College & Workforce Readiness

High School and Beyond

By Catherine Gewertz — February 03, 2009 10 min read
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Andreana Rivera-Thomas is ready for her next big step. With her teachers’ and counselors’ help, she’s pored over school profiles, honed her essays, and endured rounds of mock interviews. She survived the entrance exams and grillings by admissions officers.

Pretty heavy stuff for an 8th grader from a poor neighborhood. But that’s what it takes to get into a top-notch high school, and it’s par for the course at Andreana’s anything-but-typical middle school.

As her final semester at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School begins, the 14-year-old waits nervously to learn which of the five high schools she chose will accept her. But she has plenty of reason for optimism. Her little school, tucked away on a narrow, hilly street in a hard-luck Boston neighborhood, placed every one of last spring’s 8th grade graduates in public or private college-preparatory high schools. And nearly 80 percent of the students in its first three graduating classes—the only ones old enough to have finished high school so far—are in college.

Shradha M. Patel, one of the graduate-services coordinators, congratulates a student who won a "creed deed" award. Bestowed at the school’s weekly community meeting, the awards recognize students who exemplify its values, such as scholarship, integrity, dignity, responsibility, perseverance, and leadership.

Roxbury Prep gets those results by blending tough academics with intense student support in a small, highly structured setting. At the heart of the operation is a very unusual counseling threesome that works with every child and family each step of the way to make sure the students are admitted to good high schools, and keeps in touch through high school and college to help their charges adjust and thrive.

The 10-year-old charter school is at the leading edge of a national conversation about how to keep students from tumbling out of the education pipeline.

Educators and policymakers increasingly recognize that in middle school, a combination of strong academic preparation, close monitoring, and good support is pivotal to success in high school, said Deborah A. Kasak, the executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, an advocacy group based in Champaign, Ill.

But few middle schools have structured themselves so explicitly to deliver the double wallop of academic and counseling attention needed to get their students into college-prep high schools.

Class of 2008 High School Placement

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Note: Pilot schools are Boston public schools with charter-like autonomy.

SOURCE: Roxbury Preparatory Charter School

“The transition from middle to high school is gaining more attention, but in most schools it’s not as purposefully and intentionally done,” Ms. Kasak said. “[Roxbury Prep] is probably way on the high end of the continuum with what they do.”

The school’s success is turning heads. The National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Education Trust, and the Intel Corp., among others, have bestowed honors on the school for its outsized academic accomplishments with its 230 African-American and Latino children, most of whom are from low-income families.

Roxbury Prep’s students come from far behind, but their school has potent catch-up power. When they enter, fewer than one-third read or do mathematics at grade level—similar to regular Boston public school students, whom they resemble demographically, but far behind Massachusetts’ students on average.

By the end of 6th grade, though, Roxbury Prep students outperform district students in both subjects, and students statewide in math. By the end of 8th grade, 85 percent to 90 percent of Roxbury Prep students perform at grade level, far outpacing Boston and statewide averages, including some districts in wealthy white suburbs.

Like the high-performing charter schools in the Uncommon Schools network, with which it is loosely affiliated, Roxbury Prep makes academic demands that aren’t for the faint of heart. Between 7:45 a.m. and 4:05 p.m., students take two math classes (problem-solving and procedures), English, reading, science, social studies, and a choice of “enrichment” classes that run from soccer to debate to knitting. They’re assigned three hours of homework nightly.

The culture is serious and highly focused. Students wear navy-blue or tan skirts or trousers, and long-sleeved oxford-blue dress shirts, with ties for boys. At passing periods, the young people move between classes in silence, lining up on the right side of the school’s single hallway until their next teacher is ready for them. When they enter their classrooms, they settle immediately into a quiet, two- to five-minute activity posted on the board, with no instruction lost to adolescent chatter. Behavioral missteps can earn them after-school detention, where they must sit and do nothing unless they conduct themselves well enough to win the chance to read.

Shakora Ragland, a 7th grader, attends a weekly community meeting at the school. She was selected to lead her class and hold up the clipboard when her grade was recognized.

The careful, conscious preparation for high school and college bleeds into everything here. As early as 6th grade, students are taught how to examine their transcripts and calculate and track their grade point averages.

They write admissions essays in English class and hone their interview skills in mock sessions with administrators. Even participating in “fun” activities requires flexing their skills: Students who wanted to be part of the science Olympiad had to write “applications” explaining their aims and turn them in on time.

Life at Roxbury Prep can prove too daunting, even for families who, by definition, chose the school. (They submit name-and-address cards that are drawn randomly.) Of the last four cohorts combined, 11.7 percent, or 91 students, withdrew. Some moved or enrolled in high schools that begin in 7th grade. But nearly half disagreed with school policies or struggled with the rigor of the program, a school analysis shows.

Not all of Roxbury Prep’s alumni make it through high school, either. Only 74 percent of the high school class of 2006 graduated; 84 percent did so in 2007, compared with 59 percent and 58 percent of Boston public school students those years. A few have washed out at their chosen high schools and ended up at regular Boston public schools. But 100 percent of the Roxbury Prep students in the high school class of 2008 graduated, according to William F. Austin, the co-director.

How Roxbury Prep Stacks Up

On most exams, students outscored their peers in Boston and across the state on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

2008 8th Grade Results

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2008 7th Grade Results

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2008 6th Grade Results

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SOURCE: Roxbury Preparatory Charter School

As serious as life at Roxbury Prep is, it’s also peppered with incentives and marked by strong personal connections. Living out the school’s 10 “creeds”—including dignity, scholarship, peace, and responsibility—can lead to rewards for students, such as pizza or having one of the school’s co-directors carry their books for the day, a much sought-after prize. Teachers are widely available for tutoring, after school and during “office hours,” which are deliberately named to give students a taste of college life.

