We Tell Our Students They Must Graduate Twice

An article in the 74 shares that students in some charter schools are attaining college degrees at three to five times the national rate. That is outstanding. The article reminded me of our community’s aspirations for our children and how our school partners with families to help them reach similar goals. Although our school ranks pretty high for high school graduation, college acceptance, and direct enrollment, for us, this represents the floor, it’s not even close to the ceiling.

In the article, it shared some charter schools’ sentiments:

 “No longer was it sufficient to keep students “on track” to college. Nor was it enough to enroll 100 percent of your graduates in colleges.

What mattered, concluded the charter leaders, was getting your students through college — ensuring they earned a four-year bachelor’s degree within six years of graduating from high school.

Hold us accountable, the educators said, for how our kids do once they leave us, marking a remarkable paradigm shift in the way charter schools define success.”

The incentive for students to pursue and complete post-secondary plans is tangible. Students are keenly aware of the need in this informational society to have a degree in addition to their high school diploma.

Our students begin mapping their post-secondary plans during their middle school years and continue up until they graduate:

  • 8th grade students are enrolled in a Social Justice course. As a part of their coursework, these students interview community members and use this data, along with their research, to determine what social justice issue they will focus on. Essentially, it is a civic engagement course that incorporates case studies from African American and South African history to encourage students to act against injustice in their own communities. This launches a five year long conversation (and beyond) with our students about how white supremacy is pervasive and how they can resist and dismantle it, even while (or, especially while) in college.
  • Freshmen complete passion projects, reflecting on where they are in life and how aligned they are with their decisions.
  • Sophomores complete 18-week internships and use their experiences to further reflect on their life goals and where they stand.
  • 11th grade students sit in on 10th and 12th graders presentations, along with other members of the community, to give feedback.

In their last year, seniors present their post-secondary plans reflecting their academic, social, and financial goals. Students share their “reach” schools, their fits, and their safety schools with staff and family members. We have never had less than 98 percent of our families attend to hear their children’s vision of their post-secondary future.

Next spring will mark our eighth graduating class. All students are expected to apply to college. All students are accepted. However, we know that getting into college isn’t our goal.  

“College: To and Through” is our mantra.

This idea of college graduation is inclusive of all our students. We believe that students need additional schooling beyond high school to be competitive and to be in positions to lead and serve in their communities. To that end, 74 percent of Shoemaker grads from 2011-2014 persisted to the second year of college, and we aim to improve our supports in high school and beyond to continue to build on the lessons our graduates share.

Our goals are lofty and audacious, but, at the same time, simple when you look at our work as being fully invested in the equity and justice landscape. We are pursuing our goals full throttle.

Often our students are first-generation college bound students. We wrestle with a lot of issues, such as which colleges are the best fit for our students. How do we help our students avoid massive debt? As their high school is 95 percent Black, how can we help students adjust to PWIs (predominantly white institutions)? How do we help them to fortify against white supremacy’s pervasiveness? How to we continue to partner with organizations to create robust post-secondary plans and options?

We will continue to wrestle with these questions and many more, but we know, in the meantime, we won’t compromise our efforts to help our students reach their post-secondary goals.

Read the full article in the 74 here.

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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