As millions of high school seniors beam with pride this graduation season, I’ve had my eye on two students who represent what’s best in our nation’s schools.
One is Jose Serrano. Jose grew up with his mom in a one bedroom apartment in a low-income Chicago neighborhood. He dreamed of becoming a scientist and discovering new planets and stars.
The other student is Carlene Ervin. Carlene has spent most of her childhood in foster care, an experience that left her feeling angry, bitter, and lonely. But thanks to her own hard work and the dedication of her teachers at Aspire California College Prep Academy in Berkeley, Carlene is graduating high school and heading to Yale in the fall.
The remarkable thing about Jose and Carlene – and tens of thousands of other charter school graduates – is that in a different school, these kids might never have made it to college.
America’s high school graduation rate is on the rise – the latest data show that 78 percent of high school freshmen graduate in four years. Unfortunately, graduating from high school doesn’t always mean students are ready for college.
The U.S. Department of Education recently found that black, Hispanic, and Native American students are disproportionately likely to attend schools that don’t offer college-prep courses, including algebra 2, chemistry, and Advanced Placement courses.
Tragically, only 12 percent of low-income high school graduates earn a four-year college degree. At a time of heightened concern about economic inequality and lack of mobility in America, these young adults are being kept off the ladder of economic success.
The good news is that some public schools – particularly public charter schools – are proving that all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, can be prepared for college. And their formula can be replicated.
It starts with an emphasis on college-readiness from day one.
At YES Prep Public Schools in Houston and Minneapolis, college visits begin in sixth grade. Why? So that students know that college is both expected and within reach.
Laying the groundwork is paying off. For the past 15 years, 100 percent of YES Prep graduates – most of whom are from low-income families – have been accepted at four-year colleges and universities.
The second step is rigorous coursework.
At Charles A. Tindley charter school in Indianapolis, every student must complete a college-readiness curriculum – including calculus and philosophy – before graduation. The result: More than 80 percent of Tindley alums have graduated college or are currently enrolled.
The third step is helping students apply to college.
LEAD Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, has a department of college counseling that, starting in freshman year, guides students and parents through the process of selecting and applying for college. Recruiters from colleges are brought to LEAD’s campus, and students get advice on practical matters like preparing resumes and writing college essays.
In May, President Bill Clinton joined LEAD’s inaugural 2014 graduating class for their Senior Signing Day, where every single student got to stand on stage and proudly raise the banner of the college they’ll attend this fall.
The fourth step is putting college within financial reach.
At Horizon Honors High School in Phoenix, the 78 graduates in the class of 2014 have secured $5.7 million in scholarship funding – an average of $73,000 per student. That’s because Horizon, like many charter schools, scours funding sources and helps students and their parents apply for every available dollar.
And the final step is helping students make the transition to college life.
Uplift Education, a charter school operator with 12 campuses in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, has a Summer Bridge program that prepares graduates for the academic and social challenges of college. Uplift connects alumni with new graduates, so experienced college students can show the newbies the ropes.
All of these tools for college success are available in our nation’s best high schools, in the best neighborhoods. What charter schools have done is bring them to students in inner cities and other areas where college is too often considered out of reach.
Remember that charter schools are public schools, not elite private academies. There’s no reason other public schools can’t adopt these same successful practices. Not every student will want to go to college, of course. But every student who wants to go to college should have a high school experience that prepares them for post-secondary success.
As we celebrate our graduates this month, let’s renew our commitment to make sure that every student who leaves 12th grade is ready – like Jose Serrano and Carlene Ervin – to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.
Rees is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.