Think Your School’s Preparing Your Child for College? Probably Not Like This

What’s your elementary or middle school doing to get your kid ready for college?

If you said something like, “teaching them stuff,” or “I don’t know,” don’t feel bad, you’re in good company. If you said AP classes, IB programs, or dual enrollment, I’d just remind you I said, elementary and middle school, not high school.

The truth is, most elementary and middle schools I know aren’t all that focused on college. Sure they may be teaching kids what they need to know to advance from grade to grade, which should eventually get them to college, but meaningful college prep in grades K-8? Nah.

So let me contrast what you know with KIPP’s approach.

Last week, KIPP Jacksonville’s chief of staff invited me to their college-signing day. KIPP was celebrating a new partnership with Florida A&M University (FAMU). Here’s why that matters  and why you might be a little jealous.

For KIPP, college prep starts early

Starting in kindergarten, KIPP plants the seed of college into the mind of each child. The teachers and staff know when each class is expected to start college, for example, 2031 for my oldest child who’s entering kindergarten this fall (and will probably never get to go to a KIPP school). Then they teach those kids a cheer about it.

For this year’s group of kindergarteners it probably goes something like this:

“When. Are. You going to college?” a teacher yells enthusiastically.

And the students respond. “20-30!” clap-clap-clap!

“[If you’re one of our students,] you are going to college… If you decide.” KIPP’s Executive Director Dr. Jennifer Brown told me last fall. “We are actually going to be pressuring you to go to college because we know it’s a game changer. But if you decide you want to do something different, it won’t be because you couldn’t get into college.”

Last Friday, 280 KIPP Jacksonville students piled into a large auditorium and caught a glimpse of what Dr. Brown was talking about.

Perscilla Roberts

Perscilla, for example

After the welcome message, and remarks from KIPP and FAMU officials about the partnership, Perscilla Roberts, dressed in an ocean-blue dress, took the stage with a pillar of orange and green balloons behind her—FAMU colors, of course. Perscilla is a senior at Robert E. Lee high school in Jacksonville, but she was among the first group of about 90 fifth graders to walk through the doors when KIPP Impact Middle opened about 7 years ago.

From the podium, she told the students and staff sitting in the audience how she wasn’t sure about KIPP at first.

“There was lots of trial and error,” she said. “And it was hard because the school I came from didn’t push me. The teachers at KIPP helped me to reach my potential and pushed me to excel.”

I spoke with her mother after the event and she confirmed everything her daughter said.

“They didn’t push her there at the neighborhood school,” said Tonia Renee Walthour. “I wanted her to be more successful.”

Perscilla Roberts speaks at KIPP college-signing event

Walthour continued, “Sometimes the kids want to give up, but you gotta say no. And I’m a single parent, so it’s been hard. I had a lot of ups and downs. We both had a lot of ups and downs. But do it together? Look how successful she is!”

Perscilla is on track to graduate high school and get her Associate’s degree from Florida State College at Jacksonville this spring. She’s also a member of the National Honor Society.

From the stage, she passionately told everybody how excited she was about her future as a sexual assault nurse. And that while she’s not sure which college she’ll choose yet, she’s not worried.

“I’m confident I have what it takes to not only get to college, but to get through college!” she said as she finished her remarks.

To and Through College

For most K-12 schools, seeing a confident student like Perscilla ready to graduate high school with plans for college would be enough. Not for KIPP.

Erin Almond, KIPP Jacksonville’s senior manager of KIPP through College, says the partnership with FAMU is one of three KIPP Jacksonville has with colleges around Florida, and they’ve got their sights set more.

“We’re not just asking them to admit [KIPP alumni], but to work with us to support those students,” she said.

By support, she means the partner-college agrees to designate someone who can be an ally for any KIPP student who attends—someone who can help them clear up confusion or challenges that could needlessly hinder their academic performance. That person also agrees to report back to KIPP on anything the elementary and middle schools can do to strengthen weak academic areas for future students.

If it’s not already clear, KIPP Jacksonville is playing the long game. It started more than 7 years ago when its founders decided to open a school in an economically depressed area northwest of downtown Jacksonville. They wanted to be closer to kids who might have the fewest options and the greatest needs when it came to quality schools.

Their goal isn’t just to get students to college—which is ambitious enough for an elementary and middle school—it’s to get them to college graduation. To do that they start college cheers in kindergarten and post college and university pennants all over the walls. They take kids on college campus tours starting in sixth grade and help them start thinking about the questions they’ll need to consider when choosing a college. They require each student to play a band instrument to learn discipline and the importance of doing your part on a team. They also work hard to make sure kids are meeting grade-level standards. Once they leave the KIPP schools and move on to high school, they follow up with the students there, and then, after all that, they make partnerships with colleges, like they did with FAMU on Friday.

So I’ll ask you again, in all seriousness: What is your elementary or middle school doing to help your child succeed in college? If it’s anything like KIPP, count yourself lucky.

What do you think?


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