Accelerate Recovery Spotlight: D.C. Expands Support for College-Bound Grads

Thursday, June 11, 2020
Ryan Reyna
Senior Director

The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) recently announced a first-of-its-kind program to support DCPS alumni as they transition to and through college. Supported by the DC Public Education Fund through a generous investment from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation, DCPS Persists aims to increase the district’s college graduation rate by 10 percentage points.

DCPS Persists will increase investment in the district’s pre-college supports and offer three tiers of support to college-bound graduates. Prior to graduation, DCPS will pair a new advising curriculum with the district’s Guide to Graduation,  Career and College to help students map out their postsecondary interests and aspirations. Relatedly, DCPS will expand its Smart College Choices campaign that illuminates for students, families, and educators the institutions where DCPS graduates have previously found particular success.

Starting with the class of 2020, all college-bound graduates will be invited to a pre-college orientation so that they can begin to form peer networks, have access to a network of DCPS graduates, and receive a monthly newsletter with tips on how to find success in college. A targeted set of students will receive additional supports. Up to 250 graduates will be assigned a coach for monthly virtual engagements, including personalized reminders and discussions around academic goals, adjustments to college, and grades. Up to 500 of the highest need students will receive even more intense coaching supports, including bi-weekly virtual conversations and twice a semester in-person meetings. Additionally, these students will be eligible to access micro-grants (up to $300) to help cover emergency expenses.

I (virtually) sat down with Erin Bibo, Deputy Chief, College & Career Programs for DCPS to learn more about DCPS Persists. What follows is an abridged version of that interview.

We’ve seen a few charter management organizations decide to focus on supporting alumni over the past few years, and some districts that have partnered with outside organizations to provide ongoing engagement, but I’m not aware of any other district in the country that has set up its own alumni support program. Why is DCPS taking this on and how did it come about?

As a district, we invest so much in our students and then detach from them as they transition out of high school, which is nowhere close to the end of their academic career. It’s painful to have to let go or lessen the frequency of outreach and support to students who want to succeed and yet are understandably struggling in their first years of college.

It doesn’t make sense to end contact with these students at this really vulnerable transition point, especially when you look at the numbers. Our economy in the D.C. region is incredibly vibrant and at least 80 percent of jobs require some sort of postsecondary degree or credential. If D.C. was a state, we’d have the highest proportion of residents with a postsecondary degree or credential, but when you look below the surface it’s a tale of two cities. D.C. residents born out of state have a postsecondary degree more often than not, and they earn at least $30,000 more than the average resident who was born in D.C. That is a pervasive inequity. We want our graduates to be future leaders across the city and across the world; we want our graduates to have a seat at the table. DCPS Persists is an important step to get them there.

I know the planning for this effort began prior to the coronavirus pandemic, economic fallout, and reinvigorated nationwide movement for racial equity. And yet it seems perfect for this moment. Why do you think this work is particularly important now?

 Our seniors have missed the last third of their senior year, and even if they engaged in distance learning, they might feel rusty going into their first year of college. It’s likely that they’ll need some extra help to exercise their muscles in an education setting. It’s also quite likely that a good number of our students will be taking their first year or semester of college via distance learning. Distance learning can be isolating and takes time to master. It requires shifts in thinking and strategy and necessitates skill building. The coaches will be there with our students, connecting them with other students, helping them to build communities and develop their skills in managing the first year of college, and reinforcing that they’re not alone.

It’s also more important than ever to help students build social capital. It increasingly strikes me as a missed opportunity when we have graduates from multiple DCPS high schools going to the same colleges, but they don’t view one another as natural peers. We want to build the idea that you’re not just a Roosevelt, Ballou, or Anacostia High School graduate; you’re also a part of DCPS. When we think about connecting with other alumni as part of a potential network, it makes the possibilities exponentially larger.

For the past few years, the district’s Smart College Choices initiative has focused on improving students’ postsecondary match and fit. How are you building that work into DCPS Persists?

