College Accessibility for Philly’s Black Youth

The other day, one of my colleagues on the recruitment team asked me about an applicant to the Teacher Residency program. I had to ask her to repeat the candidate’s name three times. I was stunned momentarily because I had such a clear memory of the student from when she was in the first cohort of our dual enrollment program. I kept thinking; she can’t have graduated from college already!

When I went back and looked through the records, I realized she will indeed graduate from college in 3 years, thanks in large part to a unique, full-time, dual enrollment program we piloted in 2012.

The program, which will enroll the fifth cohort this fall, was born out of the desire to create a more robust senior experience for our students and give them a head start in college. For context, our schools are 98% students of color and 88% low-income. Research shows students of color who live in poverty graduate from college at much lower rates than their white, more privileged peers. While underserved students are often able to access and enroll in postsecondary institutions through the hard work of well-meaning college access programs, they don’t complete at high rates.

Expose students to college and hurdles earlier

While many of our students were returning home for financial reasons, lots were leaving school because they felt isolated and unprepared, experienced racism on campus, or struggled to navigate an unfamiliar environment. When we dug deeper into financial barriers, the connection to lack of earlier access was highlighted. We thought, if we could expose students to the college experience in their senior year, create the space where they navigate the postsecondary environment – learn to self-advocate, build their identity, understand social capital, manage time and own their educational experience – they would be more successful when they transitioned to postsecondary institutions.

By leveraging foundation dollars and partnering with progressive principals who were willing to stretch their school budgets, we are able to send students to the Community College of Philadelphia for their entire senior year of high school at no cost to them or their families. Students reap the benefits of dual enrollment programs – better grades, increased enrollment and persistence in college, greater credit accumulation and increased rates of college completion. Also, guided by our own personal postsecondary experiences and the stories of our alumni, we wanted to make sure students were prepared for the non-academic challenges they would face.

Light a Fire and help students unleash their power

Fresh in our minds were stories of Philly kids called the N-word by a white person for the first time, Facebook posts with pictures of groups of Black students labeling them gorillas, and students who lost friends, mothers, siblings to gun violence while they were away at school.  We designed a program in which students attend classes on campus, full-time, with a safety net in the person of an on-campus program manager who acts the part of principal, coach, teacher, and college advisor. Students not only attend classes, they participate in seminars and workshops designed to support the investigation of their identity, build on their strengths, and understand and unleash their own power. After all, “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

A way to circumvent PA’s Staggering Inequities

The structural barriers are many. Pennsylvania schools are the most inequitable in the nation. Add to that, once the District takes their percentage off the top, per pupil allocation for charter schools in Philadelphia is $8,109 – school budgets are incredibly tight. A program like this one is very dependent on great people – a solid program manager, principals who get it, an infrastructure team that can support the many logistics – contract negotiation, book purchases, scheduling, transportation and on and on.

We learned a lot in the first year, one of the biggest lessons was not to let scale be an additional barrier. Counting the currently enrolled students, 150 seniors have completed the program and earned 3, 591 college credits – the equivalent of 30 bachelor’s degrees! Do I hope to serve many more students? Absolutely.

I’m also extremely proud of the fact that in each year of the program, students were awarded prestigious national scholarships.  The Class of 2016 includes a Gates Millennium Scholar, 2 Dell Scholars and a LEDA Scholar. Students who participated in the program have a 95% direct enrollment rate and a persistence rate of 82% (compared to a national rate of 77%).

It is encouraging to see the US Department of Education is now conducting an experiment to expand access to dual enrollment programs by allowing students to use Pell grants while still in high school. My hope is the partnerships between postsecondary institutions and high schools build the support structures for students that respect their context and strengths. I would be so disappointed if an unintended consequence is students exhausting their Pell dollars earlier in their college careers because they began accessing them earlier.

And, oh, yes – the student who graduated in 3 years, is applying to the Teacher Residency program – a program designed to diversify the teacher pipeline in our schools that was piloted this year (more on that next time!)

*Soledad Alfaro is the Chief of Staff for the Mastery Charter Schools Network, a non-profit network of 21 schools in Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ. Eleven Mastery schools are turnarounds of formerly low-performing district schools or conversions of struggling charter schools.  Soledad lives and works in Philadelphia, where she quietly, consistently, and fiercely fights for educational equity. When she is not assiduously reading her way through a towering stack of books, you can find her hanging out with her family, watching NL baseball, and actively waiting patiently….

“The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle.” – Lao-Tzu


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