Make It Yours: Graduates Speak on the Value of Early College at the 2016 KnowledgeWorks Experience Conference

Topics: Early College High School, Education Policy, ESSA

The theme of KnowledgeWorks Experience Conference this year is Education is a Civil Right: Early College Delivering on the Promise. Is education a civil right? Every time I have had the opportunity to hear early college students and graduates discuss their education and their aspirations, I am floored by their eloquence, their ambition, and their genuine zeal for learning and for life. The student panel at the KnowledgeWorks Experience Conference earlier this month was no exception. The conference aimed to explore how early college delivers on the promise of education as a civil right, as a path to an equitable and prosperous future. And these students are living proof.

According to Jason Gilmore, a 2012 graduate of Youngstown Early College in Youngstown, Ohio, “early college was the start of my future.” He’s now in his final year at Youngstown State University, and plans to attend medical school in order to become a pediatrician. Gilmore speaks of his experiences at early college with candor, even his initial reluctance to attend – it was his mother’s idea, and though he attempted to be less than charming during the application process and in his interview with Youngstown Early College, he was accepted. Though he was initially “on fire” about his acceptance, he came in time to realize what an incredible opportunity the early college was. He cites the rigorous curriculum and the sense of community that thrives among early college students as having “built” his character, and in addition to his continued schooling, serves as a mentor for young men and women at the YMCA where he works.

Gilmore was joined on the stage by Jordan S.R. Brown, a 2010 graduate of Lorain County Early College High School, and Amira Daugherty, a 2016 graduate of DeKalb Early College Academy. Brown is studying to be an anesthesiologist at Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, while Daugherty is weighing her options for fall, with hopes of majoring in criminal justice. When asked what the title of chapter eight of her life’s biography might be, Daugherty was quick to respond: Banging the Gavel on the Supreme Court.

“In early college, immediately, you have to change the way you think, the way you write, the way you work with other people,” says Daugherty, whose love of learning found a perfect outlet at DeKalb Early College Academy. “In middle school, I was ostracized because I loved school. But when I got to DeKalb where people appreciated academics, appreciated different ideas and global perspectives without judgment – and I could learn to listen without judging them – that’s something that’s really unique about early college.”

For Brown, early college has to be about the students and getting them what they need, and he stressed to teachers, administrators, and education professionals within the audience to really bring that message home for their students.

“Meet me halfway,” Brown said, speaking from the student perspective after a question was asked about how to manage expectations and the challenges of a rigorous early college curriculum that many students will never have experienced before. Brown stressed that leaders must tell their students that “this program doesn’t exist without you. You need to make it work for you. If it doesn’t, you have the resources, the faculty, your friends. Make it yours.”

As for Gilmore, the sense of community and the knowledge that his teachers truly cared about him, and not just his academic performance, has made a lasting impact. He encouraged conference attendees to show the students in their schools as much compassion, kindness, and guidance as he was shown.

“When early college staff showed me that they cared, I knew it was for me,” Gilmore said. And after such a presentation two full days of seeing how early college transforms lives, it’s my hope that in the future, it’s for everyone.