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Creating Paths to College and the Urgency of Now

October 29, 2013

(Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant is the interim director of the Youth Policy team at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy organization that works to improve the lives of low-income people. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)

Headshot_RhondaTI was a STEM whiz as a child — a seemingly unlikely thing for a girl, and an African-American girl at that, to be. In middle school, I attended a magnet program and learned computer programming while taking advanced math and science classes. In high school, I took calculus and physics and learned a computer programming language. My primary interest was engineering, so my school district helped me attend summer programs at area universities. That experience landed me a job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the age of 17.

Although I chose public policy instead of engineering as my life's work, those were the opportunities that put me on a path to college. My middle school and high school offered classes that nurtured my interests in mathematics and science. I had great teachers who used hands-on learning to take basic lessons to the next level. I remember our physics teacher explaining the science behind breaking boards martial arts-style and wading in the Chesapeake River in hip-high boots to learn about plant life. I also had guidance counselors who knew me personally, connected me to summer opportunities that allowed me to cultivate my academic interests, and walked me through the college application process. My family couldn't afford to pay for college. Without these opportunities, it would have been far more difficult to continue my education.

Unfortunately, most low-income African American and Hispanic children cannot access the kinds of transformative educational opportunities necessary to put them on a path to college and, eventually, out of poverty and into the middle class. Nationally, only 65 percent of high schools with the highest enrollments of African-American and Hispanic students offer algebra II, compared to 82 percent of low-minority high schools. An analysis of the nation's fifty largest school districts reveals that while African-American boys comprise 16 percent of the high school population, they account for only 12 percent of the enrollment in physics courses and 7 percent of the enrollment in calculus courses. Youth of color also have fewer experienced teachers in their classrooms. In the fifty largest school districts in the U.S., 15 percent of the teacher workforce in high schools with large minority populations is either a first- or second-year teacher, compared to 11 percent in high schools with low minority populations. While new teachers often bring innovative methods and ideas into the classroom, more experienced teachers generally are better classroom managers and are able to more effectively facilitate higher-order thinking skills and their meaningful application, leading to better outcomes for students. In these same districts, there are fewer high school counselors to help students navigate school successfully and prepare for postsecondary opportunities. Without sufficient school counselors to guide students on a path to college readiness, young people may flounder in lower-level courses that lead nowhere. This is particularly true for students of color and low-income students, who historically have not matriculated as frequently as their white and more affluent peers.

In 2009, President Obama set a goal for the nation that, by 2020, we would once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. To achieve that goal, we will need to address the disparities in the education system that leave students of color in low-income communities unprepared for the demands of college. Too many of these young people graduate from high school without having taken courses that make them eligible for college enrollment. Many do not understand and receive no support navigating the enrollment and financial aid processes. As a result, many do not attend college at all. While it's true that college enrollment has increased for students of color, many of them spend a significant amount of time and money on remedial courses that do not count toward their degree. And many never make it across the finish line to attain a degree. In 2010, the six-year-graduation rate for a bachelor's degree was only 46 percent for African Americans, 52 percent for Native Americans, and 61 percent for Hispanics, as compared to 69 percent for whites.

As the community of policy makers, advocates, foundation staff, and other experts tackle the college readiness issue and begin to propose policies and programs, we need to be intentional about ensuring that the needs of students of color in low-income communities are central to these efforts. There are high schools doing this well, and we need to examine what makes them successful. It is also critical that school district leaders are able to discuss the challenges they face in equipping high-minority schools to support college readiness, and that we develop policies and funding to address those issues. With those resources in place, school districts and states need to be held accountable for producing high school students who are prepared for the rigors of college. Institutions within communities need to rally around these students, providing professional mentors and caring adults to support their persistence in school.

We cannot achieve the president's goal of being number one in college completion by 2020 without ensuring that students of color are equipped to enroll in and complete college. It is essential to strengthening our global competitiveness and our national economy. It is also central to alleviating poverty and strengthening individuals and their families for the future.

-- Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant

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