The normally rambunctious 6th graders sat at rapt attention as they took turns asking the college students questions. "Can I go home on weekends?" one girl asked. Another boy read his prepared question: "How did you all decide that you wanted to go to a four-year college?" An energetic girl in the back row waved her arm in the air. When called upon, she didn't even look at her card: "Are there TVs there?" All the college students broke into laughter, but then a member of the panel respectfully responded that "Yes, there are TVs at the university."
The panel of four college students was part of the College Club, a seven-lesson college outreach program created for upper elementary students at Marina del Mar Elementary School in Marina, California. Forty-five percent of students at the school were Latino, 91 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, and only 14 percent of the students' parents had a college degree (Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, 2008).
After thinking about their own goals and options for higher education, a diverse class of 6th graders from Marina del Mar spoke directly with local university students with backgrounds similar to their own. This was the first time some of the kids in the class had met someone just like them who had made it to college.
The College Club was created with one goal in mind: to bring the real possibility of attending college to upper elementary students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The program teaches students about which courses to take, what questions to ask guidance counselors, and where to find resources to help them get into college, even before they reach middle school.
It's Not Too Early!
Typically, students on the college-bound learning track are white and middle-class (NGA Center for Best Practices, 2007). Their parents and schools have prepared them for college by directing them toward advanced placement (AP) classes, SAT prep courses, and other resources that will give them a step up when it's time to apply to college (NGA Center for Best Practices, 2007). On the other hand, students from lower socioeconomic brackets or minority groups may not even be told to take the SAT, let alone sign up for AP courses (Marklein, 2006). Programs such as AVID or Upward Bound attempt to reach these students in high school, but unfortunately, funding can limit the reach of these programs. Plus, high school intervention may come too late to influence students' choices.
As competition to get into universities increases, it becomes ever more important to inform younger students about the value of higher education and how to reach it. Students need to know that doing well in algebra in 7th grade will help them meet their college-prep course requirements in high school. Post (1990) found that although 61 percent of Chicano high school students believed that they would be going to college, only a few were actually enrolled in courses that would help them meet the university requirements. Had these students been given general information in elementary school about what they would need to take in high school, they might have been ready.
The idea behind this college outreach curriculum for upper elementary students was not just to get them to want to go to college. Nor was it aimed at specific skills like how to write a college admittance essay or obtain scholarships. The idea was to give students a broad introduction to the realities of preparing for and entering higher education and to help students become proactive about their own education.
First Steps to College Literacy
Growing up in a household rich with the language of higher education can make college feel real, but many low-income and minority students do not have this advantage. The College Club introduced students to the unfamiliar language of college and helped students see college in their future. As part of my field placement as a preservice teacher, I (Kristen Hirst) planned the College Club as a series of seven hourlong lessons that I taught weekly to a 6th grade class during the social studies portion of the day.
The first step was to let students know that the College Club is about them. We began with a Me Collage, a simple four-square grid in which students drew images representing who I am, what I want to be, how I will get there, and why I want to do this. The students loved getting to draw and to talk about their own lives. Many indicated that they wanted to go to Ivy League schools or prestigious state schools like the University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), schools whose names they knew from the media.
The students clearly needed a broader knowledge base of schools. One student, for example, wrote on her collage that she wanted to be a chef; however, her school of choice was Stanford. I chatted with her about how some schools specialize in culinary arts and that she could consider schools that focus on her career choice so that she would get the best education in that field.
Uncovering Different Paths
The next day, I created a chart on the board with columns for four-year, two-year, trade school, and four-year plus. I explained to the students that we were going to place their future careers into one of these categories. I gave definitions of each kind of school and some local examples so that the students understood the differences. Then, I asked each student to call out his or her career choice.
The students enjoyed trying to guess which career went where and were surprised that I put even those careers that required four years of education or specialized training in the two-year column first. I explained how beginning their higher education at a two-year college rather than a four-year school could save them money, and the students began buzzing with this new knowledge. They could now see that there were different ways to their futures, and they were excited to look into them.
For homework, students were to create a bar graph of their adult family members' education levels. I wanted the students to engage their parents in conversations about college and begin to make this process a family matter. On the following day, many students were nervous to share their graphs. Some students' grandparents had not finished high school, and the students were embarrassed about this. To establish trust and comfort, I started with my own family graph, which showed that my parents didn't go to college. I think the students assumed I came from a wealthy white family, so this surprised them. I explained how important it was for them to understand their parents' backgrounds so that they would know that when it comes to the college process, they may need to look as a family for outside help, like my parents did.
