Case Study: Your Background Doesn’t Determine Your Future Schenectady Smart Scholars Early College High School

Creating opportunities and breaking down barriers

Published:
Topics: Early College High School, Higher Education, Overcoming Challenges, Systems Change

For many of the students in the Schenectady Smart Scholars Early College High School, nothing is easy. Every student in the Schenectady City School District receives free and reduced lunch. Some students come from homes “without a stitch of furniture,” where they are the primary caregivers for younger siblings while their parents work, where the daily struggle with extreme poverty manifests as trauma that can be as crippling as a broken bone.

This is a population of students who stand to benefit tremendously from the early introduction to college aspirations and the wraparound supports available to all early college students. And they’re rising to the challenge, even in the face of overwhelming adversity.

“Our early college students are leading by example,” says Diane Wilkinson, who has served as the principal of Schenectady High School for four years, and is in her 27th year with the district. Wilkinson talks of the conversations she overhears in the lunchroom, in the classroom, in the hallways, the exchanges she observes on social media, all about college, and all between students. According to Wilkinson, it means more to have conversations around college originating from students, rather than just coming from teachers or parents. “By giving students exposure to college courses while they’re still in high school, starting in ninth grade, we can shift their mindset. The entire school community changes; the focus really becomes college and career readiness for every learner.”

“Our early college students are leading by example,” says Diane Wilkinson, who has served as the principal of Schenectady High School for four years, and is in her 27th year with the district.

This culture shift is a direct result of the early college model, whose unique supports empower students to succeed. Unlike dual enrollment programs where there’s no guarantee of rigor and limited academic advising to ensure that the college courses students are enrolling in will benefit them after they graduate from high school, early college offers clear pathways for students to earn their Associate Degree or up to 60 hours of transferable credit. These programs also risk precluding first-generation college-goers and students from lower-income households, requiring that students have a certain GPA or pass an entrance test before they can enroll in college classes.

“Unlike dual enrollment programs, which are likely to attract students who would attend and complete college anyway, early college expands the base of college-going students and college completion,” says Andrea Mulkey, National Director of Early College for KnowledgeWorks “Early college is designed to support all students, especially those who need it the most.”

Students like Jordan Graham, who is in his second year at the early college. “I have a group of teachers who’ve set me up for the long run,” says Jordan. When he couldn’t take his college classes last summer due to personal challenges, Jordan’s teachers and his mother came together to keep him in the program. He’s currently earning B’s in all of his classes, and hopes to pursue a career in law enforcement. “They want me to pass. They’re not going to let me fail.”

Because overcoming obstacles is part of the process. Because learning that you can is perhaps the most important part. Because, according to Julianna Vrooman, the program’s ninth grade global history teacher who has been with the early college since its first year, “Every single day is a new opportunity.”

Our background doesn’t determine our future

The Schenectady Smart Scholars Early College High School accepted its first cohort of 100 ninth- grade students in 2010, and currently serves more than 500 ninth- through twelfth-grade students.
92% of Schenectady Smart Scholars Early College High School students graduated in 2014 and 2015, compared to a 65 percent graduation rate for Schenectady High School and a 74 percent graduation rate for the state of New York.

84% of 2014 graduates went on to enroll in some sort of post-secondary program, as did 90 percent of 2015 graduates.

The Schenectady Smart Scholars Early College High School accepted its first cohort of 100 ninthgrade students in 2010, and currently serves more than 500 ninth- through twelfth-grade students. The early college operates as a school within a school, and according to Mulkey, Schenectady demonstrates that the school-within-a-school early college model can truly work. In ninth and tenth grade, students take summer bridge classes at Schenectady County Community College (SCCC), and earn an average of 10 college credit hours per school year in tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades, up to a maximum of 24 hours per the Smart Scholars program. More than half of early college students apply and commit to attending SCCC upon graduation.

