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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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UC Study: 5 Findings on College Success for Low-Income Youth

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

Zip codes matter.

It is an unfortunate reality that where a student lives plays a significant role in determining how well she will do in school. Education leaders are actively looking for strategies to address the particular challenges faced by students from low-income communities. Pathways to Postsecondary Success: Maximizing Opportunities for Youth in Poverty, a recently completed five-year study from UC researchers, outlines five key findings as the things "that matter most for understanding and improving low-income students' success in post-secondary education."

At Envision Education, where we have been working with low-income students for 10-plus years, we have developed our own strategies that correlate to Pathways findings and that offer schools concrete ways to help low-income students succeed.

Finding #1: Assets Matter

What schools can do: Educate students to know, do, and reflect.

Envision students are expected to master academic content (know), demonstrate their knowledge through a project or action (do), and then reflect on their learning processes. Students are invited and encouraged to bring their own life experiences and their innate abilities to school projects, and then they are invited to reflect on their learning process, what they are good at, and what challenges them. The know, do, reflect model helps students understand both what they need and what they contribute, which helps them become advocates for their own education. Schools can help students know and use their own assets by actively incorporating reflection into learning processes.

Finding #2: Student Voices Matter

What schools can do: Give students a caring environment, characterized by high-quality instruction.

Not surprisingly, the students interviewed for the UC study know that education is transformative. They know it is the key to changing everything from financial status to self-perception to community engagement. According to the findings from the report: "When low-income students experience caring educators and high quality instruction in high school, these factors make a difference to their engagement and persistence in education."

Ask an Envision ninth grader why she likes school, and you're most likely to hear that it's because her teachers truly care about her and her individual success. Ask an Envision twelfth grader the same question, and you'll hear how his teachers pushed him towards mastery of a subject, how they helped him achieve various benchmarks along the way, and how they prepared him for his Graduation Defense.

When teachers care enough to offer high quality instruction and engaging, meaningful projects, students will rise to the academic challenges before them. This is what students all over the country want and need from schools, and it's what will make deeper learning -- the process of internalizing information and being able to use it in multiple contexts -- truly happen for young people.

Finding #3: Diversity Matters

What schools can do: Design ways to engage low-income kids from traditionally underserved communities and give them every resource necessary for success.

While the report outlines several factors related to diversity, one finding stands out: if schools hope to address low-income disparities, they must help minority students achieve. While over half of California's youth between 18 and 26 enroll in some kind of post-secondary education, there are still tremendous racial disparities to overcome. Asian and European-American students are far more likely to pursue post secondary education than Latinos and African Americans.

As a public charter school, we seek to enroll students who are the first in their families to go to college; this means we work with primarily Latino and African American youth. And with the supports and opportunities our schools offer, our students are beating the odds: 91 percent of our Latino students and 87 percent of our African American students graduate and go on to college; national averages for these groups are 25 percent and 32 percent respectively.

Schools around the country can achieve similar success with minority students by providing the specific supports these students need, such as numeracy and literacy coaching, classrooms that utilize "blended learning," SAT prep, and project- and performance-based learning.

Finding #4: Connections between K-12 and Higher Ed Matter

What schools can do: Build a strong and vibrant college-going culture.

According to Pathways, more than 75 percent of the nation's low-income high school students do not complete a college preparatory curriculum. At Envision Schools, where 70 percent of our students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, virtually 100 percent complete the A-G curriculum, making them eligible to apply to California state colleges. Our curriculum keeps the doors to the future open for these students, who are often the first in their families to go to college.

Schools can do even more to create that college-going culture, such as establishing College Resource Centers and advisory groups, hosting college field trips, hanging college and university banners, and having weekly College Gear days. Surrounding low-income students with resources, information, encouragement and inspiration will help them establish college as their target.

Finding #5: Institutional Supports Matter

What schools can do: Commit to a full-time, dedicated college advisor at each school.

According to the report, "High quality advising is essential and yet, due to staffing cuts, [schools] cannot always provide students with sufficient time and attention to help them plan for their futures."

Each Envision school has a full-time, dedicated college advisor on campus; these critical positions help us ensure that our students receive the resources they need.

College advisors help schools provide the tools and information students need to understand and successfully navigate college applications, financial aid applications, and other processes necessary to support their college success; this kind of practical support is critical to low-income students' success.

So yes, zip codes matter. But so do student voices, diversity, assets, higher education connections, and institutional supports. American high schools can be places where these elements matter more than zip code, and where low-income students can get what they need to successfully pursue post-secondary education.

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