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At a time when a college diploma is more important than ever to compete in the global economy, only 10% of students from low-income communities across the country who enroll in college are earning a degree. Pair that with the fact that the majority of African American and Latino students graduating high school don’t meet “college readiness” benchmarks (New York City reported last week fewer than a quarter of its students are ready for freshman year) and we have to conclude that public schools aren’t setting up students for long-term success.

College ready
Jason Bernal is CEO of the Yes Prep, charter school network with 13 schools in Houston, Texas.

In order to tackle this nationwide challenge, we need to ask ourselves what it really means for a student to be college-ready.

There’s long been an assumption, and in fact it’s one we ourselves made, that if you provide children from lower income communities with rigorous academic preparation then they should succeed in college. But while creating a culture of high academic expectations is certainly crucial to success, it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

We found this out the hard way. As a charter school network serving children in grades 6-12, we started graduating students in 2001. Early on, we mapped our curriculum backwards from what students need to know in their second year of college and aligned all of our coursework to AP standards. Our standards exceeded those of our local school district, Houston, and the State of Texas. Our early college persistence rates were strong.

But as our number of graduates grew, cracks in the armor were exposed. While 50% of the class of 2005 graduated college (five times the national average), only 45% of the class of 2006 and 34% of the class of 2007 earned degrees. In soliciting feedback from our alumni, we found that emphasizing only academic supports left significant gaps in their skill sets.

There are social, emotional and financial barriers that students from low income communities have to overcome. While schools are increasingly creating a “college prep” mentality, many students have no personal experience on which to draw. Yes Prep students are some of Houston’s most disadvantaged — 90 percent live below the poverty line. More than 90 percent of our students will be the first in their families to go to college so they lack the support systems necessary to navigate this process.

While schools are increasingly creating a ‘college prep’ mentality, many students have no personal experience on which to draw

K-12 schools must address and invest in strategies to prepare their students for the transition to college and the challenges they will experience.

For starters, the role of the college counselor can be a lifeline, and keeping the student to counselor ratio as low as possible means more personalized attention for students who need it. Helping students and their families understand their options, navigate the application process, apply for financial aid and identify on-campus resources makes an overwhelming process more manageable. Finding the right college match for each student means considering a variety of factors, such as cost and distance, and not just academics.

But that’s just half the battle. The historic disconnect between K-12 institutions and institutions of higher learning has exacerbated the challenge for students and it’s one that education leaders in both camps are finally starting to address in a number of ways. Colleges are as responsible for ensuring their students persist as the high schools that send them there.

We have found that boosting alumni support networks goes a long way. For us, this translates into enhanced high school-to-college transition programming and support and mentorship pairing within the community or college campus. Even before classes begin, college counselors work with our alumni support team to conduct targeted outreach to the most at-risk students to help them make a successful transition to their freshman year.

Increasingly, secondary schools are focused on creating more formal partnerships with colleges and universities to support students through their college career. At Yes, we have more than two dozen “Impact” partnerships, which enable groups of Yes Prep students to enroll together as a cohort. These cohorts, or clusters, of students are designed to serve as mutually supportive communities within the larger college campus. Making students feel less isolated on campus by surrounding them with other students they know and understand removes a major barrier to college success. Partner institutions provide structured support programs and guaranteed financial aid to complement our own college-counseling curriculum.

We aren’t alone in this approach. Several of our charter school peers, including KIPP, provide similar supports. Nonprofit organizations like POSSE send groups of students from the same high schools or communities to colleges together as a group. And even the federal government is making strides in this area. First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative aims to build bridges between schools and universities to boost completion rates.

Since implementing a more well-rounded approach to higher ed, we’ve seen our college persistence rates begin to rise again. This spring, we graduated nearly 500 students from high school and we expect 97 percent of them to begin college in the fall, including at several of the country’s most prestigious institutions.

Getting them to their next graduation day is the challenge we face.

Jason Bernal is CEO of the Yes Prep, charter school network with 13 schools in Houston, Texas.

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