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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

High School and Beyond / Turning Seniors into Freshmen

To help graduates succeed in college, a high school redesigned its senior year as a bridge to postsecondary education.

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A few months before they would begin separate paths in college, six students sat in a classroom with their adviser, quietly talking about the ways in which they still were not ready for higher education. As seniors at University Park Campus School, a 234-student grade 7–12 school in Worcester, Massachusetts, they were poised to enter college and had already achieved far beyond what is typical at urban schools serving low-income populations. But challenges remained.
"I like to push things off until the last minute," said Alexis McCullough. "I'll just say I don't feel like doing it now and that I'll do it tomorrow. I'm not going to lie—I had two essays for Mr. St. Louis that I woke up at 4:00 in the morning to do. I got a B on both essays, which is OK, but if I had really put in the time I could have gotten a B+ or an A."
This kind of candid reflection was what University Park teachers hoped would emerge when they created a college-success course in which small groups of seniors hone the skills needed for the postsecondary world. The course, which meets twice a week in the second half of the senior year, is just one aspect of a redesigned senior experience—part of a comprehensive effort to more deliberately prepare students for college.
Founded in 1997 as a partnership between Worcester Public Schools and Clark University, University Park serves a population of students underrepresented in college. Admission is by lottery; nearly all of the students will go on to be first-generation college attendees, 79 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, 61 percent speak English as a second language, and 68 percent are students of color. Many enter the school reading significantly below grade level.
University Park has become a widely recognized model for effective instruction, partnering with the national organization Jobs for the Future to deliver professional development to schools and districts across the United States. Since its opening, the school has sent more than 95 percent of its graduates to college. But as years went by, staff members began to hear anecdotally that a significant number of students were dropping out of college or transferring. The staff had focused much energy on getting students into college, but relatively little on what happened after they got there.

The Keys to College Success

The school was far from alone. Nationally, 63 percent of high school graduates from the lowest socioeconomic quintile enroll in college, but a dismal 27 percent earn a degree within six years. In 2005–06, University Park faculty members began reflecting on how they could more intentionally prepare students for higher education.
They turned to David Conley's work on "college knowledge," which identified key college-readiness skills grouped within four major dimensions: cognitive strategies, content knowledge, academic behaviors, and contextual skills and awareness. According to Conley's model, key cognitive strategies include intellectual openness, reasoning and analysis, and use of multiple strategies for problem solving. Key content knowledge covers writing skills, mathematical concepts, and big ideas from the core disciplines. The third and fourth categories, academic behaviors and contextual skills, refer to the more elusive self-management and navigational skills that so often vex first-generation college students. These include paying attention to a lecture in a hall of 100 or more students, taking efficient notes, approaching professors, managing time, and being independent yet knowing when to seek help. According to Principal Ricci Hall, then a teacher, it was in these areas that students struggled: "Alumni were telling us they didn't have a problem with the writing or the content of college. Where we were weakest was in that third circle of behaviors."
The structure and freedoms of college bewildered and challenged many students, recounted Nina Keough, University Park's college transition and alumni support coordinator. Students were reluctant to seek out professors during their office hours or visit the college writing center because they feared that seeking help would stigmatize them. They were unprepared for the fact that each assignment counted for a major portion of their grade and that their professor would not remind them to turn it in. At the same time, they didn't know that if they missed a due date, they could still advocate for themselves. Meanwhile, their savvier peers were negotiating late deadlines.
"They were shocked by the impersonal nature of college," Keough said. "At University Park, all their relation ships were based on the premise that all of their teachers love them and care for them. They would come back and say, 'College doesn't love you,' with full seriousness."

Designing a New Senior Year

With a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation's Partnerships for College Success program, the faculty embarked on redesigning the senior year. The new program involves semester-long courses that meet several times a week, college-style syllabi, and modeling of college-style pedagogy and assessments. Mimicking the variability of college instruction, the program leaves some aspects of senior courses, such as the use of online discussion boards and policies regarding late work, up to the discretion of each teacher. The program also emphasizes dual enrollment courses at one of the local colleges; nearly every student takes at least one course for college credit before graduation.

