The room where it happens: Changing students’ college outcomes by changing their self-perception

Kevin Teasley

Over the past thirty years, I’ve witnessed one education reform effort after another. We’ve had standards-testing-accountability, school choice in innumerable forms, curriculum reform, teacher reform, and much more. All have been worthwhile and should continue. However, while we persist on these paths, I suggest we also look at reforming where our students are educated in the first place. To take a lyric from the hit show “Hamilton”: Are our kids “in the room where it happens”? They should be.

In Gary, Indiana, we started a school in 2005. We started with the same methods as other college-prep schools—counsel kids about the importance of college, show them the varying incomes of those who attain different levels of degrees (high school, associate, bachelor’s, master’s, etc.), take them on college tours, help them with FAFSA and scholarship applications, provide support on ACT and SAT, and more. In the end, however, our efforts fell short of our goal. Many students were still not going to college or succeeding there.

So I started researching the issue. Many of our students told me they didn’t believe they were college material and that they were in high school for the social scene or athletics. Few told me about their college and career aspirations. And if you look deeper, you can see why. Most of the students we serve come from homes devoid of any college degrees, often lacking any college experience of any sort. But don’t stop there with your analysis. Go deeper. If students don’t see themselves as going to the next level—college—they don’t really have a reason to take high school studies and tests too seriously, do they?

We took this challenge head on and changed what we do from top to bottom. We adopted an aggressive “early college” model and told students that we believe they are college material and that they can do college work—and to prove it, we took them to the local college campus, Ivy Tech Community College, and administered the Accuplacer test to them, a College Board admissions test most community colleges across the country use. Many of our students proved they were worthy and passed the test (to their surprise, not ours). We then enrolled them in college classes, paid the tuition, bought the textbooks, and provided the transportation to the college campus.

Our plan believes in the power of the “room where it happens.” Students need to experience real college classes on a real college campus with a real college professor teaching the course. They need to sit next to people who don’t look like them and are not the same age; learn to manage their time, to work with others, and to work at a more rigorous level of study; and demonstrate to themselves that they can pull it off. And they do!

When we started this effort, many thought it was just fancy talk. Today, 21st Century Charter School is the talk of Gary. More than one third of our high school students are taking college-level classes on real college campuses including Ivy Tech, Indiana University NW, Purdue University Northwest, and Vincennes University. We started with Ivy Tech but now have several college partners. Our 2019 senior class of sixty-three students will earn more than 1,000 college credits this year alone. They are taking more than forty different college level classes. In May, nine of our students will graduate from our high school having earned full associate degrees. We actually have five students working to earn their bachelor’s degrees while in our high school. Fancy talk? Not at all. One of our students already did that in 2017 with a bachelor’s from Purdue. She earned her associate degree from Ivy Tech before becoming a junior in high school and asked if she could continue taking college classes while in our high school. After researching this request, we approved it and she enrolled at Purdue as a college transfer student; Purdue didn’t ask for her high school transcript. Yes, we paid the full cost of her college career. She graduated at age eighteen from our high school with her associate and bachelor’s degrees. She is now in her second year as a reading interventionist in our school making a full-time salary with full health and retirement benefits. She’s twenty and debt free.

Indiana rates schools on their college and career readiness efforts and reports that 21st Century Charter School has the highest such rating in the state’s northwest region: 80.5 percent, surpassing elite private schools in the area and beating the state average of 67 percent. We even compete with one of Indiana’s wealthiest communities, Carmel, whose rate is 83.6 percent.

We also continue to improve our program. We now schedule our school year around college schedules, both daily and annual. This helps students not miss any college or high school classes. We provide a summer college prep course to help our incoming ninth graders understand the rigors of college. We start students in college courses as early as ninth grade (no, they’re not too young). And our board passed a resolution requiring our students to earn at least twenty-four college credits (six per year) while in our high school to earn a high school diploma. That’s a big hairy audacious goal, isn’t it? But we can do this because we do everything possible, starting in kindergarten, to make it happen—schedule it, plan it, support it, pay for it. We receive many students who are way below grade level when they enroll, but over time, our accelerated model (which includes summer school) helps students catch up and indeed exceed the accomplishments of their peers (Close the achievement gap? You bet!) and graduate on time. Our audited graduation rate for 2018 was just released by Indiana and our 93.9 percent graduation rate beat the state’s 88 percent graduation rate. And now families are flocking to us. Though we don’t advertise, we have more than 500 students on our wait list. They want to be in the room where it happens.

There are national implications here. We’ve been accomplishing this with general per-pupil K–12 dollars. No additional philanthropy (other than startup). Though the state and federal governments do offer scholarships to students who graduate high school and go on to college, none of these funds are available to our students because our students are still in high school and are considered high school students. We receive no additional state or federal dollars. No college student aid. We pay our college partners full-freight tuition. We don’t negotiate any discounts. It requires a great deal of discipline on our part—staffing, budgeting, facility management—but the perpetual annual return on investment is evident: We are achieving K–14, and in one case K–16, results with K–12 dollars. Imagine that on a national basis.

Our school can be viewed as a petri dish. Our experiment is showing promise in one of the nation's most challenged cities. The promise of our school attracted leaders in the Louisiana Department of Education to invite us to launch our model in Baton Rouge in 2019. With start-up support from New Schools Baton Rouge, our new school will benefit from all the lessons we've learned in Gary. Our intent is to perfect our model and go national. The initial results are promising, the need is great, and there are lots of rooms where it happens every day on college campuses that could be providing more benefit to the public than they are currently.

I started writing this piece with a laundry list of reform efforts. Our effort is often lumped in with the “early college” reforms across the nation. And yes, there may be more than a million high school kids nationwide doing at least some form of “dual credit” according to OCR, and there are hundreds of “early college high schools.” However, I’ve yet to read or hear about an open-enrollment school accomplishing similar results on similar dollars with a similar demographic. We are not perfect, and we still have much to learn and to improve. We are constantly seeking high quality college-level courses taught by high quality professors (these issues don’t go away simply because you are on a college campus and not a high school campus).

So while other worthy reform efforts continue, let’s recognize that we have students who need assistance today. Let’s make sure they are in the room where it happens today. We will be glad we did.

Kevin Teasley is president and founder of the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, a non-profit educational organization headquartered in Indianapolis.