Preparing Baltimore students for college

A Baltimore group talked with 225 people to figure out how to make city kids college ready.

Over the past few weeks, we've learned a lot about how prepared city school students are for their post-secondary lives.

On the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, just 9 percent of Baltimore high school students scored at the proficient level for Algebra I, 5.7 percent for Algebra II, and 28 percent for Grade 10 Literacy.

Research from the Baltimore Education Research Consortium adds to this picture. Seventy-two percent of city schools' 2011 graduates who enrolled in college required remedial math classes upon arrival; 38 percent needed remedial writing, and a third needed remedial reading

These disheartening results were likely not a surprise to many in Baltimore. Last year, 859 participants in our City Speaks study expressed concern that schools' standards and expectations are too low. In 2015, when a college education is increasingly a must-have to earn a living wage, we took a closer look at college readiness in Baltimore City.

The results are compiled in our latest study, Building a Bright Future: Understanding College Readiness in Baltimore City Public Schools.

We came to this project with two objectives: to reach out to those most heavily invested in college preparation (parents, recent graduates and current city schools students) to better understand the obstacles facing our students, and to build a map of college readiness indicators from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade that educators, students and parents could use to keep students on track. The full report, released today, and the college readiness map are available online at www.ffee.org.

Conversations with 225 individuals made clear that to be college-ready, students need strong academic preparation as well as focused support, including help with social and emotional development, college guidance and financial literacy.

On academics, we heard a call for more rigorous preparation, particularly in math in middle and high school. As an example, many schools do not offer Algebra I in the 8th grade even though research shows that taking algebra then puts students on a path to advanced high school math, culminating in calculus. When it comes to access to challenging coursework — like Advanced Placement courses — and other college preparation resources, students were keenly aware of inequities both within and between schools.

Participants also spoke passionately about the impact qualities like maturity, responsibility and self-sufficiency have on college and job readiness. There was a clear sense that these are skills that can be learned and are essential for our young people to be able to successfully meet expectations around time management and independence when they arrive at college or a first job.

Students asked for stronger college counseling, often feeling that their school counselors had low expectations of what they could achieve. They told us that many schools have only one college adviser, and whatever limited time was available was generally reserved for those few students at the top of the class.

We heard about the need to better understand applying for financial aid and the long-term impact of taking out loans.

Finally, current students and recent graduates said they wanted to get a better sense of what college would be like before they get there. They suggested shadowing on campus, sitting in on classes and having access to current or recent college students from similar backgrounds to get advice and learn from their experiences.

Our study shows that college readiness is a multi-faceted issue that will require a comprehensive, community-wide solution.

If we are serious about helping our students succeed, we must offer more rigorous classes, expand and improve college counseling and do a better job of communicating with students and parents about how they are progressing — from early years through high school — toward college readiness.

We must also cultivate community support to help students and families overcome the social, emotional and financial literacy hurdles to college readiness.

Our hope is that the messages we heard from the parents, students and recent graduates will offer additional insights and inspire new thinking as our city takes on this challenge of addressing our students' college-readiness needs.

Roger Schulman is president and CEO of the Fund for Educational Excellence. His email is rogers@ffee.org

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