Allowing Controlled Failure

Under the new program, students often feel overwhelmed by the new demands, structure, and independence required of them. This is exactly what the designers planned; their intent was to have students experience the "culture shock" of the first year of college while they still have the supports University Park offers.
"One of the biggest adjustments was the workload," said Muhammad Javaid, who took a course at Clark University in the fall of his senior year. "I got quite behind in my psychology reading. I wasn't managing my time, and I was too afraid to talk to the teaching assistant." On the verge of failure, Muhammad worked out a deal with Principal Hall, who allowed him and several other students to use the last period of the day to study. He recovered and passed psychology.
In Hall's notoriously tough anatomy course, the first test of the year is solely multiple choice and taken from textbook readings, not necessarily Hall's class lectures. Nearly every student fails. This and other senior-year experiences are typical of what David Conley calls "controlled failure." The first year of college is rife with opportunities to fail—whether through getting an Fon the first test, sleeping through an 8:00 a.m. class, or neglecting to complete a major project on time. University Park simulates those experiences early so students reflect on and learn from failure while the stakes are small and they remain in a nurturing environment.
Danielle Carsus struggled after missing three of her high school calculus classes early in the year because of a prolonged illness. "When I came back, we were three chapters ahead. We were doing things in class where I was struggling just to see how they got the first step. I was falling more and more behind." After a week of floundering, Danielle approached her teacher, Jim Looney, and said she needed help. Of course, he already knew that, but he had been quietly waiting for her to take the first step. Together, the two of them worked after school until Danielle caught up.

Creating a Dimmer Switch

Pulling back the safety nets to enable students to learn from failure doesn't begin in the senior year—it's staged as a continual progression throughout their secondary school careers. "Before, we weren't teaching kids to be independent," Hall said. "If you think about the intensity of support as a shining light, we kept that amount going right up until they went to a place where the light went off on them. What we are doing here is trying to institute a dimmer switch."
In the middle school years, University Park requires struggling students to stay after school. Throughout 9th grade, teachers call students' homes regularly about their academic progress. By junior year, students get fewer reminders: They can access their grades online, and their teachers don't call them at home frequently or sign them up for help. In the first half of the junior year, their English teacher gives feedback on drafts of writing assignments, but by year's end, students submit only a final paper.
In the senior year, teachers raise the bar for student independence even more dramatically, requiring students to take the initiative to get extra help or an extension on a deadline. To help seniors develop time-management skills, the school introduces more flexibility into the senior schedule than students have experienced in earlier grades. For example, underclassmen have a 23-minute lunch, but the senior lunch period is 90 minutes, and the students can leave campus. In addition, they have free periods for the first time, and they can study anywhere in the building. Nevertheless, the school staff takes care that students do not waste this time. Students who squander too many of their free periods, and suffer in class as a result, find themselves sent to a regulated study hall.
Managing controlled failure requires a tenuous balance that gives students the freedom to flounder, but not so profoundly that they cannot recover. Walking that line is particularly delicate in the fall of the senior year, when colleges heavily weigh student grades. "If I create wonderfully college-ready students who can't get into any colleges, I've defeated my purpose," Hall said. "It is still a difficult balance to strike. The failure needs to sting enough so it becomes a salient event in their lives."
Hall recalls such a complex moment several years ago involving a top student. Because of a dentist appointment, she missed his class the day a lab report was due, then tried to turn it in several days later. Without fanfare but loud enough for the class to hear, he told her he wasn't accepting it. The student was stunned, but Hall stood firm, saying she should have made prior arrangements to turn in the lab report on time. It was one of only three assignments before the midterm. When her mother called, distraught, Hall told her, "Listen, I'm not going to let this ruin her life, but to me, it's much more important that she learn this lesson than learn what we were doing in that lab. She may never need to know about osmosis and diffusion again, but this is a lesson she absolutely must internalize." He later dropped the failing grade.

