Families & the Community

Middle Schoolers Getting Prepped for College

By Nora Fleming — November 29, 2011 10 min read
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Middle school students are being asked to do much more than take prealgebra these days; they’re being asked to start launching their future careers.

A rise in college- and career-readiness programs targeted at middle schoolers, particularly disadvantaged ones, has been spurred by mounting research that shows middle school is a key time to improve the academics and attitudes needed to succeed in high school, college, and beyond.

But successful programs aimed at the middle grades cannot focus solely on mapping out coursework and taking standardized tests, educators say. They have to reach young adolescents in innovative ways that combine the efforts of parents, schools, and the community to set those students on a path to a better future. Students have to especially feel they are pursuing their own goals.

“Young adolescence is a time of exploration and wonder, so the middle grades are a critical time for students to begin considering their life beyond high school,” said Patti Kinney, the associate director of middle-level services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Effective middle-grades schools help students understand their potential and give them multiple opportunities to explore the future through a variety of experiences, support, and guidance.”

What Do You Want to Be?

Beginning this school year, Mississippi 8th graders are not just deciding “what they want to be when they grow up” but figuring out the necessary steps to become what they want to be. Pathways to Success, a new initiative spearheaded by the state education department, has students select a career and then map out the path they would need to take in high school and college to enable them to work in that field, an effort to encourage students to set higher goals for the future.

Other college- and career-readiness programs targeting middle school students are also cropping up around the country.

Some, like Mississippi’s, are just beginning. Others are expansions of established high school programs into the middle grades, and still others are ramped-up versions of existing middle school programs.

Research showing that the middle school years may determine students’ future academic achievement has encouraged that growth, said Steve Kappler, the assistant vice president of educational services at ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based college-entrance-exam company.

ACT researchers found in 2008 that the academic level students achieve by 8th grade has a bigger impact on college and career readiness and success than anything that happens academically in high school. And last year’s “Building a Grad Nation,” released by Civic Enterprises, a Washington-based public-policy advising firm, and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, found warning signs that a student may not finish high school appear as early as the elementary and middle grades. Interventions are called for, particularly in middle school, when indicators show students are on a fast track to dropping out in high school, the study found.

Mr. Kappler said the ACT has seen about a 40 percent growth in the past five years in the sales of EXPLORE, a test it produces that shows 8th and 9th graders’ weaknesses in core subject areas. The test is supposed to help educators target students earlier who might need extra help to meet high school prerequisites for college.

But getting students academically up to par is not the only thing students need to succeed after middle school, the research says. To overcome some potential barriers to college readiness, the ACT this past year also launched ENGAGE, an assessment program for middle and high school students that helps spot weaknesses in the behavioral and attitudinal—as well as academic—traits linked to long-term education and career accomplishments.

Developmental changes and heightened social pressures make middle school a challenging time for many students, said Deborah Kasak, the executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, a Savoy, Ill.-based alliance of educators that works to improve the quality of middle schools nationwide. But it’s also an important time to reach them about taking the right steps for the future, she added, but not solely by demanding students take certain classes before they enter high school.

“We need to instill in our students the habits of mind, skills, and work that will prepare them well for the future while remembering they are still young adolescents,” Ms. Kasak said. “We don’t want to forget they are still learning about themselves, thinking about options, and really thinking for the first time about what they may want to do now and when they graduate.”

Support Systems

Role models, like parents and teachers, are seen as crucial to fostering a better attitude about future pathways for middle school students. A number of middle-school-focused college- and career-readiness programs do significant outreach to parents and teachers for that reason.

In Columbus, Ohio, Blueprint College: 2.0, a college-readiness initiative supported by the school district there, Ohio State University, and the nonprofit I Know I Can, reaches out not only to the 11,000 middle schoolers in that district but their parents, too. Since 2009, a series of workshops on college and career awareness for middle school students and their parents have been provided in the city, the majority of whose students are from underserved populations. Families whose children may not be on a college track are actively recruited.

At the workshops, middle schoolers participate in engaging activities with college students and staff members aimed at understanding college’s role in achieving career and life goals, while their parents learn about financial aid, prerequisite classes, and the college-application process.

“If you don’t reach students during middle school, they don’t realize the clock is ticking when they arrive at high school,” said Amy Wade, the I Know I Can director of early awareness and grants. “While they will have options, they won’t have as many options if they don’t think about planning and preparing for college early and often.”

