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Finding Common Purpose

Do you know that 38% of undergraduates are at public two-year colleges? That of the remaining 62%, three-fourths attend four-year public colleges and universities? Or that overall, only 11% of students from the lowest-income quartile graduate within six years—and that 40% never finish?

My last several posts (the “series” begins here) have explored more deeply a particular part of the pathway to lifelong success: the transition from high school to some sort of post-secondary education—be it college, training, or apprenticeship—leading to a good-paying job. My purpose has not been to elevate this part of the pathway above all others, but rather to illustrate the importance of transitions. They typically involve handoffs of individuals from one institution or organization to another—and they are fraught with problems, largely because of a lack of coordination, disagreement about what constitutes success, and a failure to measure things that really matter.

The media are full of inspiring stories about “underprivileged” students who beat all the odds and get accepted to Yale or Harvard. But that’s not where the vast majority of high school graduates who do make it to college go. 

This is the backdrop to my conversation with Patrick Rametti, who is the Director of College Completion at Uncommon Schools. Our conversation, which I present here and in my next blog post, shines a bright light on how high schools and colleges are failing our students—and some of the straightforward ways we could strengthen the handoff from one to another. 

Uncommon Schools manages 54 nonprofit, charter public schools, kindergarten through high school, in urban locations in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. The 20,000 students come from low-income families. Patrick’s specific work today involves some 1,000 high school students, about 83% percent of whom come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. Uncommon Schools has succeeded in getting 95% of these students into four-year colleges, and nearly every student at least goes to a two-year college—and that with about half of their families making no financial contribution to their tuition. Most of them are attending public universities and colleges that are in the top or second tier of selectivity.

These numbers speak to a staggeringly high success rate when it comes to getting Uncommon Schools high school seniors into college. Obviously, this would be impossible if Uncommon Schools students weren’t significantly surpassing the typical numbers for reading and math proficiency in the United States, which the National Center for Education Statistics just reported haven’t budged much in more than a decade.

This year, nationally, only 37% of high school seniors are proficient in reading, and for math the number is only 25%. Only 11% of students from low-income families that make it to college graduate after six years, and 40% never finish.  

Meanwhile, 54% of Uncommon Schools graduates have earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of finishing high school, closely aligned with the 58% college graduation rate for students from U.S. families in the highest-income quartile. And if you combine Uncommon’s 54% with its alumni still in college and on track to graduate, the number shoots up to 74%.

Keep those figures in mind as you read on. But before we get there, I want to address the charter school issue briefly and get it out of the way—because this post is not about the ongoing debate about public and charter schools. While the Uncommon Schools network, like all charter schools, gets most of its money from a reallocation of tax dollars that would ordinarily go to a non-charter public school, nothing Patrick does at Uncommon Schools is precluded for public schools. I think it’s important to state that right up front.

So, getting back to Uncommon Schools’ rate of students who have or are on track to graduate from, and putting aside the question of whether college is always the answer, that’s an amazingly impressive achievement. I asked Patrick how Uncommon Schools achieve such a high rate of success. He describes a three-pronged approach—he calls it a “three-headed monster”—to prepare students not only to get into college, but also to succeed and graduate.

“The foundation of our work is definitely academic preparation,” Patrick explains, “and that’s something distinctive about Uncommon Schools. We’ve emphasized academic preparation over all else since the beginning.” That flows from a recognition that “young people need to have a really strong academic foundation if they’re going to be successful in college and in life.

Students need to be able to do the work. We can advocate for kids and we can believe that kids deserve to go to college and should go to college and complete college, but if they don’t actually have the academic skills to do it, then we’re putting the cart before the horse.”

This, Patrick says, explains Uncommon’s “huge emphasis on teacher development and training” and an “aligned approach to how we teach across our schools. We have a shared curriculum across our entire network. All of our high schools and all of our elementary and middle schools use shared lesson plans that are written by our best people. And then teachers are taught how to develop and implement the curriculum, how to internalize it, and how to teach effectively in the classroom.”

All that is in the service of academic preparation for college.

The second prong is student support. “We also recognize that a strong education in and of itself may not be enough, particularly for a student who may be living in generational poverty. There needs to be a more concerted effort around the career piece and helping students plan for that.” To that end, uncommon helps students think about the right college—one that won’t put them in huge debt, which is a big reason students drop out. Patrick mentions a “focus on data” and a “predictive algorithm for admission into college” that Uncommon uses to “help our students make really sound choices and have balanced college lists.”

All this combines “to make sure that when they get to college, they are prepared to be in college”—and finish. “We wanted to get that right before we started sending kids off to college and failing en masse.” The academic foundation is what makes Patrick able to do his job, but the student support is also critical.

I asked Patrick to describe that second prong a bit more. It isn’t traditional guidance counseling, and, Patrick says, “It’s no secret that the guidance counseling model is unsustainable, not effective, and that guidance counselors are doing too much across our country.” And with ratios of students to counselors pushing 600:1, “there’s no way students can get the type of guidance they need.” Beyond the ratio, there’s the question of what those counselors are supposed to do.

Students, as Patrick sees it, need help with class scheduling and the college admissions process, but also “emotional and behavioral support.” So, guidance counselors teach actual classes in “going to college,” and the schools also have social workers.

“That’s a necessary role,” Patrick insists, “particularly in a low-income community. Students have lots of issues in their communities and homes, and they bring that baggage into school. We obviously want to have a culture of achievement in our schools, and that’s not easy to accomplish when you consider all the factors that are at play.”

Another part of the student support involves looking beyond college to careers. “Each of our schools has an experiential learning coordinator,” he explains, “who spends a lot of time building relationships with local nonprofits and various companies, so we help our students get school-year and summer internships and into summer programs. It’s a critical part of student development.”

Most high schools emphasize raising their graduation rates and tout the percentage of their students that go on to college. They rarely mention whether those kids are prepared for college, which requires a different definition of success—one that focuses on being prepared to be on and stay on this part of the pathway to lifelong success. This is one of the critical failures of what I call the Nonprofit Industrial Complex—which includes all of our public educational institutions, charter, community college or otherwise. It is a reflection of one of the main dysfunctions of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, which revolves around measurement. The Complex tends to gauge the wrong things, preferring “feel-good” measures that lead to the stories of “underprivileged” kids I mentioned earlier over those that tell us how they’re really doing at what ought to be their job: helping ensure more and more people get on and stay on the pathway to lifelong success.

Uncommon Schools tracks things such as grade point averages and number of AP courses as key indicators of its students’ ability to succeed in college. They need to tout high school graduation and college acceptance rates regardless of whether they are the best measures to use just to “play the game” in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. 

I described two of the three prongs in the Uncommon Schools’ approach: academic preparedness and student support. In my next post, I will discuss the third: Uncommon Schools remains involved with its alumni while they’re in college to help ensure they graduate. But is that really its role? What does that tell us more generally about how colleges and universities are failing their students along the pathway? 

TO READ MORE about where students from high- and low-income families go to college, click here.