K12 to college: All hands on deck

Higher ed deepens ties with K12 to keep students on track—from preschool to college completion

Colleges blame high schools. High schools blame middle schools. Middle schools blame elementaries—and everyone tends to blame funding, poverty, bad parenting and other factors for low student achievement. A new movement that promises closer cooperation between higher ed and K12 aims to end this legacy of passing the buck.

Educators from New York City to El Paso to Orlando have embarked on a range of initiatives—from coordinated curricular programs to professional development to expansion of early college high schools. The hope: Create a more cohesive learning system that produces students who are more prepared for the rigors of college and careers.

“It’s a recognition that the problems K12 and colleges are trying to solve are problems that span the continuum,” says Rudy Crew, president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and former schools chief in New York City, Miami-Dade County and Oregon.

In 2013, Medgar Evers launched the Pipeline Project to focus on student success with dozens of neighboring K12 schools.

“We all need to be better observers of what’s happening to young people as they go through the system,” Crew says. “Some of the problems we see in college, we saw someplace down in the third grade and they were never dealt with effectively.”

Common cause: K16 Partners

Higher ed leaders are teaming with their K12 counterparts on a wide range of student success initiatives, including:

  • Curriculum coordination: Faculty from Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, lead workshops that provide area K12 teachers with a deeper understanding of the skills students need to avoid remediation.
  • Mini-enrichment: Medgar Evers operates branch sites at K12 schools where college faculty teach writing, computer science and other topics, and also offer after-school activities.


Culture of high expectations

Medgar Evers College—part of the City University of New York system—has embarked on this work with about 90 high schools, middle schools and elementaries in central Brooklyn. The Pipeline has sparked close collaboration between college faculty and K12 teachers, including faculty-led workshops on Medgar Evers’ curriculum.

K12 teachers now have a deeper understanding of the skills they need to keep students out of remedial courses, says Augustine Okereke, Medgar Evers’ provost. The work extends down to third-grade “mini-enrichment” classes taught by college faculty in writing, computer science and other areas.

These activities have also benefited the faculty, by helping them adjust to a more hands-on instructional style that engages younger students, says Doris McEwen, the dean of college readiness.

The college operates branch sites at schools throughout Brooklyn that, among other services, offer after-school activities such as sports, homework help and reading support.

Dual-credit fuels the high school component of the pipeline. Medgar Evers faculty trained high school teachers to deliver the courses, and in 2016-17 the college awarded more than 5,000 college credits to high school students. The waived tuition saved families $1.6 million.

Even when students don’t earn the credit, the exposure to more rigorous college work is beneficial and has driven more students to take and pass the state’s Regents Exam.

“The pipeline is a way of changing the expectations within the system,” Crew says. “A culture of college-going students requires a culture of high expectations.”

The Pipeline also offers a parents’ academy, which is particularly beneficial for families of first-generation students who have little experience navigating aspects of higher ed, such as financial aid or encouraging their children to take honors courses. Some of these parents have even enrolled in the college themselves.

As the program has gained momentum, it has attracted the attention of local political leaders, whose support has been critical, Crew adds. For instance, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has helped steer millions of dollars to some of the most underserved public schools to expand Wi-Fi and other computer infrastructure.

Common cause: K16 Partners (cont.)

Higher ed leaders are teaming with their K12 counterparts on a wide range of student success initiatives, including:

  • Parents’ academies: Also at Medgar Evers, meetings for families help with navigating financial aid and other aspects of higher ed.
  • Analytics and data-sharing: Valencia College in Orlando helps the nearby School District of Osceola County forecast student performance based on factors such as 3rd grade attendance and algebra assessments. The University of Texas at El Paso and area school districts track how high school graduates perform in higher ed to guide improvements in K12.


A single system for K16

Predictive analytics and data sharing guide a coalition of higher education and K12 leaders in Central Florida who are developing pathways to close achievement gaps and ensure students stay on course for high school completion and college success.

