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Setting Students up for Success in College and Beyond

Setting Students up for Success in College and Beyond

May 1, 2023

One of the most important decisions for many high school seniors is: What next? For students who choose to pursue higher education, National College Decision Day is an important day when students commit to a college or university in the fall.  

At Uncommon Schools, counselors work with each student to help them select a college that helps fit their career goals. Since 1997, a staggering 99% of Uncommon high school graduates have been accepted into a 4-year college.

We caught up with the Co-CEO of Uncommon Schools Julie Jackson who shared some of the factors contributing to the success of their high school seniors.  

How did your experience as a teacher influence the way you lead as the co-CEO at Uncommon Schools?  

I realized very early on as an 8th-grade English teacher that my students needed to know that I loved them, I was invested in them, and that I believed in them. They had to know these things before they could do what I was asking them to do—which was to write a five-paragraph essay that they had never written before. Kids know if you love them and, if you love them, you can teach them. We believe in ensuring all our staff knows, understands, and believes that our students need to be seen and loved. What’s best for students is at the center of our decision-making. 

Since 1997, 99% of Uncommon high school graduates have been accepted into a 4-year college. What factors have led to the college acceptance success rate at your schools?  

The first thing we tell our students is they are capable of anything—because they really are. At Uncommon Schools, our rooms in our elementary schools are not called Room 101 or Room 102. They are named after colleges and universities from where our alumni have graduated. This sets the scene for our youngest learners that college is in their future if that’s what they dream and together we will make it happen.  

Describe Uncommon’s approach to helping students find the right colleges to support their goals.  

We care about helping our students find the best fit for them, which also means ensuring they have strong guidance and exposure to the process of learning about and choosing colleges. This is really a science, and the more we’ve looked at our own data over the years the more we have perfected the science to help increase our students’ college graduation rates. It helps no one to send a child to college and have them or their family spend that money and energy and effort, and not leave with a degree that will lead to economic freedom.

We really focused on what schools our students were successful at and which schools did not do a good job in helping young people of color or from low-income communities graduate from college. We are also focused on helping students earn the best financial package they can to limit the debt they would take on because we know that this is the type of burden that can sink hopes and dreams. And then we send counselors off to check on our alumni on college campuses and support them through any challenges they might be facing in college. This has been extremely successful and our college graduation rate now is within striking distance of the college graduation rate of the most affluent kids in America. 

What are some of the biggest challenges facing students today as they prepare for college and the workforce and how Uncommon Schools help address those challenges? 

We believe in the importance of preparing our students not just by equipping them with academic knowledge, but also with practical skills and habits that will help them succeed in college and career. That looks like everything from time management to financial planning to how to network. It also means giving them the social-emotional knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to raise their voice and express their thoughts.

For instance, we have what we call the High School 2.0 program for all of our students, which allows them to find and connect with a passion they are interested in after school and really go deep into that area. We have glass-blowing, film, and communications studios. Some of our students go off to work at hospitals or research labs where they make real contributions and work with professionals who are their mentors. It’s an incredible opportunity for our students to explore some future careers but also to be in real-life settings not normally accessible to teenagers.  

Many teachers and staff in your network are alumni. Why do you think this is the case?

Many alumni are back working with us, most of them as teachers. When you listen to them talk about why they came back to teach, you hear what their teachers meant to them and the impact our teachers had. Each and every one of them can tell you about this teacher or that teacher who believed in them and told them they were capable. That really impacted them and now they want to be that person to kids. It’s one of the most beautiful things you can see in the world to get to know a 10-year-old who is now back as a 25-year-old teaching. They connect with our students in a special way and students have a special appreciation and bond with an alum teacher.  

You oversee diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Uncommon Schools. How would you describe your schools’ DEI vision?  

We are committed to supporting each student in learning and achieving at the highest levels. Therefore, we are committed to cultivating a diverse, inclusive community where all students and staff are actively learning to develop and be the best version of themselves. As an aspiring antiracist community, we actively break down barriers to equity within our schools, offices and ourselves so that everyone’s unique experiences, backgrounds and perspectives are seen, valued and heard. We cultivate these conditions while building our social-emotional capabilities as individuals and as an organization. When we have the vocabulary and safe space to elevate concerns, reflect on others’ and our own needs and behaviors, and advocate for change, we create a community where we can take empathetic action and create an environment conducive to learning, growing, and thriving. 

What guidance would you share with other public school leaders looking to provide stronger support to parents and students during the college application process?  

When we think back at some of the supports many of us had in the college application process in our high schools, we know that, in all reality, most schools are not equipped to give every kid the attention they deserve in this area. Applying for college, financial aid, and picking the best fit to increase your chance of graduating—all of that is real work and for most families in America it’s guesswork. For affluent families, they just hire counselors to help them through the process and pay thousands of dollars for that service. That’s not fair and that’s not equitable.

We have to get to a place in this country where we say every kid deserves a chance to pick the best future where they are most likely to succeed. It’s not enough to say, “Well you graduated high school, our job is done.” It’s not done. I encourage higher education stakeholders to really look at this area and assess whether the playing field is level for all kids and, if not, to reach down and create a better system for applying to and persisting in college.   

How can we help support students at Uncommon Schools?  

Come visit! We are always looking for great people to work with—from teachers to leaders to support staff. We believe in the promise of charter schools—that they can be incubators of innovative teaching techniques that can be disseminated to all schools. This is why we have written books, we have a blog, and we run workshops with district schools, in which we share what we have found to work in everything from math and reading instruction to culture building in schools. If you’d like to support that work, reach out. We get hundreds of visitors a year to see what our classrooms look and feel like.   

 

Brittnee Baker is the manager of communications and marketing at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

 

Uncommon Schools serve 20,000 students in 53 locations across Boston, Camden, New York City, Newark, and Rochester. 

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