Pursuing “College for Certain”

Today, we continue a series of guest posts by Betsy Doyle (Partner) and Nithin Iyengar (Consultant) in The Bridgespan Group’s Education Practice. Each Wednesday during the month of October, Betsy and Nithin plan to explore key priorities and promising practices from the field.  Many of the themes they find in their own conversations coincide with Mass Insight Education’s 3 Cs of turnaround: conditions, capacity, and clusters.  We invite – and encourage – you to join the conversation. This is the second in the series of blog posts on “Rethinking High School Turnaround.”  ____________________________________________________________________________________________

Last June, Green Dot Public Schools and Bridgespan convened a small group of education leaders focused on high school turnaround and transformation to share problems of practice and work together on solutions – all toward the ultimate goal of college- and career-readiness for every student.  But what does the pursuit of this common goal really look like in action?

Aspire Public Schools’ model of “College for Certain” provides a compelling example.  Historically, Aspire has not pursued school turnarounds. It has instead developed, from the ground up, a network of 34 high performing public charter schools  serving 12,000 K-12 students throughout California; its students are 85% Black and Latino, 80% low-income, and most will be the first in their family to attend college.

However, beginning in fall 2013, Aspire will be bringing its model to the Achievement School District (ASD) of Tennessee. ASD has invited Aspire to transform 10 existing schools whose poor academic achievement scores place them in the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee.

What has Aspire learned in its work to date about what lies ahead?

Aspire’s expectation of “College for Certain,” which it intends to bring to its work in Tennessee, means providing every student with the academic knowledge and skills to ultimately be successful and graduate from college. This includes mastery of a rigorous college-prep curriculum with an emphasis on college-level writing, project-based assessments to demonstrate college-ready mastery beyond tests, and passing at least 3-5 college courses in order to graduate from high school.

Aspire also understands that academic readiness is only one part of the college-ready equation. “Our students have few examples of anyone who’s gone to college.  But now you’ve passed a college class – you now know you can do college,” explained Amy Fowler, Senior Director of Secondary and Student Programs. Aspire further prepares its students by creating an on-campus support network for nurturing college-ready skills such as perseverance and tenacity, finding a college that is a good fit, and overcoming hurdles such as the PSAT/SAT, AP, scholarships, and FAFSA.

Aspire has much to be proud of. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, 100% of its graduating seniors were accepted into a four-year college or university. Based on data from the class of 2008, Aspire is moving toward the nationwide average (for all income levels) of a 31% college completion rate.

Yet, delivering these college-ready results for all students remains a real challenge. “We continue to struggle when students are far below grade-level entering high school,” said Fowler. “Our rigorous course of study leaves little room for remediation and we risk watering-down standards if we don’t provide additional supports.”

Fowler has put her finger squarely on a dilemma shared by the group of educators that met last summer to discuss high school turnaround and transformation.  Unwavering in its commitment to college- and career-readiness for all, the group raised real questions about what is possible given the significant challenges of high school transformation – particularly when tackled at stand-alone high schools.

Let us know what you think:  Does Aspire’s approach to college- and career- readiness resonate?  What will it take to achieve this standard in the context of chronically low-performing high schools?

-Betsy Haley Doyle & Nithin Iyengar