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K12 to college: All hands on deck

K12 deepens ties with higher ed to keep students on track—from preschool to college completion
  • EDTECH ENTHUSIASM—The University of Texas at El Paso regularly invites the city’s K12 students to campus to participate in hands-on STEM activities.
  • IMPROVED OUTLOOK—Progress made by K12 students in Florida’s Orange and Osceola counties is tracked in partnership with Valencia College. Educators share data to spot early signs of potential or academic struggle.
  • SMART NEIGHBORS—The Pipeline Project at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn brings a range of after-school enrichment activities to local K12 schools.

Colleges blame high schools. High schools blame middle schools. Middle schools blame elementaries—and everyone tends to blame funding, poverty, bad parenting and other factors for low student achievement. A new movement that promises closer cooperation between higher ed and K12 aims to end this legacy of passing the buck.

Educators from New York City to El Paso to Orlando have embarked on a range of initiatives—from coordinated curricula to professional development to expansion of early college high schools.

These higher ed and K12 leaders hope to create a more cohesive learning system that produces students who are more prepared for the rigors of college and careers.

“It’s a recognition that the problems K12 and colleges are trying to solve are problems that span the continuum,” says Rudy Crew, president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and former public schools chief in New York City, Miami-Dade County and Oregon.

In 2013, Medgar Evers launched the Pipeline Project to focus on student success with neighboring K12 schools. “We all need to be better observers of what’s happening to young people as they go through the system,” Crew says. “Some of the problems we see in college, we saw someplace down in the third grade and they were never dealt with effectively.”

Common cause: K16 partners

K12 leaders team with higher ed counterparts on a wide range of student success initiatives, including:

  • Curriculum coordination: Faculty from Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, lead workshops that provide area K12 teachers with a deeper understanding of the skills students need to avoid remediation.
  • Mini-enrichment: Medgar Evers operates branch sites at K12 schools where college faculty teach writing, computer science and other topics, and also offer after-school activities.
  • Parents’ academies: Medgar Evers also assists families in navigating financial aid and other aspects of higher ed.

(cont.)

Culture of high expectations

Medgar Evers College—part of the City University of New York system—has embarked on this work with about 90 high schools, middle schools and elementaries in central Brooklyn. The Pipeline has sparked close collaboration between college faculty and K12 teachers, including faculty-led workshops on Medgar Evers’ curriculum.

K12 teachers now have a deeper understanding of the skills they need to keep students out of remedial courses, says Augustine Okereke, Medgar Evers’ provost. The work extends down to third-grade “mini-enrichment” classes taught by Medgar Evers faculty in writing, computer science and other topics.

These activities have also benefited college faculty by helping them adjust to a more hands-on style of instruction that engages younger students, says Doris McEwen, the dean of college readiness.

The college operates branch sites at schools throughout Brooklyn that, among other services, offer after-school activities such as sports, homework help and reading support.

Dual-credit fuels the high school component of the Pipeline. Medgar Evers faculty trained high school teachers to deliver the courses, and in 2016-17 the college awarded more than 5,000 credits to high school students. The waived tuition saved families $1.6 million.

The Pipeline also offers a parents’ academy, which is particularly beneficial for families of first-generation students who have little experience navigating aspects of higher ed, such as applying for financial aid or encouraging their children to take honors courses.

As the program has gained momentum, it has attracted the attention of local political leaders, whose support has been critical, Crew adds. For instance, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has helped steer millions of dollars to some of the most underserved public K12 schools to expand Wi-Fi and related computer infrastructure.

“The Pipeline is a way of changing expectations,” Crew says. “A culture of college-going students requires a culture of high expectations.”

Common cause: K16 partners (cont.)

