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Working with K-12 to better prepare students for college

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​Educators meet at Spokane Community College in Washington to discuss K-12 and college partnerships.

Photo: Spokane Community College

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an article in the April/May edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.​​

Teachers dedicate their lives to working with students. But that’s not the only type of learning that goes on in the nation’s schools and colleges. Educators also learn from each other.

That’s what Andrea Reid, an English instructor at Spokane Community College (SCC) in Washington, found so valuable about her college’s participation in the Affinity Network.

Established by the College Board and intended to strengthen connections and smooth transitions between K–12 schools and institutions of higher education, the year-long project brought English and math educators in five states together to align expectations for the Common Core State Standards and to discuss the implications for remediation.

“The 12-grade teachers brought in some of their assignments, and our English 101 instructors talked about our writing prompts and the skills we expect from our students,” explains Reid. “We learned that we share the same desire — to get students to think — and that it’s all of our jobs to send our students on to the next level as stronger critical thinkers.”

Funding for the Affinity Project ran out in spring 2013, but Reid’s team still meets.

“We invited our K–12 and four-year colleagues to some of our portfolio norming sessions this quarter, and our K–12 colleagues asked us to sit in on their quarterly writing assessments for juniors and seniors. Though the project started top-down, it’s continued to grow exponentially because of our collective commitment,” she says.

In addition to reviewing curricula with colleagues, participating instructors at the K–12 and higher education levels are working to update community college placement processes.

“We are questioning the significant gap between the time a student graduates high school in June and starts college in September,” says Wendy Watson, secondary curriculum director for Spokane Public Schools. “We need to develop a summer support system so we can all do a better handoff.”

The team is currently working to reallocate funds so that community college staff can spend time at the high school each spring and build relationships with students. 

“Sometimes, all a student needs is to have a name and a face and a number to call if he or she is struggling,” Watson says.

A national movement

As SCC and other colleges in the Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS) system have discovered, working with K–12 districts is a great first step in improving completion rates and ensuring that students are better prepared for college-level work. Community colleges are partnering with local high schools to align K–12 coursework with college expectations and create additional opportunities for conversations that result in change.

“By having a broader understanding of each other’s roles, community college instructors know how to change their practice,” says CCS Chancellor Christine Johnson.

We already know the importance of community college and workforce partnerships as a way to help students complete their educations and compete for jobs, but as more educators are beginning to realize, partnerships are just as important in helping students prepare for college.

As part of its “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future” report, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) challenged the nation’s community colleges to “dramatically improve college readiness” and reduce by half the number of students who enter college unprepared for college-level work, while doubling those who complete developmental courses and go on to complete or graduate, depending on their goals. 

Here’s a look at how some community colleges are working with K–12 schools to align reforms for improved results.

Taking college courses

In Austin, Texas, educators are getting students ready for college by exposing them to college-level work as early as their freshman year in high school.

“If we wait for students to come to us, it’s too late for many, especially the underserved and first-generation college-goers,” says Richard Rhodes, president of Austin Community College (ACC) and co-chair of AACC’s Community College/K–12 Collaboration Implementation Team 3, one of nine volunteer teams of community college leaders focused on helping colleges meet the goals of AACC’s Reclaiming the American Dream report. “We have to work collaboratively on definitions so that both K–12 and postsecondary institutions know what ‘college readiness’ really means.”

Like other community colleges, ACC allows high school students to take college courses for dual credit through its early college program. More than 5,000 high school juniors and seniors in the region currently take advantage of this opportunity. 

“But what if we put dual credit on steroids and allow students who are ready to advance faster?” asks Rhodes.

ACC works with two early college high schools in the Austin Independent School District. These schools allow freshmen and sophomores to take college courses and possibly graduate from high school with an associate degree. Three other local districts recently joined the 1,000 students already in the program, and Rhodes hopes the region will soon give exiting eighth-graders the college readiness exam so they can take college courses upon entering high school. Freshmen and sophomores take courses on their high school campus; juniors and seniors are brought to ACC.

Whether a high school student takes one college-level course or graduates with a degree, ACC waives the tuition, and the district buys the books. 

“It’s a collaborative effort across the board,” says Rhodes. “Our advisers and counselors spend time with the high school advisers, and we have sessions for parents to let them know what we are doing.”

Because students don’t usually know which courses are required to graduate in their desired major or the consequences of changing majors, ACC developed an online product called Degree Map to help them remain on track. Based on the hours they’ve completed, students see a gauge with the cost and the courses they still need to take to complete.

“The majority of our students are first-time college-goers, and the early college high school we’re opening with ACC next fall will be the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Jodi Duron, superintendent of Elgin Independent School District.

“It’s about showing these students there is a way to go to college.” Duron is thrilled to offer college-level courses to all of her students and has had several meetings with current eighth-graders and their families to promote the program.

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