Our amazing and wonderful College and Career Office took over our Friday PD to in the name of the City’s ‘College Access for All’ Initiative. Along side the powerpoint slides, and the brainstorming was a really powerful group of guest speakers…our former students! They arranged a panel of 6 recent graduates and asked them about their successes and failures in the post-secondary world, how we helped, and also what we could have done better. 2 students were doing well in college, 2 others were hitting bumps in their path through college, while 2 others weren’t in college at all. We were all understandably proud of each of the students as they described how we helped them with their current life. The students who were not in college pointed to the way that the school prepared them for adult responsibility through our internship program. Those in college were grateful for their experiences as well.

As the third student begins to give his remarks the art teacher leans over to me with pride and says “A black male in college!” “I know,” I replied, “it’s like seeing a white buffalo!” There are many more black males in college than there are white buffalo, but they are few enough that each one is sacred. The persistence rates at Michigan State when I attended were shockingly low, when something like 1 in 5 black male students, or less were actually making their way to senior year. It was a great source of personal pride for me to persist and finish in 4 years and I was quite proud to see Roger persisting as well.

Everyone was filled with pride as all of our students talked about the positives of their experiences. The mood changed when the graduates told us about their struggles. When it came time for students to talk about how unprepared they were in college this student’s comments sucked all the air out of the room. “I was very unprepared as a math student. You guys really need to make students aware that math in college is no joke. I got past the placement exam, but I failed calculus twice.” Roger spoke with the intensity of someone who was fighting for his life. “You guys really need to not be so nice to kids and hold them accountable when the aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing. Once they get in to college they are going to be unprepared, and those professors won’t give them any breaks.” As I write this I know that I’m not capturing how deep his words were. All the staff erupted in applause afterwards. The applause served as a commitment for us as a school to continue to hold students more accountable in order to make them better prepared for post-secondary success.

The struggles of college readiness

It is difficult to prepare students for challenging college math in a transfer school where students are struggling to just finish their high school requirements. Typically students arrive having finished over 2 years of high school, typically needing between only 2 to 3 semesters of math. That isn’t enough time to teach much math. This student only needed 1 semester of math credit when he arrived. While students only take a handful of math classes with us, we have to try and provide nearly all of the math classes that students could possible take in order to plug the holes in their transcript. This means we need to provide algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, and math electives. This student took geometry and an algebra class designed to help students place out of remedial math. So we have a small window to meet students math needs, and our course offerings are thinly dispersed along the spectrum. We struggle to offer more challenging courses that go beyond the typical high school requirements.

How are we going to prepare students to pass calculus in college?

If students are going to be more prepared in college, we need to convince them to take more math, above and beyond what they need, because we know they are not prepared without it. Telling kids who are already over age that they need to take more math classesSounds as fun as feeding my daughter vegetables.

So how do we go about meeting this student’s call to action? After the talk I pulled Roger aside and asked “If you rewind the clock back to you when you were in high school, would you have taken an extra math class that would have been more rigorous in order to prepare you for college?” He was honest and said no. He would have been too busy socializing across the street in the park to want to do that. Back at school two years later, his current self desperately wished his younger self had that additional class as an option. Instead Roger’s past self took the bare minimum needed to graduate. While it is important that we give students what they need to graduate high school, it is important that we also get them prepared for life after college. That would mean we would have to get students who don’t want to do challenging math, like Roger, to do challenging math. That was the charge he left me with he left to talk with other staff. “You have to figure out how to get kids like me to take that class.”