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Meeting the challenges of Early College

Meeting the challenges of Early College

by Eileen Wedegartner

Enhanced academic and guidance support develops self-confidence

“Miss, why do you do this?” Alyssa asked. “Why do you help? What brought you here? Like how did you decide to work with kids at all?”

I looked at her contemplatively and said, “Because I believe in this. I think working with students taking college courses in high school is one of the best ways to level the playing field and make sure they are ready for jobs when they graduate.”

I told her how when I was a young student I was involved in working with my friends to help them be successful in school. I joked, “This is just part of my DNA. I love school. I love learning. So it’s a natural fit.”

The conversation got me thinking about how essential it is to provide opportunities and pathways for students to complete college work while still in high school. These early college programs are a form of community investment. Students can succeed with a strong foundation, solid frameworks, and a companion in each class. They do even better when the adults are talking to each other too. They need highly qualified teachers, a rigorous curriculum, opportunities to explore career pathways, and invested advocates on their side. Massachusetts has been working to offer this opportunity for students since 2017.

For the high school student enrolled in an Early College or Dual Enrollment program, guidance and support above and beyond the academic work is essential. These programs take place in a new arena where they still have much of the typical high school framework as their day. Students are in school for 6.5 hours, and they may also have extracurricular activities, sports, and work. On top of that, seniors are also applying to college. It is daunting to navigate all that. Having a network of support people helps them manage it.

Support comes in the form of several discrete coaching practices. One part has to do with guiding students as they navigate the shift from being a high school student to a college student. One of the most difficult aspects of this transition is the shift in responsibility for independent learning.

High school students typically get a lot of feedback from teachers on their performance: homework checks, weekly quizzes, classroom activities, and end-of-unit tests. Those frequent assessments allow both teacher and student to consistently measure the student’s mastery of the material.

College students are expected to do their outside work, assess their understanding, and come to class with questions to guide their work on projects, papers and tests. The professor is the expert who can respond to student inquiries, but students are expected to initiate the inquiry. One critical step toward helping students succeed is articulating these changes in the learning model before they happen and helping students advocate for themselves. Self-advocacy involves asking questions and writing emails to professors; but it also includes reviewing the syllabus to understand the grading system, learning how to craft those emails, and self-monitoring to gauge understanding.

Working with students to change the learning strategies of high school is essential. Periods built into the daily schedule for study outside class provide time and space to develop independent study habits of reviewing work, asking other questions, and touching base with classmates to talk about the academics. This independent time can also include working with classmates to process the course information and check for understanding.

Beyond the shift in expectations is the rise in text complexity and independent reading. Coaching students in SQ3R* when reading a dense text, and exploring note taking methods for reading and lecture helps sharpen these necessary skills.

Beneath the issues of understanding the syllabus, self-advocacy, and enhanced note taking technique is time management. This fundamental skill also needs coaching. Students need to be reminded to do the reading or research to keep up with current work. All these adjustments require cheerleading to push students to persevere through daunting tasks.

During this school year, there have been several instances where enhanced academic and guidance support (the official term used by early college) has helped students master higher education expectations, including providing feedback on student work to ensure they are meeting expectations, checking in with students to listen to their concerns, alerting them to opportunities to revise and make up work.

One student, let’s call him Michael, had let work pile up and was feeling overwhelmed. Instead of scolding, I sat down with him and said, “Let’s choose three tasks you can do during this 50-minute period and knock them out of the park.”

Michael said, “I think I can do that.” He got to work and finished his three tasks. Then he came to me with another and said, “I did not get this one in the right format.”

I showed him how to take the material and re-format it in a Word document in the format his teacher wanted. He had a couple of questions about the process, but he got it done. By our next meeting, he had gotten all his work caught up. He came into the following class beaming and announced, “Miss, I got an ‘A’ on everything.” As a coach, I was proud of him because I knew he could do it. The point of coaching was that now he also knew he could do it.

There are times when “enhanced academic support” includes giving feedback before they turn in final essays. It is always good practice to let others critique your work, but if the paper is going to be graded, feedback from someone who is not grading it can make a crucial difference.

At other times, “enhanced support” can be helping students plan their work, outline their papers, and create a schedule to complete projects that seem overwhelming.

Recently, this meant brainstorming with a student who needed to create a new product for a marketing class. On another occasion it was serving as a subject for a student who needed someone to interview for a communications course. Having access to an adult who is not grading them, who can listen and coach them through those moments of crisis can be the thumb on the scale that gets them through to the challenges of the next phase.

Now, as spring is upon us and the seniors are sending in their deposits, there are other ways to give support. Alyssa, who inquired why I do this, expressed a worry: “I am excited about college, but I went to the campus the other day and noticed that it was so white. I am worried about fitting in.”

“You are not the first student to tell me this,” I answered. “Colleges have been majority white for a long time, but that is changing. Every year it gets a little better. And that is great news for you and for our whole country. You belong on the campus, and I know you are going to do fine. But tell me, what do you think you can do to make sure you find your place?”

She laughed and said, “I am already on it. I found two groups when I was at orientation that I can join, so I am going to do that. I am just nervous.”

I smiled back and said, “Awesome. You are finding your groups. And don’t forget, you are walking onto campus with a semester already under your belt. You are going to rock it.”

The best part of enhanced support comes at the end of the year when college acceptance letters come in and students decide where to go in the fall. There is always the nervous anticipation of starting something new. “Am I choosing the right school?” “How am I going to make friends?” “Can I handle the responsibility?”

Watching students come into their own as they wrestle with these questions is a satisfying experience, because we know they are going off to school in the fall. We know they have a plan, and we know they have already proved to themselves that they have what it takes. Enhanced support has helped them develop enhanced self-confidence. That’s the most satisfying part.

Eileen Wedegartner is a JFYNet Learning Specialist.

* SQ3R, is a reading comprehension method named for its five steps: survey, question, read, recite and review. The method was introduced by Francis P. Robinson, an American education philosopher in his 1946 book Effective Study.

Other posts authored by Eileen can be found here.

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