For most parents, it’s not a lack of interest in their children’s future, but lack of know-how, she said. Many are unaware of the likelihood their child could attend college or about essential steps to preparation.

Free bus passes, dinner, and supervision for young children has enabled more parents to come to the workshops. This year so far, 1,300 families have attended, up from 270 in 2009.

Parent polling has found a significant improvement in their knowledge and attitudes about college for their children.

Creating a “college-going culture” in the home, Ms. Wade said, makes it much more likely children are pushed toward college and better future paths.

Teacher support, in addition to parents’, is also needed to get middle school students on the right path, said Susana Navarro, the executive director of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, an initiative in Texas that aims to bolster academic preparation provided in schools linked to postsecondary success in schools.

The collaborative, which serves 180,000 predominantly low-income and minority students in 12 districts in the El Paso area, has focused on better preparing teachers to heighten the academic rigor in classes and changing teachers’ attitudes about students’ potential by providing both high-quality curriculum materials and ongoing professional development.

Many teachers thought few of their students were college material, Ms. Navarro said, which can have particularly negative effects on middle school students.

“We start by asking [teachers] who they believe should be prepared for college—and who shouldn’t—and ask whether it would be all right if someone assumed that their own child wasn’t ‘college material,’ ” she said. “[Creating a college-going culture] is more than just putting diplomas on the wall and hanging college flags. There has to be a real internalization on the part of the teacher for the potential of each youngster.”

Key Linkages Now and Beyond

A number of other initiatives around the country also combine the forces of local universities, school districts, and intermediary organizations to support students in middle school through high school graduation with blended public-private funding, a variety of resources, and programming tailored to meet students’ developmental needs.

That is the premise of the federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, which awards six-year grants to states and partnerships to support college- and career-readiness programs that start in high-poverty middle schools and follow students through high school.

The Chicago public schools has benefited from GEAR UP grants since the program started in 1999, a time when efforts to target middle schoolers were fairly nascent, said Teryl Ann Rosch, the administrator of the Chicago GEAR UP Alliance.

Universities in Chicago work with the city’s high-need schools and intermediary organizations to provide programming that includes summer transition to high school, teacher professional development, tutoring and mentoring for struggling learners, college visits, and information sessions for parents. The goal is to prepare students for the academic rigor of high school and make college a desirable and realistic goal.

“At this early stage in the students’ lives, the visits [to college] demystify what colleges are like, while providing the students with aspirations for their future,” Ms. Rosch said.

Other programs that link middle schools to high schools have enabled high school students to walk off the stage at graduation with two sheepskins: a high school diploma and an associate degree.

The Early College High School Initiative, started in 2002 with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among other sources, helps low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation high school students prepare for college, as well as earn up to two years of college credit or an associate degree, tuition free. There are about 230 of these schools to date across the country.

A number of them have started programs in their feeder middle schools, said Joel Vargas, the vice president of Jobs for the Future, an organization that works with the initiative and other projects that support youth and adult career-readiness efforts.

The program helps students who might not be inclined to pursue a higher education “see” themselves as college students starting in middle school, and by high school, creates a much more accessible and affordable path to get there, Mr. Vargas said.

In Texas, the Texas High School Project, an alliance of public and private organizations, supports 44 such schools, serving 84,000 students. And in New York state, 10 universities in the City University of New York system have partnered with early-college secondary schools to prepare middle school students for a high school where they can take the college-credit courses.

The New York schools focus intensely on building middle schoolers’ core academic skills and exposing them to college experiences to get them interested in pursuing the rigorous academics needed to attend. Middle school students visit the universities and take mini and elective courses from college faculty members. Many are mentored by college tutors.

The first early-college secondary school in the CUNY initiative graduated its first batch of high schoolers last spring. Ninety-five percent graduated on time, 40 percent earned an associate degree as well as a high school diploma, and nearly 40 percent earned between one semester and two years of college credits. And in Texas, the first cohort of such students graduated in May 2010—900 students from 11 schools, with more than a third of them earning an associate degree.

“We are putting strategies into play to flip the culture and change the attitudes so districts become ‘college for all’ school districts,” said Alma Garcia, a Texas high school project program officer. “[But] to do that, you need to start earlier in a child’s life by making the right connections and having the right support systems in place. Then students individually become advocates for themselves.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at www.luminafoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 2011 edition of Education Week as Middle Schoolers Getting Prepped for College


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