College “prep” goes beyond the classroom

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What is staggering here to me is the unemployment rate by education level. I continuously hear critics saying that students who don’t go to college or don’t graduate high school will become our “blue-collar” workers. The numbers here suggest that that is just not true. There aren’t nearly enough jobs for students in low-income communities where nearly half don’t graduate high school and even fewer go off to college.

I’ve always preached to my students the importance of going to college so that they could have choices in their lives, but as the data suggests, college isn’t about choices anymore, it’s about quality of life. College is how we can end generational poverty, and yet, we don’t support students in getting to or staying there.

I started the school year last year with an activity where students cut clippings out of magazines to represent their goals, hobbies, people they admire, and what makes them unique. The boards that students created were filled with images of expensive clothes, cars, beautiful homes, families, etc. Even in this middle school, where 85% of the students were considered low income, kid’s goals and aspirations were to have families, and support a comfortable lifestyle for them.

It’s not enough for a teacher to simply talk about college and for the school to post college banners in the hallways. When our students go to high school for four years, they may have college on the mind, but do they know how to get there?

Although I’m a first generation college student, my parents played an instrumental role in getting me to college. My suburban high school did little other than sign me up for the PSAT. My mother filled out the FAFSA, took me on college tours, and my dad prompted me to make fiscally responsible decisions; especially since paying off big loans would be difficult as a teacher. Without their guidance, I wouldn’t have known where to start.

Whether they are absent parents, do not speak English, or just don’t make time to take their children on college tours, we need to be sensitive to the fact that students in low-income households may not have parents who have made college a priority for their children as my parents had.

This is an issue of equity. If we are truly going to close the achievement gap, we need to think beyond the 12 years that we have students. In high schools with hundreds of kids there isn’t nearly enough funding to allow for guidance counselors to do all the work. In my middle school of over 500 students, we only had two counselors and the case loads are not much smaller at the high school level. Furthermore, we need services in place to support students while they’re in college so that they can make it through. This is how we can close the gap and address the cycle of poverty.

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