DCPS Seeks To Remove Barriers To College For Low-Income Students | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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DCPS Seeks To Remove Barriers To College For Low-Income Students

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The District has made strides at improving access to the Advance Placement exams.
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The District has made strides at improving access to the Advance Placement exams.

The D.C. public schools are making a big push to get low-income kids ready for college after high school graduation, and Kavitha Cardoza talks with Metro Connection host Rebecca Sheir to talk about those efforts.

Hi Kavitha.

Hi Rebecca. So, it kind of goes without saying that applying to college can be very intimidating. All that paperwork, so many colleges, so confusing! And students from higher income backgrounds are prepared for college a lot earlier. Here's President Barack Obama talking about his daughters' experiences.

"Malia and Sasha, by the time they're in seventh grade at Sidwell School here, are already getting all kinds of advice on preparing for college," the President said.

By contrast, the President says only 30 percent of low-income students enroll in college right after high school, and by their mid-twenties only 9 percent earn a bachelor's degree. There are a lot more barriers for students who are low income.  I spoke about this with Kevin Hudson in the DCPS Office of College and Career Readiness. He says sometimes students haven't even heard of certain universities.

"What may be seen as a world famous university may not be known by students," Hudson said. "If you haven't had a college going experience it's hard to grasp what they have to offer. It's an acquired language."

So what are D.C. public schools doing to better prepare these students?

They're getting started a lot earlier. They encourage teachers to talk to students early on about college and it's not uncommon to see college pennants in the walls in 3rd grade classrooms.

They're also training guidance counselors. Cornell University recently conducted a workshop here to explain what admissions officers are looking for. DCPS is also inviting universities, including Princeton, MIT and Brown, to host receptions in city high schools. And school officials are encouraging high school students and their parents to attend workshops to learn about the admissions process.

"It's a scary, scary process and the more we can make sure in all our schools from kindergarten to 12th grade and demystify the process, we make it attainable for students," Hudson said. "Our students say they want to go to college, but it the HOW that trips them up."

Another way D.C. is trying to prepare more students for college is by trying to get more of them to take AP exams. All traditional public schools in D.C. now offer at least four AP courses, and the District pays students' exam fees. A recent report from the College Board shows some of those efforts are paying off. For the first time, the District is ranked number one in the country for access to AP courses and of the students taking those courses, a third are African-American.

Wow. That sounds like a real success story.

Well, it's not all positive news, though, because just 14 percent of graduating seniors in 2013 passed an AP exam during their high school years.

But when so many students fail the exam does that just feed into their own fears that maybe college is not for them, that they aren't good enough?

That's exactly what I asked Kaya Henderson, the chancellor of DC Public Schools. She says it does not.

"Prior to our push to get more students in AP, children — especially low income and children of color — weren't even getting a chance to try," Henderson said. "And for a lot of young people, just having a teacher believing enough to say 'you can do this' is enough to have a transformative effective. And we have to teach our young people even if they can't conquer an obstacle the first time they have to keep trying."

Trevor Packer with the College Board says across the country 300,000 students could take AP courses but aren't. These students are ready for them academically but they feel they're not good enough for the courses, or are discouraged from taking them. But he says this is a big mistake.

"Students who do get a 3 or higher on a AP exam do have significantly higher college completion rates than their matched peers which makes sense, they've been given college on training wheels to get them ready for what they're going to face in college when there are so many other distractions," Packer said. "Scholarship decisions, 33 percent of colleges base scholarship decisions on AP."

And of course, if you are academically prepared for college, chances are you can graduate in four years.

Which is not the case for more than half of students who are entering college.

Exactly.

Well, thanks, Kavitha, for this update on what's happening in DCPS.

Thanks for having me.

This report is part of American Graduate — Let's Make It Happen! — a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

[Music: "Money Jungle" by Duke Ellington from Money Jungle]

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