Yes, the advice in this blog comes from gasp, a charter school. But any school interested in building a college-bound school culture can implement some of these tools and strategies. If you want your students to ask not “Will I go to college?” but rather “Where will I go to college?” then read on.
Chicago Math & Science Academy, a middle and high school located in the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. More than 90% of the Class of 2014 at CMSA went on to attend college. The 80 seniors in the Class of 2014 secured just over $8 million in merit-based scholarships.
We recently asked a college guidance counselor at CMSA, which is a college-prep, STEM-focused school that is tuition-free and that has non-selective enrollment, to describe just what “college prep” means in practice.
1. A College-Bound Culture. College-prep” is literally written all over the walls at CMSA. Our brightly colored hallways are full of signs with our school motto “CMSA: Where Excellence Thrives” and posters showing where our seniors were accepted to college and how much scholarship money they have received to help motivate younger students. Everyone at CMSA—from the principal, to the teachers, to the two dedicated college guidance counselors, to the parents—has the expectation that all CMSA students can and will thrive in their post-secondary education. Each classroom is named after a college so students are reminded of why it’s so important to try their best every day. Teachers regularly share their pride in their own alma maters. Additionally, every year CMSA organizes College Spirit Week, with such college-focused events as College Fairs, Career Fairs, College Door Decorating Contests, Personal Statement Workshops, and College Trips.
2. A College-Prep Curriculum. Our goal is 100% college acceptance and a 100% graduation rate. CMSA’s graduation requirements are based on what courses colleges expect to see on students’ transcripts. We make sure that all of our students have the opportunity to participate in a college-prep academic program. The college guidance office creates course schedules that ensure our students meet CMSA graduation requirements. All students are held to high standards, and we encourage everyone to take the most rigorous and challenging courses suitable for their individual academic levels.
3. ACT and SAT Preparation. During junior year, students at CMSA take college-readiness courses designed to help prepare them for standardized college entrance exams like the ACT and SAT. Those courses help students become familiar with the tests, what they measure, and how they are scored. They learn test-taking strategies as well as how to process information efficiently, manage time effectively, improve concentration and listening skills, and prepare for and perform well on tests with a variety of question formats. Throughout the year students take practice ACT tests at least 3 times. College counselors are there to help students register for the ACT registration on time.
4. Extensive College Counseling. In addition to all of the above-mentioned supports, CMSA offers a College and Career Composition class during students’ senior year. This course is designed to help students prepare for life after high school graduation. It provides a foundation for successful school-to-college or school-to-career transitions. We work intensively with students, providing technical support related to college applications, choosing the right college, and securing financial aid. We arrange visits to college campuses to demystify college and invite alumni to share their college experiences with current students. We invite college representatives to speak to students in this class. Every senior must apply at least eight colleges and apply for three private scholarships.
5. Parent Education. CMSA organizes Parent Nights at least three times a year. Parents, many of whom are new to the college experience, learn about the college admission process, summer enrichment programs, scholarship opportunities, and financial aid/FAFSA. We also have FAFSA completion sessions after school for parents, and during school hours we help students with filling out FAFSA.
6. College-Ready Reading and Writing Skills. The reading load in college is much greater than that in high school. That’s why in addition to our standard English courses, juniors and seniors can take a Reading and Writing Workshop that exposes them to longer and more challenging texts and writing assignments. They learn critical thinking skills and how colleges expect students to approach reading and writing.
7. Personalized Attention. Being a charter school and having a small graduating class size helps us work with students on more of a one-on-one basis. Our student-to-counselor ratio is small compared to other schools. It helps us keep track of every single student’s college and scholarship applications. Teachers and counselors have a better chance to know their students’ strengths and interests so they can help them find the best fit for college. This personal relationship with students also helps staff write more effective recommendation letters for the students when applicable.
8. Technical Support. CMSA uses a web-based resource called Naviance, a fully integrated platform designed to help raise student accountability and performance across a number of key indicators leading to increased engagement, improvements in academic performance, and overall workplace and college readiness. Naviance encourages and supports post-high school career and college planning. Because it is web-based, students and parents are able to access Naviance from home. Students are able to research colleges, scholarships, and careers while keeping track of their college applications, transcript requests, and letters of recommendation requests.
A Few Student Success Stories
University of Chicago freshman Michelle Lopez began attending CMSA in 6th grade and graduated in 2014. The University of Chicago is ranked the #4 Best National University in 2014 by U.S. News & World Report. Michelle was also accepted to 12thranked John Hopkins University and 17th ranked University of Notre Dame. She also was the recipient of a $1,000 scholarship from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools as an Outstanding Illinois Charter School Senior.
CMSA senior Sana Slote has been at CMSA since eighth grade. Out of 10,000 applicants, she was granted the 2014 Nordstrom’s TEN4U scholarship. Only 80 students received this prestigious award. Sana hopes to attend the University of Chicago and major in engineering. She is active in the CMSA robotics program and FTC tournaments and takes the time help younger engineering hopefuls at her school.