John Thompson: Toward Better College Prep
John Thompson takes a look at two programs that show paths toward better college preparation.
Two excellent college prep programs in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area are in the news; both illustrate what it takes to increase college readiness. As Nondoc’s Joe Tomlinson reports, the Edmond Public Schools “will be introducing a free, dual-enrollment program that will allow students to graduate from high school with an associate degree from the University of Central Oklahoma.” And as Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer reports, Crooked Oak High School’s outstanding concurrent enrollment outstanding program is still on track. I will focus on Crooked Oak’s program because it serves high-poverty students, such as those I came to know when assisting in their holistic and comprehensive efforts.
As Jennifer Palmer explains, the University of Oklahoma’s Paul Ketchum “started working with Crooked Oak High School in 2013 to increase the number of students attending college.” “Three years later,” 80 of Ketchum’s 140 students enrolled at O.U. This and the school’s “concurrent enrolment, where students take courses that count for both high school and college credit,” and tutoring by O.U. students addressed their academic challenges. Along with state funding for tuition, those were the first steps towards college graduation. But, “‘the more difficult part,’” Ketchum said, “‘was convincing the students they belonged at a university.’” In order to help persuade students, they offered more than “a tour around the campus, the students were invited to sit in on classes and encouraged to participate.”
Unfortunately, funding was cut in 2021, but Ketchum developed new partnerships to keep up the progress. In 2022, “36% of Crooked Oak graduates went directly to college,” which matches the state’s average rate, and was 50% higher than the nearby Oklahoma City Public School System.
Today, the value of college is being questioned, but as Palmer reports, researchers find that “a four-year degree is still the most reliable route to the middle class.” Especially with universities’ high costs, we need to learn the lessons why college readiness efforts of the past produced disappointing results, as they increased student debt. Yes, the focus on and funding for college readiness for all made sense, but it was a terrible mistake for some schools to cut back on MetroTech and community college programs that many families sought. Yes, my experience with field trips (that also have been severely cut back) is that when poor children of color visit a diverse range of educational venues outside of their classroom, they rise to the occasion and embrace challenging learning opportunities. But it is not that simple.
I vividly recall a poor, young woman of color who had endured extreme trauma who was reluctant to interview for a scholarship at an exceptional university. Finally, I got her into the car and when driving to the college, she said she missed her interview because they wouldn’t want “someone like me.” But, she won them over and earned the scholarship. Even so, my student still required numerous supports to excel. After teaching at some of the toughest schools in Oklahoma City and the highest-challenge middle school serving students from the projects of Bedford Stuyvesant, she became the best teacher I’ve ever seen. (She said that the poverty in Bed Stuy was comparable to that in Oklahoma City schools, but its violence and racial conflict was not as bad as in OKC.) One of her tools for preparing students for higher education was field trips (that I was honored to join as a mentor).
When visiting Crooked Oak, I’d listen to the students’ insights, including those who had attended my old school of Centennial, the lowest performing mid-high in Oklahoma. They’d do both – recall the extreme trauma that students at both schools survived, and explain the variety of ways that Crooked Oak helped them to build on the resilience they had brought as immigrants to America. While honoring their tenacity, I couldn’t take my mind off the failure of my school to provide the team effort they required to prepare for and to stick it out in college.
My experience at Crooked Oak was at a time when one corporate reform after another was undermining the progress that I’d seen in Oklahoma City Public Schools. I was first attracted to Crooked Oak by how Dr. Ketchum did the opposite of treating students like numbers. Today, schools often face even worse threats. So its inspiring to see the revival of holistic, humane research-based programs like those in Edmond and Crooked Oak. But to scale up these opportunities, we must learn from the lessons of recent history and listen to, and mentor our students.
Reading the story about Crooked Oak, I was reminded of the time a decade ago when we were hopeful that the OKCPS would adopt researched-based “Multiple Pathways,” such as those described by a 2011 NEPC policy brief for preparing “All Students for College, Career, and Civic Participation.” It “built on the fundamental insight that career and technical education can be academically rigorous. Linked Learning policies also allow students to gravitate to schooling themes that are personally relevant.” Today, it is particularly important that policy makers avoid a repeat of “discredited practices of ability tracking rather than transforming” schooling. It’s essential that Oklahomans learn from our (few) local successes, as well as the NEPC’s:
- Learning both academic and technical knowledge is enhanced when the two are combined and contextualized in real-world situations;
- Connecting academics to such real-world contexts promotes student interest and engagement; and
- Students provided with both academic and career education are more likely to be able to later choose from the full range of postsecondary options.