I have to take a moment to give a “shout out” to Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland. The school was cited by the U.S. Department of Education today in its latest release on progress under the School Improvement Grant initiative.
In 2008 HBO produced a documentary, “Hard Times at Douglass High,” detailing in stark relief the difficult and dangerous day-to-day life in Frederick Douglass – a school that was on the verge of closure. The HBO documentary identified Frederick Douglass among the nation’s worst high schools. In 2010-11, under the SIG proposal, Frederick Douglass and the Baltimore City Schools launched an aggressive effort to re-imagine teaching, learning and academic life for its students. (Full disclosure, EDWorks has been privileged to work hand-in-hand with the Frederick Douglass team to design and implement that plan).
The U.S. Department of Education release provided a window into the school’s rapid improvement: “At Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School, the second oldest historically integrated public high school in the United States, the dropout rate was cut in half and proficiency in English language arts jumped from 41 percent to 53 percent in the first year of the grant. Scores have continued to improve at the school with nearly 90 percent Free and Reduced Lunch enrollment. The school opened a night school where students can get tutoring or take credit recovery classes and added a recording and media production studio where career and technical students can train. The school also began offering students the chance to take dual enrollment classes at nearby Baltimore City Community College.”
School leadership and staff will be the first to tell you they don’t have time to bask in the accolades. They know they have a long way to go to help their students realize their full potential. They continue to push as hard today as they did in 2010 when they started this effort.
The secret to Frederick Douglass’ success is both wildly simple and immensely difficult. It’s courage. The leadership team and staff at Douglass display the courage to do the right thing for their students at the right time. Period. No excuses.
It is their unwavering courage and their absolute belief in their students that bode well for Frederick Douglass’ continued success.
News that First Lady Michelle Obama is planning to focus on increasing college degree attainment (“Michelle Obama Edges Into a Policy Role on Higher Education,” New York Times, November 11, 2013) for lower-income students is a welcome development for a number of reasons.
Students from underserved communities – including low-income and minority students – consistently perform less well than their peers when it comes to academic achievement, college attainment, and persistence. Mrs. Obama, who grew up in a blue-collar family on Chicago’s South Side and graduated from two Ivy League schools, is a perfect person to carry this torch. We should not look to her as the exception, but as the example.
“I’m here today because I want you to know that my story can be your story,” Mrs. Obama told students at a Washington D.C. school Tuesday.
I agree. As president of EDWorks, a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks, which focuses on helping first-generation college-goers from underserved communities obtain college credits while in high school, I share a similar story. As the first person in my working-class family to attend college, I attribute my success to the high expectations and support from a key group of teachers, principals and community stalwarts who believed that I could attend and graduate from Harvard University (1987).
Attending college is little more than a pipe dream for far too many underserved students, but it does not have to be that way.
Our organization, EDWorks, has supported more than 30 early college high schools, including Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn, at which President Obama spoke last month. In our schools with multiple graduating classes, 79 percent of students earn at least 30 hours of college credit, 33 percent earn 60 hours of college credit, and 40 percent earn 30 to 55 hours of college credit while still in high school. What’s more, 95 percent of students continue in higher education, with an 87.3 percent persistence rate at four-year institutions.
Not only are there social implications to having fewer students going to college, but there are long-term negative economic consequences. A 2013 report by the Lumina Foundation notes that by 2025 the United States workforce needs about 23 million more people with college degrees than the nation’s colleges and universities will have produced by then. Currently, only about 39 percent of adults across the nation have college degrees; worse yet, only about 13-15 percent of low income and minority adults have college degrees.
This means that we’ll need about 300,000 more people to graduate college every year if we want to reach those goals.
In 1962, President Kennedy declared that the United States would place a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The stakes were high and global technological superiority hung in the balance. As we now know, that goal was accomplished – and more.
Ensuring more students – especially the historically underserved – should be no less important to our country’s future than Kennedy’s moonshot. And that’s why we applaud the First Lady and stand with her as she seeks to bring more light and heat on a problem that can’t be ignored another moment.