates a school culture which each student, to one extent or the other, inevitably internalizes.

There is a lot of leverage to be had in giving low income children the sense that there are no barriers to completing their education, and that that it’s what the world expects of them. Cost of implementation: $0.

OK, so some things do cost money, but they are worth it. Scott Mendelsberg was the principal at a high school serving a low income area of Denver. The rate at which his students attended college grew from under 20 percent to over 70 percent in one year. To paraphrase the guys who write copy for the housewares chain, IKEA, that’s an impossible increase. But it happened. How? The school system paid the tuition at a nearby community college for any Lincoln High graduate who wished to attend. There is more to the program, called College Now, which is described here: http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i27/27b01601.htm

Here’s a snippet from an article about Mr. Mendelsberg:

“I had every student and every faculty member in the auditorium,” he says. “I said, ‘How many want to go to college?’ There was a smattering of cheers. Then I said, ‘What if it were for free?’ The whole place erupted. Then I said to the teachers, ‘I never want to hear again that these kids don’t want it.’”

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