“The commitment and energy we brought to the early college when we first entered this partnership, it’s still here,” says Martha Asselin, Vice President of Student Affairs at SCCC. She cites the devotion of the teachers and administrators of the early college to students as limitless. “They are pouring their hearts and souls into the job.”

Teachers in the early college model the collaboration, respect, and care that every good team needs – which serves not only to make students feel comfortable and supported, but also provides students a vision of what awaits them in the professional world after graduation. Their approach to teaching is also very interdisciplinary, allowing students to see how honing their writing skills in an English class may better prepare them to research and report in Science, for example. By utilizing as a team the tools and approaches favored by colleges, including foregoing textbooks in favor of providing materials, grading papers on their phones and using Google classroom to provide quicker feedback to students, students begin to demonstrate the independence and initiative of their college-level peers.

“For many of our students, their world is fairly small. We can make it bigger.”

But not Feguer, and not her colleagues. “We hone in on critical thinking skills early. We set high expectations early. We don’t get the push back during the middle of the year or the end of the school year about hard work – it’s become normal for them.”

Their unique approach serves everyone, student and teacher alike.

“We don’t know who the next doctors are, who the next lawyers are. Our interactions with students can determine that path,” says Leigh Feguer, who is in her fifteenth year teaching and describes her experience before the early college as “teaching kids who were expected to go to college,” rather than the students at Schenectady, who though more than capable, have unique challenges that lead some to dismiss their potential.

But not Feguer, and not her colleagues. “We hone in on critical thinking skills early. We set high expectations early. We don’t get the push back during the middle of the year or the end of the school year about hard work – it’s become normal for them.”

Introducing a new normal is critical to ensuring the success of all students in Schenectady, and it’s work that the staff take to readily, making themselves available before and after school, and entering into “contracts” with their students around expected classroom behaviors. Regular attendance and turning in work might result in being treated to an iced coffee, and a guaranteed encouraging smile. This early relationship building, and unflinchingly high standards, are critical not only for more rigorous classes in later high school years, but also after graduation, when more than half of the early college students commit to attending SCCC.

“Our background doesn’t determine our future,” says Vrooman. “For many of our students, their world is fairly small. We can make it bigger.”

My future is a priority

Partnered with Schenectady County Community College, the Schenectady Smart Scholars Early College High School opened in 2010.

The Schenectady Smart Scholars Early College High School Mission Statement All partners are committed to facilitating positive, transformational changes which provide for a more successful and wide reaching program for a targeted student population which is traditionally underrepresented in college.

For Keylynn Belrose Westfall, a 10th grader who is well on her way to graduating early next year and hopes to pursue Biomolecular Science at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY, being accepted into the early college was a “responsibility” that she took on.

“My future is a priority,” says Keylynn, who struggled last summer working a part-time job 25 hours a week on top of her college classes at SCCC. “I would come in really tired, but my teachers would sit me down and tell me, ‘You’ve got this. You’ve made it through so much.’ And they were right. I can do it.” Keylynn continues to find the mentorship of the early college staff invaluable.

“They’ve kept me going. If I’m walking by and having a bad day or feeling down, I can always stop in and talk to them,” says Keylynn. “They’re so present.”

But the social and emotional support and modeling provided by early college instructors and administrators doesn’t extend to cutting their students a break academically – their standards are high, their expectations higher. Vrooman remembers one of her former students writing to her to thank her for how much the program had done to prepare her for college, saying that she wasn’t experiencing any of the stress of her first year college classmates from traditional high school settings.

And many current students want the same opportunities for their siblings, including Jovaun Taylor, a senior who hopes to pursue digital modeling and game development at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY and who is already at work convincing his 14-year-old brother to apply to the early college. Jovaun’s been challenged by the program, specifically a public speaking class he almost dropped because of the requirement to give speeches in front of his classmates.