Smart College Choices is grounded in DCPS data. When we poured through our data, we saw a concerning trend that large numbers of students were attending colleges and universities in which DCPS students had historically very low success rates. We looked at our National Student Clearinghouse data and had a series of school data meetings with principals who hadn’t previously seen that data. The meetings were heartbreaking; principals far overestimated the percentage of their students who enrolled and succeeded in college. We’ve undertaken an awareness campaign to help students understand what we mean by a Smart College Choice and why informed decisions matter. We’ve worked to inculcate this into our culture; we only fund college visits to Smart College institutions, we’ve created a guide of personalized recommendations to help students navigate, and we hold schools to account for their Smart College Choices application and enrollment rates. Slowly but surely we’re seeing the data improve. If we do our work well, we should see more students pursuing education at Smart College Choices institutions and there will be less need for the DCPS Persists-type support.

How else will data play into your Persists efforts and how do you plan to integrate the information you gather into your broader efforts to improve advising for students?

We will be purchasing a really exciting data tool that will allow us to capture both qualitative and quantitative data on the students who receive coaching through this initiative. It will provide effective visualizations for each student and for different cohorts of students about their most pressing challenges. This will eliminate the guessing game for coaches as to who most urgently needs their support and how. It will also tell us at DCPS what we can do to better prepare our coaches to make sure they are on the cutting edge of knowledge about effective intervention and support. The data will also inform what we share back with partner colleges. It will enable us to lift up the top challenges and barriers so that we can look more closely into those and unpack them together, as well as identifying bright spots where certain high schools are doing an especially effective job of preparing students.

Some might argue that it should be on higher education institutions to ensure that the students are successful. To what extent are you working with your cross-sector colleagues to ensure shared ownership? 

It’s relatively easy for a school with a large endowment to wrap their arms around a student and not let them fail. Many colleges and universities out there are not in that boat; they have enrolled and continued to enroll a lot of students who need help, and they’re spread thin in supporting them. What colleges are able to do is not always a reflection of what they want to do. When we’ve reached out, higher education institutions are very receptive and eager for the partnership. Because of the ratio of coach to student, especially in the first year, coaches are going to get to spend a lot of time with these students and get a very good understanding of where they’re struggling. We’ll also have the capacity to memorialize this learning in a report that we’ll send to institutional leadership. We are intentionally working with schools at which the DCPS grads who enroll mirror the typical demographic background of the school’s average student; the things tripping up our DCPS students are likely tripping up many other students.

On our side, DCPS will gain a fuller picture of where we can improve our students’ preparation. For example, we might learn that many students struggle in a particular academic area, and we need to link our secondary teachers with postsecondary academic department chairs to get at the root cause. I’m very eager to see what we unpack as a part of this.

The pandemic has reshaped how students are looking at postsecondary education and is disrupting the labor market in ways that we will likely not fully understand for a while. How are you working to bring together college and career advising so that students move into and succeed in postsecondary programs that will provide credentials with labor market value? 

Overall, it has been heartening to see K-12, higher education, and the career/industry space inching their way closer to one another. It should be a seamless experience to progress through those worlds, but without collaboration it will be far from seamless. This is especially challenging for less-resourced individuals who do not have the social capital, networks, or ability to access experiences that prepare them for careers. The tighter we get in building connections, the better and more seamless the experience will be for the individuals who progress through, and the better prepared the individual will be every step of the way.

This clearly takes a lot of local leadership and philanthropic support. What advice would you give to policymakers or other local leaders that are interested in supporting similar efforts in their own context?

This is new territory. You need to have compelling data to build the case for getting an initiative like this off the ground. We could demonstrate that we have an economy that demands postsecondary credentials, coupled with the fact that DCPS alumni were not able to benefit from that economy as much as we wanted them to. It’s important to understand the landscape of postsecondary data and to get both schools and students on board with the concept of making informed decisions about postsecondary enrollment. We knew that we needed to improve the quality of college and career programming by both adding capacity and promoting student voice and choice; those who want to go to college need to know what that really means. It’s a major effort and required a lot of work, but we all felt we were ready.

Photo credit: D.C. Public Schools