College Readiness

College Prep for First-Generation Students

Two high schools with different strategies to support students who will be the first in their families to go to college.

March 4, 2019

When this year’s Rhodes Scholars were announced, the diversity of these 32 outstanding young Americans was hard to miss. Nearly half are immigrants or first-generation Americans. Harvard grad Jin Park is the first DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient to earn this prestigious honor.

Like First Lady Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, many of these accomplished young people also belong to a growing demographic known as first-gen—first in their families to attend college.

Higher education and nonprofit partners are focusing increased attention on how to serve the needs of these students. First-gen undergraduates account for a third of current U.S. college students, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, but complete bachelor’s degrees at less than half the rate (23 percent versus 55 percent) of students who had at least one parent graduate from college.

Some high school educators aren’t waiting for colleges to figure out how to smooth the way forward for first-gen students. With specific teaching strategies and assessment methods, family support, and culture-building activities, they’re taking deliberate steps to help students thrive academically after high school.

Here are two schools on the frontlines of college prep, first-gen style, and the strategies each school uses to support its students.

Early College High School: Dream Big Dreams

English teacher Dara Laws Savage holds high expectations for her ninth graders. By the end of their freshman year, she wants students to be skilled researchers who can cite sources, engage in peer critique and revision, and make and defend compelling arguments. She knows they’ll need that strong foundation for college classes, which start as soon as tenth grade for many students.

At Early College High School (ECHS) at Delaware State University, a public charter school on a university campus, “our job is to turn 14-year-olds into college students—in a year,” explains Savage.

The early college model “is about the power of place,” adds Evelyn Edney, ECHS director. First-gen students have no family stories of college life to learn from, but they gain their own insights from “sitting in a college class, on a college campus, learning college curriculum from a college professor.”

Key strategies that prepare students for the college experience are:

Projects that engage. Savage designs projects that make academically rigorous learning engaging for teenagers. In a recent project called the Carter Awards, students crafted Academy Awards–style nominations to honor distinguished African Americans during Black History Month. In the process, they had to conduct original research, develop their own criteria for excellence, cite sources, and persuade audiences to vote for their nominees.

“They may not realize how much they’re learning until it’s happening,” says Savage, who wraps up the Carter Awards with a red-carpet gala open to the larger community.

Assessments that inform. Students at ECHS receive regular assessments of their college readiness. Eight times a year, they’re scored on factors such as work ethic, behavior, and attendance, along with academics. Scores are serious business, determining which students are ready to enroll in college classes for at least part of their high school experience.

Personalized support. For students who aren’t yet college ready, Edney says, “We help them develop an action plan that says, ‘Here’s my goal. Where do I need to work to meet it?’” Regularly scheduled advisories allow time for personalized follow-up. And when students are ready to tackle their first college classes, Edney adds, “We celebrate them.”

Impact Academy: Closing the Opportunity Gap

At Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, California, students are constantly learning about life after high school. They take field trips to visit different types of colleges, including community colleges and four-year institutions (both state and private). Family nights help to demystify the process of applying for financial aid. As students get closer to graduation, they talk about everything from how to access academic help to how to resolve conflicts with roommates.

Impact Academy is designed to meet the unique needs of first-gen students. Preparation for college and careers “factors into everything we do,” says humanities teacher Erin Brandvold.

Among the strategies at work here:

Plenty of practice. When Brandvold plans assessments for humanities projects, she frequently assigns timed writings. That’s no accident. She reminds students that they will encounter similar assessments on the SAT. In their junior year, students take as many as six practice SATs. By the time they sit for college entrance exams, there’s no mystery about what’s involved.

Project-based learning, a common instructional practice at Impact Academy, gives students opportunities to build specific skills such as collaboration and peer critique, while building deep content knowledge. “PBL helps students learn how to work with others, how to apply what they know to new contexts,” says Brandvold.

Modeling how college works. Impact Academy teachers hold regular office hours, just like college professors. “We want students to get used to asking for the help they need,” says Brandvold. That’s a survival skill in college. “We want students to access their agency.”

Celebrating effort. Taking on the challenges of a college-prep experience isn’t easy, and Brandvold takes time to recognize students’ efforts. She closes every class period with a compliment. “I tell them something I appreciated about them that day. That makes them more comfortable taking risks or investing that extra effort.”

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