College & Workforce Readiness

Elementary Students Encouraged to Set College Goals

By Caralee J. Adams — December 07, 2010 7 min read
Pupils at the former Los Penasquitos Elementary School in San Diego listen to University of Illinois alumna Sheri DeCremer read a story. The school has a new name and a new focus.
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To get children thinking about college early, Los Penasquitos Elementary School in San Diego changed its name to No Excuses University at Los Pen. Instead of numbers, classrooms are identified by college names with flags from Ohio State or the University of Michigan hanging on the door. Students learn all about their assigned school, make up a cheer for it, and sometimes even have alumni visit.

“From the minute students walk in the door, we want them to feel like they are on a college campus. It’s all about the spirit,” Damen Lopez, a former principal at the school and the founder of the No Excuses University Network of Schools. “We want to expose them to the possibility of a four-year university. That it’s not something far, far away.”

By creating a college-going culture in elementary school, the hope is that students will aspire to a lifelong path toward higher education and deeper learning that ends with a degree. To reach that goal, the school plays up the concept that there are no excuses for poor effort and staff members have a belief that all students can excel.

Starting Early

“Waiting until they are in high school for college readiness is as crazy as starting parenting when a kid is 13. You miss the opportunity,” said Mr. Lopez. “For kids who live in poverty, it will take a childhood to break down myths about college and get the child to the place where they can see college in their future.”

To reinforce the message at home, parents, many of whom live in nearby public-housing projects, attend evening sessions (aptly named Parent University) to learn about how they can support their children’s studies.

Since instituting the new collegiate approach, the 525-student Los Pen has gone from being the lowest-performing school in the 33,000-student Poway Unified School District to one of the top schools in California and a recipient of the National Blue Ribbon School Award. Others have adopted the No Excuses University model, creating a network of 89 schools.

In the push to boost college-completion rates, high schools have often been the focus of college-readiness efforts, but now the reach is going even deeper into middle and elementary schools. Some educators feel it’s too late in high school to start introducing the concepts of college, high expectations, and academic achievement. Programs are emerging to instill in young children the belief that they can go to college and promote the work ethic needed to make it. While college, ultimately, may not be for everybody, proponents of these initiatives emphasize the need to encourage students to aim high. And, if they don’t pursue a four-year degree, the skills learned can be applied to certificate programs and associate degrees, and are beneficial to students in careers and throughout life.

College-Ready Checklists

As part of a school reform effort in New Haven, Conn., parents of students in grades K-8 will be given college-ready checklists beginning this spring. Those lists will help them follow whether their children are on track at certain stages in school and what they can do to help.

“We want to equip the parents to play the role they can very powerfully starting in those early years,” said J.B. Schramm, the president of College Summit, a nonprofit based in Washington that is partnering with the New Haven schools in the undertaking.

As a way to involve the broader community, volunteers from business, churches, universities, fraternities, and other organizations will be trained next summer and deployed as a “college corps.” They will go into New Haven neighborhoods to promote college awareness and build mentoring programs to help students.

Those initiatives are designed to foster the necessary support to get students ready to qualify for the New Haven Promise Scholarship. Launched this fall, the program gives every graduate from the 21,000-student public school system who meets academic and behavior standards $2,500 annually toward college tuition. To qualify, students must maintain a positive disciplinary record, complete 20 hours of community service, have a 90 percent attendance rate, and a 3.0 grade-point average in high school.

“We are trying to help families and students connect the dots between the scholarship down the road and the academic decisions they make every day,” said Mr. Schramm.

For the first time ever, the College Board is reaching below 6th grade in its college-readiness programming. Its Own the Turf initiative launched this fall is aimed at K-12 school counselors. The goal is to provide every student with the inspiration, social capital, planning, and academic preparation to be ready for college, said Patricia Martin, the assistant vice president of the College Board National Office for School Counselor Advocacy.

“On the first day of school, students are all bright eyed and bushy tailed. … They come to school thinking this is the greatest and most important thing that’s ever happened to them. Somewhere between kindergarten and 3rd grade, we kill their dreams,” said Ms. Martin. “They no longer have a sparkle in their eyes that they can do anything. They have already figured out there are going to be great limitations to what their futures can be.”

Also, early on, children in poverty internalize that they don’t have any money for college and may stop trying in school, experts say. The new program aims to counter those messages with help in college-affordability planning, nurturing students’ confidence, and conveying “college knowledge,” said Ms. Martin. “Somebody needs to be a cheerleader all through elementary for inspiration,” she said.

Higher Ed. Partnerships

Other schools are partnering with colleges to give students an early college experience. The idea is that there’s nothing like sitting in on a class taught by a professor and rubbing elbows in the cafeteria with undergraduates to get kids excited about the prospect of college. Last year, 1,900 4th and 5th graders got to be college students for a day through a program devised by the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, said Lora Jorgensen, the director of outreach and early awareness for the commission.

“When they leave campus at the end of the day, no one says anything other than, ‘I am going to college,’ ” said Ms. Jorgensen.

That message is especially important outside of Anchorage, where students in small communities may not have role models who went to college. “It’s about planting just enough of a seed,” so as they continue to hear about college in middle and high school, they will be tuned into the process, she said.

In Twinsburg, Ohio, about 25 students from Kent State University go to Dodge Intermediate School once a week and spend the day in a classroom to observe and help as part of their coursework. “I think it’s really important that we have a bridge between the university and our school,” said Barb Werstler, the principal of the 995-student school, which serves grades 4-6. “Having these young adults around our young students really promotes college.”

Each year in grades 1-4, pupils at Caley Elementary School in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., update their career portfolios in which they connect their interests to a job and the skills needed. “We are creating awareness by asking: Do they need higher education for that job?” said school counselor Barbara Micucci.

To learn about different careers, Caley Elementary parents take Carly, a stuffed cougar, with them to work along with a form to fill out about the skills and training needed at their job. Ms. Micucci said the parents get very creative taking pictures of Carly on their job sites and the stuffed animal gives parents an opening to talk with their children about what they do at work.

One year, the school had a career dress-up day. Another time, it held a college day for which teachers wore their sweatshirts from their alma maters, and on a map posted in the hallway, they tagged where they went to school.

Some schools emphasize the importance of lifelong learning to set the stage for college. Students at Rio Grande Elementary School in Terre Haute, Ind., are encouraged to think about more than one way to solve problems and develop a quest for knowledge, said Principal Diane Cargile. As they learn skills, teachers emphasize the “why” behind their lessons.

Good attendance is also celebrated, and expectations are high for achievement. “Otherwise, it’s too late. By the time they leave here, those patterns and habits are set,” said Ms. Cargile.

‘Instilling the Belief’

At Stanton Elementary School in the District of Columbia, 3rd graders can tell you they will be in the college class of 2024.

“We are instilling the belief of college attainment at a young age,” said Darla Bunting, a 3rd grade teacher. “They don’t have their mind made up about what they can or can’t do.”

The idea is not to stress out the children or talk about the specifics of the application process. Rather, it’s about building excitement, said Ms. Bunting. The exposure is especially important in their southeast Washington neighborhood where few people go to college and children have to combat the belief that they can aspire only to what’s around them, she said.

The college connection is solidified when the students, who Ms. Bunting calls her “scholars,” visit nearby Catholic University.

While eating their lunch on the grassy area outside, the 3rd graders enthusiastically performed a cheer: “We are Catholic. That’s right. We work hard to get smart. We are dyn-o-mite!”

Added Ms. Bunting: “They are so pumped about college.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students to tackle complex issues in fundamentally different ways is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at


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