How Can We Best Help Talented Underrepresented Students?

How Can We Best Help Talented Underrepresented Students?

How Can We Best Help Talented Underrepresented Students?

The story of CAL Prep and how a decade of work and research on how to best educate talented underrepresented students is something educators can learn from.

Since its founding a decade ago, the California College Preparatory Academy (CAL Prep) has focused on improving educational and socio-emotional development of low-income, high school students who are under-represented at universities. Its development comes from a partnership of a great university, dedicated professors and educators, and a charter school organization to pave the road to college for underserved youth.

In a new book just published by Oxford University Press and titled Achieving College Dreams: How a University-Charter District Partnership Created an Early College High School, editors Rhona S. Weinstein and Frank C. Worrell tell the story of how CAL Prep was created and the students they sought to serve:

“Its students are largely low-income, ethnic minority (African American and Latino), and the first in their families to complete college. At entry, many of these students are academically behind, accustomed to failure, unsure of their capacity to succeed, and prone to avoid effort.”

Their book includes lessons in how to get such a school started and provides chapters on collaborative research about school programs and student perspectives conducted on students as well as the voices of educators with on-the-ground experience in creating this educational environment of both equity and excellence. In an interview, Weinstein and Worrell answered some questions about what they learned from founding a school to help improve the educational and life trajectories of underserved students.

What key lessons did you learn from founding and running CAL Prep? Could this school serve as a model to serve disadvantaged students broadly?

Rhona S. Weinstein: CAL Prep presented us with a fascinating opportunity to work closely and deeply across the boundaries of disciplines, research-practice communities, and secondary-postsecondary education. We learned a great deal from this collaborative effort. With the shared goal of developing a new school, we were able to see clearly how all the component parts of school design and teacher practices must fit together and reinforce each other to create the school environment we had envisioned.

The task was complex – to detrack the high school program and more flexibly provide a college-preparatory education with both acceleration (completion of five college classes) and remediation for vastly underprepared students – without throwing any student off the college track. To do so required challenging the existing mindset or expectation that students at this level of attainment are not and cannot become college material. To do so required addressing the development of the whole student by engaging both hearts and minds within a positive, inclusive, and re-engaging school culture. And to do so required innovation in and alignment between structures, schedules, and teachers’ roles to promote youth development at every turn. Bottom line, investments in building teacher capacity to match these organizational innovations proved critical.

Could this school stand as a model to serve disadvantaged student more broadly? Most certainly! In our view, its accomplishments grew from bold goals, strong design, thoughtful implementation, much support, and a sustained focus on refinement of our work. The strength of design and implementation came from the translation of research findings into practice as well as a keen attention to both the problems and the value of practice, around which data collection and analysis guided successive waves of school improvement.

What didn’t work, and what can others learn from that?

Rhona S. Weinstein: Through our collaborative research studies, we learned that rigor in the curriculum without the development of strong teacher-student relationships was associated with push-back from students and their families. It was support from teachers that helped students feel connected to school. Further, rigor without attention to social-emotional and talent development proved to be a deal-breaker, especially for adolescents at this critical period of identity development. We came to understand how proactive schools needed to be in building collaboration with families. And we also learned about the features of small group advisories that helped teachers be more effective in the eyes of students.

Through an examination of what fueled our research questions and what was gleaned from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives, readers of the book can learn about how teachers, students, and families responded to different features of this accelerated high school program. Our focus was on the processes of new school development, where struggle, revision, improvement, and success are all part of the tale. We trust that readers will catch a glimpse of themselves in this book and emerge with optimism about this important enterprise.














You argue that with a change in educational conditions, disadvantaged students can succeed, but that this takes time. What educational conditions did you change that were most effective?

Frank C. Worrell: A variety of educational conditions were changed, as schools are complex eco-systems with interactions among students, families, teachers, administrators, and the larger society. It was important to build in the capacity for early and intensive interventions to allow students to catch up in the domains in which they were not as prepared academically while still allowing them to move forward in their areas of strength so that they were still on the path to graduation with their cohorts. Facilitating these supportive interventions required changing the daily schedule, for example adding an eighth period that allowed all students to participate in advisories on some days, but also had enrichment opportunities and academic supports on other days, depending on student need. Another change in conditions was the creation of office hours – more typically associated with colleges – where students could get individualized assistance from teachers.

There were a variety of other changes of conditions that worked in tandem with the whole (e.g., development of a library program to encourage students to read; Saturday Schools to provide assistance to students and parents and provide a quiet space for academic work; participation in freshmen seminars and College Week on the UC Berkeley campus so that Cal Prep students get a taste of university student life and see themselves in college). As Rhona noted, the ultimate goal is to provide a comprehensive program that meets the needs of the “whole” student, providing an aligned and responsive pathway to college readiness that changes appropriately as the students mature, ultimately improving performance and developing academic identity.

CAL Prep has now graduated five classes of seniors and the school is outperforming schools with similar demographic profiles by the metrics of high school graduation and college enrollment. You note that the real test will come when you examine how well these students perform in college and beyond. What elements of the CAL Prep experience do you anticipate will influence these students’ success in the future?

Frank C. Worrell: Early evidence suggests that CAL Prep students are persisting in college and we will be doing a formal examination of persistence rates in the 2016 – 2017 academic year. Our data at this point indicate that 81% of the class of 2011 and 88% of the class of 2012 were still in school three and two years post-graduation, respectively. However, as we point out in the Epilogue, the graduation rate for low-income and underrepresented students is frequently well below 50%. It is our hope that the focus on developing not only academic competence but also academic identities in the CAL Prep students, so that they believe that academic success is as an integral aspect of who they are, will help them persist in college, where they will encounter fewer people with their backgrounds both as students and as faculty. 

A CAL Prep alum, Jonathan Turner, featured in the April 24th 2016 school newsletter, advised CAL Prep teachers to make CAL Prep courses as similar to college courses as possible and to get the students to read and write as much as possible. Jonathan also advised students to choose their college “wisely,” be prepared for hard work and long nights, go to office hours, and join study groups. This advice reflects several aspects of what we are at CAL Prep – being prepared academically, but recognizing the need for and seeking assistance when necessary, as well as accepting the fact that learning is a social activity that is enhanced and more successful when one is actively engaged with a community of learners.

© 2016 by Jonathan Wai. You can follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

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