How a big city school district will help students stay in college

DCPS Persists will provide 750 graduates each year with support throughout college

Educators in District of Columbia Public Schools have decided their role supporting college-bound students no longer ends at high school graduation.

In the midst of a pandemic and nationwide racial unrest, the district has launched the first-of-its-kind DCPS Persists program to pair 750 of its graduates each year with coaches who will counsel the students throughout college.

“We know that many of our students are taking the post-secondary journey alone,” Chancellor Lewis Ferebee tells District Administration. “As a student, especially if you’re a first-generation college student, there’s oftentimes so much you don’t anticipate, and we want to remove all the barriers.”

The coaches will begin work before high school graduation to help students through the key steps of choosing a college, finding scholarships and applying for financial aid and campus housing, says Erin Bibo, DCPS’ deputy chief of college & career programs.

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The coaches will also leverage the district’s Smart Collge Choice initiative, which uses data—such as college graduation rates among Pell Grant recipients—to forecast the colleges where individual students are most likely to complete a degree. Once students begin college, coaches will remain in regular contact with the students and even visit them on campus whenever possible, Bibo says.

The coaches also will connect students with campus support systems. “There will be a pretty high dosage of support, and it will be differentiated,” Bibo says.

Identifying persistence potential

Teams at each high school will consult with central office staff to choose the students that will benefit most from DCPS Persists.

Since the program opened, about 200 students have applied, including Eric-Kevin Atanga, a senior at Cardozo Education Campus who plans to study architecture at the University of the District of Columbia in the fall.

District of Columbia Public Schools officials plan to leverage the DCPS Persists program to create an alumni network to support college-bound students in the future.
District of Columbia Public Schools officials plan to leverage the DCPS Persists program to create an alumni network to support college-bound students in the future.

“Nobody in my family has been to college, and having someone to help me means everything,” says Atanga, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cameroon as a teen. “The program is helping me to understand what college is and what I’m supposed to do.”

DCPS Persists staff also will use data to identify the academic subjects that students are struggling with in college to determine where the district may need to bolster its own curriculum.

“I think this is revolutionary,” says Art Mola, principal of Cardozo Education Center. “When we looked at the data that showed our students were not completing college, I asked myself ‘Am I contributing to them leading robust lives as adult or am I prolonging the failure a couple more years and it becomes somebody else’s problem.”

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DCPS Persists has been funded for the next five years by the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation and to sustain it, the district officials want to leverage the program to create an alumni network. The idea is that these graduates—after they complete college and enter the workforce—will return to the district to support future high school students.

“The research is pretty clear that having a significant relationship with a caring adult outside of the home can be a major resiliency factor,” Ferebee says. “We’re looking to become an alumni network and cultivate this talent-sharing with DCPS graduates students coming back and providing support.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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