Getting Metro Detroit Ready for College

hen Ciera Smith began taking chemistry courses at Western Michigan University, she felt comfortable with the material her professors presented and the fast pace of her classes. She credits her Advanced Placement chemistry teacher, Cynthia Bridges, for preparing her and her Detroit Renaissance High School classmates for college-level work, even if they complained about the amount of homework they had at the time.

Although Smith, a fourth-year biomedical sciences major, felt prepared for college, she noticed educational deficits in other courses that her peers didn’t possess.

 “There were some courses where my classmates had some type of background knowledge that I didn’t,” she says. “They could say, ‘Oh, we had a class for that,’ or ‘Oh, I learned that in high school.’ I know there’s a lack of resources in Detroit Public Schools, but it would have been nice to have more of a variety of class options in high school to be ready for college.”

African-American students like Smith, who took two Advanced Placement courses and completed a college prep curriculum in high school, are more likely to be prepared to succeed than their counterparts who didn’t have access to a rigorous course load. For too many Black students, however, the latter is the norm-they’re less likely to attend high schools with a full range of honors courses, higher-level class offerings in math and science, or programs that offer the opportunity to earn college credit before graduation.

On one measure of college readiness, the ACT exam, a whopping 62 percent of ACT-tested Black students in the graduating class of 2014 met none of the organization’s four College Readiness Benchmarks-twice the rate of all students, according to new report The Condition of College and Career Readiness 2014: African American Students. Part of the requirements of the Michigan Merit Exam, ACT scores are among the factors used to define students as college-ready.

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Just 2.6 percent of African-American students in Michigan were considered proficient in all subjects on the ACT, and only 2.7 percent of Detroit Public Schools students were considered college-ready. Even at Renaissance, which requires a college prep curriculum for all students, Smith says friends who didn’t take AP courses mentioned not feeling prepared for first-year college coursework compared to students from suburban Detroit high schools in wealthier areas.

More Detroit high schools and community colleges are working with national organizations to address this, developing initiatives to ensure graduates arrive at four-year institutions ready to handle coursework. The benefits are significant-numerous studies show a four-year college degree can increase earning power, reduce unemployment rates and help shrink longer-term income and wealth gaps between Blacks and other racial groups.

Meeting mandatory guidelines

Students at two Detroit charter schools will soon face a standard higher than that of any other institution in the city-they’ll be required to take Advanced Placement courses to earn their high school diplomas.

In June, former NBA and University of Michigan basketball star Jalen Rose announced all students at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, the charter he started on Detroit’s northwest side, would have to take and pass at least one AP course to fulfill their graduation requirements. The guidelines also apply to students at Consortium College Prep High School on the city’s southwest side, as both schools fall under the umbrella of American Promise Schools, a nonprofit charter management group. “We want to expose them to the kind of rigor they will be exposed to in college, which is a major step,” Rose told the Detroit Free Press. 

The JRLA will offer AP courses this fall in statistics, English language and composition, world history and physics. The history class will be a junior-level course, while the other three are geared at seniors. The mandate is effective with the school’s incoming junior class, which graduates in 2017.

Reps from the College Board, the nonprofit organization that facilitates the Advanced Placement program and SAT exam, were present for the announcement. The organization has been working to increase college readiness, preparation and access among underrepresented populations nationwide.

“The primary goal of this initiative is to expose our scholars to the rigors of a college-level course before they get to college,” says Katie Colaccino, dean of instruction at JRLA. “Advanced Placement courses cover more information than general classes and go more in depth on a subject because the class pacing is so much faster and beholden to a national test.”

Students aren’t required to take a national AP exam after completing a course, but those who do and score at least a 3 (on a 1-5 scale) can earn college credit or a waiver of a required collegiate course. More selective institutions can require a 4 or higher score.

Other charter schools like Southfield’s Crescent Academy require a four-year college preparatory curriculum including four years of English, social studies, math and science courses. In DPS, 22 high schools offer AP courses, according to the district’s website, and multiple schools have college-prep curricula with required coursework for graduation. Dual enrollment with local colleges can also help high schoolers prepare for college and earn credit before graduating.

Colaccino says American Promise Schools used reports from universities and its own teachers to develop the mandatory AP guidelines. The opportunity for feedback from the school’s graduates will soon present itself, as well-JRLA graduated its first class in 2015, and teachers hope some will return this fall to stress the importance of college readiness to their younger peers. “Teachers can tell stories, but right now, all students have to take for it is our word,” Colaccino says.

Eager to learn

Dajanae Thomas, a rising senior at Michigan State University, transferred to Detroit’s Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School as a junior and didn’t participate in one of the school’s college preparatory tracks or its dual enrollment program. After graduating in 2012, she attended Schoolcraft College in Livonia for two years before transferring to MSU where, for the first time, she felt unprepared to handle the work. She said she struggled her first semester at MSU before finally feeling comfortable enough to continue toward her goal of graduating with degrees in criminal justice and psychology.