Bringing College to the Grade School
For the fourth College Club meeting, I brought in a panel of college students whose backgrounds matched those of the students in the class. They spent an hour answering the 6th graders' questions. The elementary students really connected with the panelists. Some questions were hilarious, like, "How do you eat in college?" Other students asked about scholarships and how they were paying for school. It was great to see them confidently use the terminology we had been studying.
One of the students asked, "How did you decide to go to a four-year college?" Each person on the panel ended up in at a four-year university in a different way. One went to a community college while serving as a teaching assistant to migrant students through Mini Corp (a Peace Corps–like program); she then transferred to a four-year school. Another went into the workforce and then back to college after having a child. The third went straight to the four-year school out of high school. Another enrolled in a special program to complete his senior year of high school at a junior college and earn college credits while finishing high school. Every story was different, and the students were surprised that there was no one way.
The panelists made an impression on these elementary students and vice versa. The college students were inspired to come back and help the 6th graders do an Internet scavenger hunt, familiarizing them with the California State University (CSU) Mentor website, a valuable future resource in applying to college.
At a later session, the outreach representative for California State University–Monterey Bay came to speak to the students. At first, university officials weren't convinced that talking to the 6th grade students was worth their time, but after I explained how helpful it would be for local students to connect with a university a few blocks from their school (and which none of the students had ever visited), they agreed. The university tries to encourage local students to apply to their school, so this early outreach could only help that; indeed, many of the students told me they wanted to go to the local university after the session. Before this, they only thought of going to the big-name schools they recognized in the media. Now they understood that they had a broad range of options.
Bringing the Grade School Classroom to College
The culminating activity for the College Club was a field trip to the university for the students and their families. I led the tour myself but tried to make it as much like a tour for prospective students as possible. The university's tour guides allowed me to shadow a tour and gave me a copy of their script so that I would know what to say and where to go. The guides even gave me the key to their "demo" dorm room so the elementary students could see it. One of my former professors let us come and see classes as well.
It wasn't just the students who were touched by this experience. One of the fathers seemed as excited about the trip as the students and made a point to sit near me on the bus so he could talk with me. He told me that he really wanted his daughter to go to college but had no idea how to help her. He had never even set foot on a college campus and felt that this would be a great opportunity for him to learn more about a future he really wanted for his daughter.
Through the entire tour, this father asked questions about everything, and he seemed so happy to see his daughter on the campus. He later came to me and said he was now able to really see where his daughter could be in the future. Even the bus driver was enthusiastic. He also had never been to college, and he asked me, as we got off the bus, if he could come on the tour with us, stating that he had always wanted to see a real-life dorm room.
The campus visit has become an annual event that includes students from multiple elementary schools. All of the adults involved help shape these students' opportunities and choices, and it's great to get them involved in planning for the students' futures—and all it costs is the bus ride there.
The Lasting Impressions
After the events were over, the students' regular classroom teacher asked the students to complete a written evaluation of the unit. All the students were enthusiastic about the activities. When asked which speakers they enjoyed, many named different members of the panel and explained that they connected in some way. They all would do it again, and many said thank you in their reflections.
Overall, the College Club was successful in increasing students' college literacy because it gave students a personal experience with real people and real locations and inspired them to see higher education as part of their futures. It also demonstrated that the upper elementary grades are a fitting time to equip student to be proactive about their futures.
Marklein, M. (2006, October 30). Minority enrollment in college still lagging. USA Today. Retrieved from www.usatoday.com/news/education/2006-10-29–minority-enrollment_x.htm
Monterey Peninsula United School District. (2008). Marina del Mar Elementary School: School Accountability Report Card, 2007–08. San Francisco: School Wise Press. Retrieved from http://montereypeninsula.schoolwisepress.com/home/?year=2008
NGA Center for Best Practices. (2007). Closing the achievement gap. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.subnet.nga.org/educlear/achievement/college/college_problem.html
Post, D. (1990). College-going decisions by Chicanos: The politics of misinformation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12(2), 174–187.
Kristen Hirst teaches at Los Padres Elementary School in Salinas, California. Scott B. Waltz is an associate professor who teaches aspiring educators in the Liberal Studies Department at California State University Monterey Bay.
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