College Readiness Program Helps Transform Struggling School
Good ideas come at any time. Playing with your children. Cooking. During the commute. Albert Einstein once asked, “Why is it I always get my best ideas while shaving?”
Ed Small, principal of Academy Park High School in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, got inspiration knocking pins during a bowling game.
Before moving to The Park (as it is affectionately known), Small had significant success at raising student achievement through collaborative efforts among educators and administrators at Delcroft School. So when the opportunity came in August 2010 to manage the only high school in the Southeast Delco School District, he gladly accepted.
Small became principal of Park in large part because of the School Improvement Grant (SIG). The federal grant provided $2.6 million because it had struggled academically for the past ten years. As part of SIG, the school leadership adopted a transformational model to help raise student achievement, which required the school to get a new principal.
“Leadership counts when it comes to transforming a school that needs extra attention and resources,” said Carolyn Karcher, president of the Southeast Delco Education Association. “We were excited to know Small came to us with a strong background in school reform.”
One night, Small went out with an old college friend. What started out as a back-and forth buddy conversation about his new career turned in to a brainstorming session on how to prepare and move his students toward college readiness.
The newly arrived principal noticed some of his top students were not challenging themselves academically while other students were seeing a detachment between doing well in high school and getting in to a good college.
“Some of my high-performing students attempted to take the least rigorous courses. Although they’re good classes, it’s not what a college looks for,” said Small. “Other students were saying, ‘I’m going to study tonight so I can pass my test,’ rather than ‘I’m going to study tonight to become a doctor.’”
After multiple brainstorming bowling games, Small came back to work with the idea of Rising Scholars, a program designed to prepare students for college by helping to change their mindset and create motivation to do well in school because of an end goal—college, career, and quality of life.
Based on the framework of the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO programs, which helps individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds through the academic pipeline, Rising Scholars is intended for students from each grade level, various academic standings, and socio-economic backgrounds.
Rising Scholars serves 130 students, who meet after school and every other Saturday to discuss various aspects of college: from the college application process, career exploration, and financial literacy to service learning, mastering college life, and leadership and mentoring programs. Students also go on college campus tours.
“The idea was to bridge the gap between high school and college with things students encounter when they [first] walk on to a college campus,” said Small. “You walk on campus and you realize you need to go to the book store to get books, but you don’t know where the book store is, and you probably don’t know who to ask to get that information. The idea was to expose students to this information before they [arrive on campus].”
Since the program started, Rising Scholars has formed partnerships with various higher education institutions, including the University of Delaware, Delaware County Community College, and Cheyney University.
Members of Rising Scholars have gone on four college campus tours. In one tour—to the University of Delaware—students stayed on campus for three nights, slept in dorm rooms, ate at the dining hall, and sat in on classes.
“We build a much stronger relationship when we’re able to wake up and go to the dining hall together,” said Small. “It’s here where we re-emphasize that this is college life—no one is waiting for you to go to class; you will get left behind,” adding that Rising Scholars also helps build the self-discipline needed to be successful in college.
An added benefit to Rising Scholars is the peer-to-peer component. Students range from high-academic performers and star athletic players to students who are on the verge of dropping out or who struggle academically. The composition of the group allows for students who do well in school to serve as role models for students who need extra help.
Asiha Braxton, a senior and Rising Scholars member, is taking three AP classes, Spanish and physics, and still finds time to promote Rising Scholars.
“I’ve recruited at least five people,” said Braxton. “I tell them this is a good opportunity to get the help you need to go to college.”
Braxton is currently waiting to hear back from Penn State, Hampton University, and York College of Pennsylvania.
The year Rising Scholars started, every senior who participated in the program applied and was accepted to a college or university. This year, Small hopes to increase that number, as well as track his students to ensure they finish with a four-year degree.
Small runs the program through the help of several educators, including Southeast Delco Education Association member Erika Llewellyn. Llewellyn teaches a reading class and is also charged with collecting data from standardized tests.
When Llewellyn is not assisting her students or reviewing data, she helps with logistics for the college tours.
“This program helps strengthen relationships between students and teachers,” said Llewellyn. “The main idea for a school that struggles is to get students engaged. Through these out-of-the-classroom bonds, we’re able to create interest in the program. And, we’re seeing students show up on Saturdays or snowy days—we’re seeing a strong motivation from them.”
Coming from a grades 1-8 school building to transform a struggling high school is no easy feat. Small was immediately tasked with implementing a rigorous evaluation and development system, instituting a comprehensive curriculum, increasing learning time and applying community-focused school strategies, and providing greater operational flexibility and support for the school.
According to Small, Rising Scholars, in part, helps address the student achievement piece of the federal grant. One of Small’s goals with the grant is for seven out of ten students to be proficient in state-wide tests. By using Rising Scholars to challenge his students to do well in school, Small believes he can help close the student achievement gap, as well as give them the necessary skills to do well in college and in life.
“Last year, we made AYP status for the first time since No Child Left Behind was instituted in 2001. The relationships we’ve built with students through Rising Scholars are a positive factor in student gains,” said Small.