Higher ed leaders across the country are realizing the need to see education as more of a continuum, rather than focusing exclusively on the students on their campuses, and many are reaching out to provide additional supports to students as young as elementary school to make sure they — and their families — are prepared for life after high school.
Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has committed to utilizing its human and financial resources to support local elementary schools. The region on the outskirts of New Jersey has a median household income of $57,510, but officials of the private nonprofit university realized they had an opportunity to bridge "the divide between privilege and poverty," and build a stronger relationship between the institution and the community, according to presenters at the recent Community Schools National Forum held in Baltimore.
The university sends 76 tutors to three neighboring schools to provide daily support to teachers and students. Additionally, 94 Lehigh tutors work with 63 elementary and middle school students four days a week after school for 26 weeks per year. Besides in-school tutoring, there are university-sponsored field trips and parents' nights out, after school homework clubs and other programs and events to help bridge academic gaps in the surrounding community.
And the university's tutors use the same methods and following the same priorities the schools' leadership want for the building as a whole. "We're also educators, so we want to make sure the students we're educating" leave with context and a strong community connection, said Alicia Creazzo, Lehigh-employed community school coordinator for Broughal Middle School.
In addition to student support, Lehigh college of education faculty members provide professional development opportunities to local school teachers. Creazzo said "it is imperative for us to invest in our staff to have ... not just a bag of resources, but to grow and re-frame everything" to support the schools.
Layers of collaboration
Other places have implemented similar models of engagement that reflect more community-wide coordination efforts. In Maryland, the Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) program serves as a pathway between 13 high schools in Montgomery County, Montgomery (community) College and the Universities at Shady Grove, which brings satellite locations of nine of the state's public universities together on one campus to increase access for local students.
Montgomery College serves as the program's anchor, staffing coaches who work in the high schools to help ensure students are not just college-ready but know how to access college. Meanwhile, additional coaches at the two-year institution as well as on the Universities of Shady Grove's campus help boost student success all the way through to the baccalaureate degrees.
The coaches provide in-school tutoring, test preparation, assistance with college applications and other support services as needed for the high school students, and later provide college transfer workshops and other services to ensure smooth transitions at every level.
"Some of those students didn't even think they'd ever go to college," said Stewart Edelstein, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University System of Maryland and executive director of the Universities at Shady Grove, as he expressed excitement over the graduation of the first cohort of students before the ceremony May 10.
The program, which is primarily supported by private donations, is "very collaborative," Edelstein said, adding that all of the colleges and universities involved form a network and vow to support the students, regardless of which institution they matriculate through. "Because we're committed to them, they're committed to being successful," he added.
Since its founding in 2013, the program has attracted $5 million in private dollars. Donors are matched with a set group of students they're sponsoring, allowing them to build personal relationships and mentorship beyond just writing a check. This arrangement, officials say, increases the value to the donors, but also magnifies the value for the students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college.
Strengthening community ties
Officials of Rasmussen College, which has several campuses in the Chicago suburbs, said they opened Centro de Aprendizaje downtown in April of 2017 so students could make a human connection to what are mostly online classes for high school students who take dual-enrollment courses or for adult learners enrolled at Rasmussen at night. Realizing that only 53% of families in the Chicago area have regular internet access, the college saw a need to better support not just the students who were involved in dual-enrollment or college programs, but the community as a whole.
Though the aim of Centro de Aprendizaje is different than the arrangement Lehigh has for local K-12 students — the Chicago center advisers provide some academic guidance, but they don't offer programming for dually enrolled high school students, for example — the models are similar in their aim to fill a need for the local community.
"My staff is first-generation, so we’re able to identify with the students, so there’s that level of comfort, so they can relate to us to some extent," said Claudia Lule, the center's campus director.
Since opening one year ago, the three surrounding Rasmussen campuses have seen a 250% increase in enrollment from Chicago's Southwest communities — more than half of the students enrolled for the fall from Southwest Chicago live within walking distance to the center, and officials believe its presence in the region contributed to the hike in enrollments.
The nearest university 26 miles outside of Chicago, which can seem like several states away for students who have transportation limitations, given that the public transportation infrastructure is only really strong inside the city limits. Having a place nearby where students can meet with an adviser or have a dean's list celebration is critical in helping them to build connections to the campus, Lule said, adding although the celebrations are much small, students "appreciate that we're able to do something for them."