But now? He cites public speaking as one of the top skills he’s taking away from the early college. “That college class helped me get up in front of a ton of people and present on a project I’d created,” says Jovaun. “Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Schenectady has graduated two cohorts of students, with a 92 percent graduation rate for the first class in 2014 and a 97 percent graduation rate the following year, compared to a 65 percent graduation rate for Schenectady High School and a 74 percent graduation rate for the state of New York. 84 percent of 2014 graduates went on to enroll in some sort of post-secondary program, and 90 percent of 2015 graduates. That’s the work of the partnership between SCCC and the early college – and the work of students like Blessin Green, a ninth grader who wishes that all students could experience early college.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Blessin, “but as you become more involved it doesn’t feel like a program that you have to do, but something that you are excited about. Something that you want to do.”

A soft place to land

“We acknowledge every day that our students struggle, and the way out of that struggle is education.”

“Oftentimes, the road for our students isn’t straight,” says Wilkinson, citing the lack of financial stability in the district, long-term poverty, trauma, and students with working or absent parents as significant “bumps” in the road for Schenectady students.

But for all she knows there are things her students do not have, there is one thing she is sure every early college student does have: someone in the program who cares, whether that’s a teacher, a fellow student, or an administrator.

“What our students have at each turn is a familiar, supportive face saying, ‘You can do it. Don’t give up,’” says Wilkinson. “Early college is an on ramp towards graduation. When they fall off – because they do – we find a way to get them back on and moving in the right direction.”

Valerie Smith, Program Coordinator for the Schenectady Smart Scholars program, knows all too well the reality of working with students who can’t always arrive at school well-rested and ready to work. Smith is as quick as Wilkinson to insist that every student in the early college has a “soft place to land,” that there’s a personal investment for every student from someone on the early college team.

“We acknowledge every day that our students struggle, and the way out of that struggle is education,” says Smith. And when more than 85 percent of early college students are the first in their families to attend college, when there are students navigating the extreme challenges and aspiring not only to graduate but to attend college, she has every reason for absolute faith in every student.

“We have so many kids who say they can’t do this, but they absolutely can.”

Students like Jordan Graham are ready to deliver Smith’s faith, on the school’s mission of college and career readiness, and on the promise of his own future.

“My mom told me, never lose hope,” says Graham, who claims he might not have turned things around for himself if it weren’t for the early college. “Things are set up to bring you down, but you have to stay with your hope, with your education. Don’t give up. Don’t doubt yourself.”

More about Smart Scholars

In 2009, the State University of New York (SUNY) partnered with KnowledgeWorks to implement early college across the state through the Smart Scholars Early College High School program. Funded initially by a $6M grant in 2010 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and expanded with matching state funding in 2011, there are now 20 Smart Scholars early colleges in New York State, 12 of which are partnered with SUNY schools. Smart Scholars graduate high school with an average of 20 but can earn up to 60 transferable college credits. The program is targeted to students who are traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education, providing them with the academic supports they need to ensure they are at grade level and ready to participate in rigorous high school and college courses.

“Students are the number one beneficiaries of early college but they aren’t the only ones,” says Johanna Duncan-Poitier, Senior Vice Chancellor for Community Colleges and the Education Pipeline at SUNY. The “education pipeline” wasn’t even a topic of conversation before this program, insists Duncan-Poitier, citing the great strides Smart Scholars Early Colleges have made in ensuring more students graduate from high school and college prepared for the work force. 87 percent of 2014 Smart Scholars graduates did so on time, compared to 76 percent graduation rates in traditional high schools. And 87 percent of Smart Scholars enrolled in a post-secondary degree program.

“We don’t have to spend any more time exploring what works with high schools,” says Duncan-Poitier. “This works.”

Spotlight on Coaching

KnowledgeWorks coaching focuses on providing the supports needed to instructors to facilitate an early college culture within a comprehensive high school. For teachers, KnowledgeWorks provides instructional coaching on classroom management, expanding and deepening teaching strategies—especially in regards to literacy and numeracy. They also provide coaching around college collaboration, student assessment, and how to provide academic and effective support for students.