Thursday, January 17, 2008

Urban Schools Do College Prep

I'm glad to see, via today's New York Times, the push for more college preparation among educators in urban high schools:

At Excel High School, in South Boston, teachers do not just prepare students academically for the SAT; they take them on practice walks to the building where the SAT will be given so they won’t get lost on the day of the test.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., the schools have abolished their multitrack curriculum, which pointed only a fraction of students toward college. Every student is now on a college track.

And in the Washington suburb of Prince George’s County, Md., the school district is arranging college tours for students as early as seventh grade, and adding eight core Advanced Placement classes to every high school, including some schools that had none.

Those efforts, and others across the country, reflect a growing sense of urgency among educators that the primary goal of many large high schools serving low-income and urban populations — to move students toward graduation — is no longer enough. Now, educators say, even as they struggle to lift dismal high school graduation rates, they must also prepare the students for college, or some form of post-secondary school training, with the skills to succeed.

In affluent suburbs, where college admission is an obsession, some educators worry that high schools, with their rigorous college preparatory curriculums, have become too academically demanding in recent years.

By contrast, many urban and low-income districts, which also serve many immigrants, are experimenting with ways to teach more than the basic skills so that their students can not only get to college, but earn college degrees. Some states have begun to strengthen their graduation requirements....

Although federal studies show that most students yearn for a college degree, each year tens of thousands will not even make it through high school. In New York City, for example, roughly half the students complete high school though the new small high schools have shown substantial improvement in graduation rates.

Of the 68 percent of high school students nationwide who go to college each year, about a third will need remedial courses, experts say. For various reasons, from financial to a lack of academic preparedness, thousands of low-income students drop out of college each year.

Fewer than 18 percent of African-Americans and just 11 percent of Hispanics earn a bachelor’s degree, compared with almost a third of whites, ages 25 to 29, experts say. Of families making less than $25,000 a year, 19 percent complete an associate degree or higher, compared with 76 percent of families earning $76,000 per year or more.

The innovations range from creating high schools that offer an opportunity to take college courses for credit, to devoting senior English classes to writing college application essays, and holding parties to celebrate students who complete them. New York City has a $10 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation to develop extensive college counseling and connections with higher education institutions at 70 small high schools and three redesigned large ones.

Although affluent suburban schools have been increasing academic rigor in recent years, many large urban schools have been organized around the same low academic expectations for nearly three decades, experts say. When these schools opened their doors about a hundred years ago, relatively few teenagers even went to high school, education historians say. Enrollment in high school was not universal until the end of the 1950s.

By the 1970s, academic standards were being lowered to make it easier to move large numbers students of different abilities toward the diploma that was considered sufficient education for most, the historians say.

Today, however, some states are putting in place more rigorous high school exit exams, and students understand that a diploma no longer provides entry to the middle class. Over the past two decades, the percentage of low-income students who say they want a four-year degree or higher has tripled, rising to 66.2 percent in 2002, from 19.4 percent in 1980, according to federal statistics. And parents are stoking their children’s hopes.
As a community college professor, I see first hand the challenges of students who've not been considered "college material," or those without a family background of educational attainment.

Still, I'm blown away when I read the reports on the crisis in high school graduation rates.

The Los Angeles Times had a troubling story last year on the urban high school crisis, "
The Vanishing Class," which notes, "For many, the traditional U.S. education system is a dead end."