Valencia College in Orlando has helped the nearby School District of Osceola County forecast how the youngest students will perform before they encounter problems that can derail their education.

“Prior to having students be unsuccessful, we’re putting stimuli in the classroom environment to make sure they are successful,” says Scott Fritz, Osceola’s chief of staff.

One metric is third-grade attendance. Students who miss the first day of school and who are absent several times during the first month of the year are at greater risk for being held back a grade, Fritz explains. This has helped the coalition zero in on the quality of the region’s early-learning and after-school programs, among other factors.

Another benchmark is algebra. After years of students arriving at Valencia not prepared for college math, Osceola is working with Valencia faculty to upgrade math instruction as far back as middle and elementary school.

“We’re hoping this project will expose other areas we have not thought about,” Fritz says.

Grants have allowed faculty and K12 educators to have regular discussions about how to best align curriculum through the lens of college readiness, says Joyce C. Romano, Valencia’s vice president for educational partnerships.

This has led to the creation of career-oriented dual enrollment programs that ninth-graders can embark on in several subjects—including some as highly specialized as “laser photonics”—to earn associate degrees at the same time they graduate high school.

“Faculty and teachers have to talk to one another about the learning outcomes and the specifics of what they’re focusing on in high school chemistry, for example, because it may or may not marry up with what’s being emphasized at the college level,” Romano says.

The college has also spearheaded professional development for high school guidance counselors and helped school districts hire college transition coaches. “It’s all about thinking of it as one system that students are progressing along,” Romano says, “and not having such an abrupt disruption as they move from 12th grade to college.”

Common cause: K16 Partners (cont.)

Higher ed leaders are teaming with their K12 counterparts on a wide range of student success initiatives, including:

  • Career pathways: Valencia and Osceola have developed career-oriented dual-enrollment programs that allow high school students to graduate with professional certifications.
  • K12 on campus: Second graders visit UTEP’s campus several times per year to participate in hands-on problem-solving, engineering, robotics and other STEM activities. In Massachusetts, teachers bring middle school classes to Worcester Polytechnic Institute for STEAM Programs.

Seamless transitions

Leaders from The University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso Community College and the city’s nine school districts meet regularly to coordinate curricular initiatives with the goal of developing academic pathways that stretch from elementary school to college.

Part of this work involves tracking how students from specific high schools perform in higher ed and making needed adjustments to K12 instruction to fit what will be taught in college.

This has reduced the need for remedial education as high schools now more aggressively assess students to determine where they need academic support, says Ivette Savina, UTEP’s assistant vice president for student success.

But it’s not just El Paso’s high schools that have reshaped instruction. About 700 second-graders and their teachers from Socorro ISD visit the UTEP campus over four days each year to participate in hands-on problem-solving, engineering, robotics and other STEM activities.

It’s an outgrowth of the Tech-E summer camp the university operates for city students in third grade and up.

Before the students arrive, their teachers visit the university to receive PD in the same topics, Savina says. “STEM is such an important field,” she says. “We want to get more students of color interested.”

In Massachusetts, Worcester Polytechnic Institute also extends STEM instruction to younger and underserved public school students.

The programs—in which middle school teachers bring students to participate in hands-on projects and experience life on campus—are building a pool of students eager to pursue STEM in higher ed, says Sue Sontgerath, WPI’s director of pre-collegiate outreach.

Middle schoolers have designed guitars, and headphones which they can use to listen to their instruments. They have also built circuits that power wearable technology. These activities are often run by university undergraduates who earn a small stipend and have access to internships with the program’s corporate sponsors.

Undergraduates also talk to the middle schoolers—many of whom would be the first in their families to attend college—about preparing for higher education.

“Middle school is the time in a student’s life when, if they’re going to lose interest in STEM, that’s when it’s going to happen,” Sontgerath says. “It’s our responsibility as a STEM institution to create scientists and engineers—we want to increase the pipeline.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB. 

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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