“I felt my high school and the teachers were trying to prepare us, but the focus was more on the business side of college, such as paying for school and finding financial aid,” she says. “They did talk about taking the ACT and SAT, but not enough about what we needed to know or how we could be ready to complete college-level work.”  

College enrollment rates among Black high school graduates nationally have never been higher. Earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 70.9 percent of Black students who graduated from high school in 2014 had enrolled in college by that fall, a significant jump from the 59.3 percent reported in 2013. Only Asian students had a higher rate (86.1 percent) of enrollment.

In Detroit Public Schools, where about 82 percent of students are African-American, high school graduation rates jumped to 71 percent in 2014 from 64.5 percent in 2013.

Those are victories to educators who’ve worked for decades to reduce long-standing secondary school educational attainment gaps between African-American learners and students from other races. National public high school graduation rates for Black students have continually climbed upward, reaching 71 percent at the end of the 2012-13 school year, and more Black students are choosing to continue their education at two- and four-year colleges and universities.

College graduation rates, however, haven’t kept up with the enrollment numbers. As of 2013, 40 percent of Whites between the ages of 25 and 29 hold a bachelor’s degree, according to Census Bureau data interpretted by the nonprofit Child Trends DataBank, compared to about 20 percent of Blacks.

Although it’s too early to track college completion rates for recent high school graduates, historical statistics show that Black students are less likely to earn a degree from a four-year college compared to Whites. And when they do graduate, it takes longer-among students enrolled in a four-year program in 2006, 40 percent of African-Americans finished by the six-year mark compared to 60 percent of Whites.

Multiple factors contribute to lower college graduation rates for African-Americans, including the fallout from arriving at college unprepared for entry-level coursework. Less prepared students are often placed in required remedial courses to help them build the foundation they’ll need to succeed. These classes, however, don’t often count toward graduation credits, extending the time students need to graduate and increasing their debt load. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education reported about 20 percent of college students nationwide were enrolled in remedial classes as of 2008.

Community college connections

For students who don’t go straight to a four-year university, community colleges can play an essential role. Wayne County Community College District, which has five campuses across metro Detroit, takes a multi-pronged approach to help students complete a two-year degree program, earn a short-term continuing education certificate or transfer to a four-year university.

WCCCD students don’t often “come in the door ready,” says associate vice chancellor CharMaine Hines, and faculty and staff have to be equipped to address the needs of a non-traditional collegiate population, which includes older learners, students raising young kids and lower-income participants.

Typical resources such as academic support services, faculty advisers and tutors are available, but collegiate readiness at WCCCD also includes exposure to diverse experiences and populations, Hines says. Students are encouraged to attend on-campus events featuring nationally known speakers like poet Nikki Giovanni, religious leader Jeremiah Wright and Afrocentric psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing, all of whom have visited recently. Also, study abroad programs to The Gambia, Nigeria and Canada are offered.

Partnerships with four-year universities are vital, too. In 2014, WCCCD joined a consortium with Marygrove College, University of Detroit Mercy and Wayne State University to develop a program to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue biomedical research careers. The National Institutes of Health awarded a $21.2 million grant over a five-year period to the project, REBUILD Detroit, focused on curriculum enhancements to encourage laboratory research and coursework for preparation in STEM-based careers. Hines says it’s a way to expose students who might initially pursue careers in nursing or phlebotomy-traditional community college career tracks-to consider research or other jobs in the health sciences.

Cultural and social literacy are among the intangible factors successful college students often possess, but opportunities to obtain such experiences can be limited for lower-income and underrepresented students. Thomas, the MSU student, remembered feeling out of place in an African studies class and was surprised at how much she didn’t know about topics related to the African diaspora compared to some of her peers.

“It was upsetting to me that I didn’t know any of this,” she says. “Students from different cultures knew more than me. … I was really embarrassed and couldn’t participate at first in the discussions.” The experience pushed her to do more independent research and study on the topic, but she wished she could have learned what her classmates knew through exposure in high school.

What students want

“There’s only so much you can prepare for college from high school,” says Smith, who went on college tours and visited individual universities before selecting Western Michigan. “You don’t really understand the depth of the experience until you’re there.”

Thomas had similar thoughts, noting that experience and time helped her adapt to the sudden freedom of college life and realize the importance of time management and planning. But having a basic foundation-one developed through a rigorous, fast-paced course load in high school-goes a long way toward eliminating the basic struggles.

“I don’t think it’s stressed enough that you have to study and prepare for your classes to succeed in college,” she says. “When you get there, make sure to find people who share the same interests, join study groups, see tutors and develop a strong support system to help you get through.”

SHANNON SHELTON MILLER IS A NATIVE DETROITER AND FREELANCE WRITER.

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