Each student belongs to a group of a dozen peers that meets weekly with their adviser, a teacher who serves as all-around mentor, troubleshooter, and support, and talks with each student’s family biweekly. A recent advisory meeting featured lively sessions with a dozen Roxbury Prep alumni who now attend college and had come back to answer questions for their younger counterparts.

Each Friday afternoon, the whole school packs into one room for “community meeting,” a high-spirited, student-led celebration of school values and high aspirations. On a recent icy January day, the meeting opened with Mr. Austin asking students for a “moment of silence to reflect on how you are already preparing for college.” That gave way to a raucous, chanting celebration of recent birthdays, a skit about the word of the week (“sophomoric”), more cheering and clapping for the winner of the “spirit stick,” and recommendations for good novels.

Teachers hired at Roxbury Prep are warned that the job requires at least 60 hours per week. About 1,000 applicants vie for four to six openings yearly, and only 200 get a first interview. To land a job, prospects have to design a lesson and teach it to a class, deconstruct its strengths and weaknesses afterward with Roxbury Prep teachers, rework it, and teach it again to another class. That’s to ensure that teachers have not only pedagogical skill, but also the willingness to work in groups, constantly reflecting and revising content in response to feedback about how Roxbury Prep’s graduates are doing in high school.

The predominantly white, young teacher corps arrives from traditional and alternative teacher-preparation routes, and only half are certified, according to Dana L. Lehman, the other co-director. Most have college majors or minors in their subject areas. At Roxbury Prep, the teachers write the curriculum.

Every August, for three weeks, faculty members gather for intensive sessions, reviewing standards from Massachusetts and other well-regarded states, as well as the content required to do well in Advanced Placement courses and on independent high school admissions exams. They design course content, week-by-week instruction plans, and tests.

All this is done with an ear to the ticking clock. Roxbury Prep’s teachers are keenly aware, Ms. Lehman said, of how little time they have to help underskilled 10-year-olds from Boston’s most beleaguered neighborhoods, from families with little or no history of college-going, become adept and versatile 13-year-olds.

“It’s a Herculean task,” she said. “These kids have just three years, not just to get to grade level, but to be at the level where they can thrive at the most rigorous high schools, because that is their ticket to college.”

That’s where the counseling team comes in: Teresa Rodriguez, the high school placement director, and the “graduate services” division of Shradha M. Patel and Emily Fernandes.

Teresa Rodriguez, the director of high school and summer placement, reminds a 7th grade student to apply for a summer program for which she was nominated.

Ms. Rodriguez works closely with students throughout their three years at Roxbury Prep to maximize their chances of admission to good high schools. She gauges their strengths and interests and collaborates with their teachers on strategies to bolster their weaknesses. One boy, for instance, had a great academic record, but Ms. Rodriguez worried that his shyness wouldn’t serve him well in admissions interviews. She asked his teachers to draw him out more often in class and persuade him to make presentations at the weekly community meeting.

Each summer, Ms. Rodriguez talks with the families of students who have just finished 7th grade. She discusses each student’s transcript, the kinds of schools the family and student are aiming for, and identifies ways they must step it up to be more competitive in admissions. She crunches her students’ numbers, helping each one identify “reach,” “middle,” and “safety” schools, and takes them on visits.

Ms. Rodriguez oversees the season of entrance tests for private, parochial, and public exam schools, and presses some students into the voluntary Saturday test-prep sessions if she thinks they need it. The following fall, she bird-dogs the 8th graders’ applications and interviews, and shepherds their parents through the immense detail of applying for financial aid.

Ms. Patel and Ms. Fernandes, meanwhile, are busy finding out how Roxbury Prep’s graduates are doing. Every fall, they visit their alumni’s 70-plus high schools. They talk with the teenagers and school administrators, noting patterns of academic trouble that suggest the middle school curriculum needs tweaking. For instance, they found that many of their alumni struggled with the complexity and volume of reading necessary at their high schools, so they ramped up reading skill-building at Roxbury Prep. They make summertime checks on their alumni who are rising high school seniors, making sure they are taking college-entrance exams and their applications are moving along nicely.

They also try to broker solutions to their alumni’s problems. One high school student, for instance, is failing most of his classes and resisting his mother’s attempts to get him on track. So Ms. Patel and Ms. Rodriguez are working with the boy, his mother, and his school to make a plan for his academic recovery.

All three women serve as informal advisers to their alumni throughout their four years of high school. Through phone calls, e-mail, and a 200-friend network on the social-networking site Facebook, they help with everything from a broken heart to a failing biology grade.

“These kids are not being let go for seven years,” Ms. Patel says with a laugh.

And she and the other counselors can’t help but stay in touch with their former charges in college, too. Their contact is not as often or as intensive as with their high school alumni, but the connection is there. To some, it makes all the difference.

“They hold on to everyone and everything. It makes me feel good. They won’t give up on you or forget about you,” said Janice Brea, a 2004 Roxbury graduate who went to an all-girls boarding high school and is now a freshman at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. She had come back to Roxbury Prep on “college day” recently to talk to its students.

Andreana Rivera-Thomas, for her part, never wanted to go to Roxbury Prep. She had heard how hard students there had to work. But her parents wanted something better for her than the neighborhood high schools. And now, waiting for the chance to attend one of five college-prep schools, she is glad she donned the Roxbury Prep uniform.

“I was a bit overwhelmed at first, but I’m proud I went to a school this hard,” she said on a recent break from class. “Now, I’m able to go to a better high school than I would have otherwise.”

Coverage of pathways to college and careers is underwritten in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as High School and Beyond

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