K12 leaders team with higher ed counterparts on a wide range of student success initiatives, including:

  • Analytics and data-sharing: Valencia College in Orlando helps the nearby School District of Osceola County forecast student performance based on factors such as 3rd-grade attendance and algebra assessments. The University of Texas at El Paso and area school districts track how high school graduates perform in higher ed to guide improvements in K12.
  • Career pathways: Valencia and Osceola have developed career-oriented dual-enrollment programs that allow high school students to graduate with professional certifications.
  • K12 on campus: Second-graders visit UTEP’s campus several times per year to participate in hands-on problem-solving, engineering, robotics and other STEM activities.

Communities coming together

Reducing the number of students who need to take remedial college math is a driving force behind “M-cubed,” a comprehensive partnership launched in 2014 by Milwaukee Public Schools, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Higher ed faculty provide PD and align curriculum with district math teachers to better prepare students for high school and college algebra. M-cubed also operates a summer math camp that allows more students to avoid remediation, says Superintendent Darienne Driver of Milwaukee Public Schools.

“It’s changed the entire way we operate,” Driver says. “We’re not in this by ourselves, and students also know they’re not alone.”

Mentors from the college level also work with students and their families on filling out FAFSA financial aid applications. However, Milwaukee students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and a 90 percent attendance rate, as well as perform community service, can get free tuition at the two-year technical college.

The college and the university also offer reduced tuition to district paraprofessionals who are completing a bachelor’s degree with the goal of becoming certified teachers, Driver says. All of these initiatives are managed by several subject-specific working groups comprising college and district leaders who meet monthly.

A key to success is not letting egos or territoriality get between the district, the college and the university, Driver says.

“If we want 100 percent of the students coming through the three institutions to graduate on time, and have options and be successful, then we all have to put pride aside and realize the future of the city of Milwaukee is more important than one particular institution,” Driver says.

In a similar initiative, leaders from University of Texas, El Paso, El Paso Community College and city school districts meet regularly to coordinate curricular initiatives with the goal of developing academic pathways that stretch from elementary school to college.

As part of this work, the educators track how students from specific high schools perform in higher ed, and adjust K12 instruction to fit what will be taught at the community college and at the university. This has reduced the need for remedial education as high schools now more aggressively assess students to determine where they need academic support.

But it’s not just El Paso’s high schools that have reshaped instruction. About 700 second-graders and their teachers from Socorro ISD visit the University of Texas, El Paso campus over four days each year to participate in hands-on problem-solving, engineering, robotics and other STEM activities.

The program has changed the outlook of some of the district’s most at-risk students in incredible ways, says Alisa Zapata-Farmer, chief academic officer of Socorro ISD.

“When you asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, they used say athlete, or actor or actress,” she says. “Now, a lot say they want to be engineers—they want to make sure they go to college.”

Eliminating disruptions

Predictive analytics and data sharing guide a coalition of higher education and K12 leaders in Central Florida who are developing pathways to close achievement gaps and to ensure students stay on course for high school completion and college success.

Valencia College in Orlando has helped the nearby School District of Osceola County forecast how the youngest students will perform before they encounter problems that can derail their education.

One metric is third-grade attendance. Students who miss the first day of school and who are absent several times during the first month of the year are at greater risk for being held back a grade. This information led the coalition to devote more resources to the region’s early-learning and after-school programs, says Scott Fritz, Osceola’s chief of staff.  

Another benchmark is algebra. After years of students arriving at Valencia not prepared for college math, Osceola is working with Valencia faculty to upgrade math instruction as far back as middle and elementary school. “We’re hoping this project will expose other areas we have not thought about,” Fritz says.

The college and the districts are also working to better align curriculum through the lens of college readiness, says Joyce C. Romano, Valencia’s vice president for educational partnerships.

This has led to the creation of career pathways that ninth-graders can embark on in several subjects—including some as highly specialized as laser photonics—to earn associates degrees at the same time they graduate high school.

“It’s all about thinking of it as one system that students are progressing along, and not having such an abrupt disruption as they move from 12th grade to college,” Romano says.


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.