Bringing College into High School

In many ways, University Park's interventions are typical of those provided at a supportive college. The hope is that bringing these activities into the senior year of high school will prevent the need for college remediation. Sometimes the supports are focused on academics, as when math teacher Kyle Pahigian administers a college placement test to her seniors to detect their readiness for college math. For the students who need help, she aligns the curriculum with what they would learn in a developmental course in college.
Other supports focus on the college experience in general. One intervention commonly used at the college level is a college-success course. Typically, these courses help students learn about college policies and expectations, acquire time-management and study skills, address test-taking anxiety and other psychological barriers, and become familiar with tutoring centers and other campus resources. University Park brings the college-success course into high school, requiring all seniors to take it during their final semester. Topics covered in the class, which meets twice weekly, include how to study for a test, how to read a syllabus, how to create a schedule and manage free time productively, and how to navigate a college website. The classes are taught by University Park faculty members.
Goal setting is a significant part of the college-success course; each class is divided into smaller advisory groups of about six students who support one another in setting and achieving goals. Michael Torrisi, who also teaches sociology and Spanish, told his college-success advisees they would be helping one another tackle their weaknesses before college begins. "This is like your last chance with us, with your family and friends by your side, to get to that point," Torrisi said. "We're in these small groups to create positive peer pressure. The six of you, and me, are here to cheer one another on." With his guidance, each of his students sets a short-term college-readiness goal.
Alexis McCullough, the student who struggles with procrastination, decided that her readiness goal would be to complete her anatomy lab three days before it was due. To raise the stakes, Torrisi promised the group a cake if she followed through—and she did. One student vowed to raise her grade point average to 2.7, acknowledging that her classwork was good but her homework completion was not so good. Another said he would strive for a 75 in English by the end of the quarter. Another boy said his goal was a decent grade on the next anatomy test. When Torrisi pushed him to be more specific, he decided to go for a B+.
This type of reflection is all in the service of developing students' understanding of themselves as thinkers. Before the school began teaching college readiness so deliberately, students struggled to grasp how their college experience would differ from high school. Hall recalled visiting alumni saying they missed University Park's collaborative learning environments. They did not realize they could form their own study groups and were waiting for the professor to put them in a group. Hall's hope is that students will start to see how University Park's supports have helped them so that they will be prepared to create those supports for themselves in the future.

Watching Students Grow

University Park is beginning to see clear results from its redesign. In 2008, the school engaged in its first formal effort to track alumni, surveying students from the classes of 2003 through 2007. At the time of the survey, 88 percent of alumni were on track to graduate from college within six years of graduating from high school.
However, the survey revealed a difference between students who attended before the redesign and those who attended after the redesign. Only half of the 2003 University Park graduates had graduated or were on track to graduate college within six years of their high school graduation. In contrast, 93 percent of those who graduated in 2007 were on track—and students from that class reported that the new senior year had helped prepare them for college. Although students from the class of 2007 were just beginning their postsecondary careers at the time of the survey, University Park staff members hope that this feeling of preparation has stayed with them as they've proceeded through college.
University Park is working to spread the lessons from its redesign beyond its walls. Using the school's success as a model, Jobs for the Future works with districts around the United States to redesign the high school years to prepare all students for a successful transition to college.
Ana De La Torre, now in her first year at Clark University, said academics were not her biggest challenge—she actually felt ahead of her classmates in writing and analyzing. But managing her time has been a struggle, and when she looks back on her senior year in high school, she sees how teachers attempted to prepare her. In particular, she recalls a paper she missed for English teacher Dan St. Louis. "I didn't want to do it, so I didn't pass it in, and then I forgot about it," she said. "When I saw my grade, I was kind of surprised. He had never come to me about it. At first I was mad at him, but then I realized it's about time he did that." Remembering that lesson helps her see the value of planning ahead and turning her assignments in on time—and that will help her stay on the road to a college degree.
End Notes

1 National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). National education longitudinal study. Washington, DC: Author.

2 Conley, D. T. (2007). Redefining college readiness, Volume 3. Eugene, OR: Educational Policy Improvement Center.

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