"Our goal is to work with students and families to prepare academically and socially for success in college and beyond," says Kimmel.
To achieve this, the school aims to create a college-going culture starting in middle school. It promotes academic rigor, gets families involved, provides college-preparation workshops, and arranges bus trips to colleges to give students an exposure to the postsecondary world that they might not get otherwise.
"To connect them to kids at those campuses who look like them--it's so much more of a powerful experience than sitting with a laptop and looking at college websites," says Kimmel.
Washington Heights students are facing difficult odds. Many arrive at the school two or three years below grade level academically, but by the end of 8th grade, the goal is for students to be up to speed and into rigorous high school courses. About 90 percent of the students will be first-generation college students.
This year, 100 percent of the school's 76 seniors applied to college, and most have hopes of attending, according to Kimmel.
Across the country, in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District along the Mexican border in Texas, Superintendent Daniel King believes the early-college high school model is the best hope for helping his students, 99 percent of whom are Hispanic and 41 percent English-learners. The program is designed so all students graduate with at least 12 college credits and the skills to complete a full degree or credential. To overcome the language barrier, limited-English-proficient students entering the district--as well as English-speakers--can participate in a dual-language enrichment program and graduate bilingual and biliterate.
"We can't do what we were doing yesterday," King says. "We need college and high school to be seamlessly connected."
As it's being expanded--2,000 of the district's 8,000 high school students are enrolled in a college course each semester--progress is being made. The district has raised its four-year graduation rate from 62 percent to 87 percent in the past three years, and the number of students enrolling in college after graduation doubled between 2007 and 2010, which administrators attribute to several initiatives, including the early-college high school.
To whittle away at the dropout problem in the school, King joined his staff members in making home visits to get students back--not talking about high school, where they had already failed and quit, but interesting them instead in a college track, talking about careers. "When they see we won't give up on them, that's when we see that spark," says King. "It's about relevance, expectations, and knowing somebody cares."
Nonprofits Fill Gaps
Beyond schools, nonprofits are stepping in to help at-risk students such as Jackie Ruiz-Velasco, 18, of Milwaukee, make the transition to college. Since she was a little girl, Ruiz-Velasco's parents encouraged her to go to college. But as immigrants from Mexico, they didn't have the experience or the language skills to guide her in the college-application process. So she turned to College Possible, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul, Minn., that provides free support to low-income students, many of whom are from diverse backgrounds. For two years, Ruiz-Velasco spent two days a week after school studying for the ACT, filling out college applications, applying for financial aid, and working with a mentor.
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