When SATs were canceled last month and seniors in inner cities across the nation were worried that they might not have enough credits to graduate because of the coronavirus, Arianna Mayes and her classmates at GEO Foundation’s 21st Century School in Gary, Indiana, were not concerned in the least. Why? Because most of our high school students are already in college and/or completing career certification programs.
Arianna is a junior at the school known as 21C. This month, she will receive her associate’s degree in liberal arts from Ivy Tech, the state’s largest system of community colleges. She’ll return to 21C in the fall and take a third year of college at Indiana University or Purdue on our dime. All of the classes that Arianna takes at our partnership schools are fully transferable, so when she graduates from 21C, she’ll be able to enter a four-year university of her choice as a senior.
It didn’t take a world pandemic for GEO to rethink how we get our kids to and through college. It was the blunt and painful reality that the traditional K-12 system was failing to serve our high-poverty students in Gary. As late as 2005, Gary Public Schools faced a high school dropout rate of 50 percent. Today, in 2020, less than 15 percent of homes have any college degree holders in them. The traditional delineation between K-12 schools and colleges and universities just doesn’t work for our students, nor do they work for many other first generation, college-going low-income students in America. So we adjusted our model years ago to break down the barriers of cost, delivery and seat time between high
school and college, and we created a continuum of learning from kindergarten to college.
Every kindergartner who walks into a GEO school building, for example, sees college banners lining the walls and our motto “Through These Doors Walk College Graduates.” While a soft message at first, it takes on more meaning the longer they stay in our schools, and most of our students do. Nearly 70 percent of our 49 graduates this year have been walking through our doors since second grade or earlier.
Our students are constantly motivated by their peers, who begin taking college courses on real college campuses as early as ninth grade. When our varsity basketball co-captain Demondrick Velez saw that his then-ninth-grade crush Andrenia Hall was leaving 21C to go to Ivy Tech, he asked, “What? We can leave? What do I do? How do I get in?” So he took the college ACCUPLACER test as a sophomore, and now he’s the No. 4 ranking high school student at 21C, behind his now-girlfriend and varsity cheerleading captain Andrenia, who is also class valedictorian.
How do we break down the traditional barriers to college success? We build deep partnerships with multiple colleges and universities such as Indiana University Northwest, Purdue University Northwest and Vincennes so our students have choices. We hold their hands through the entire process and catch them when they fall. Demondrick has spent a lot of time with 21C’s counselors. Citing two of them by name, Demondrick said, “I go to Ms. Murphy a lot if I need help. Time management is the number one life skill, as is learning how to
advocate for myself. Ms. Canady teaches us how to do everything we need to do down to dropping a class or how to buy cheaper books.”
It’s not just the social safety net that is important for first-generation college students; there’s a major financial incentive as well. We use K-12 dollars to pay for everything — college tuition, books, transportation and a variety of student support services. When I asked one of our juniors why she is so motivated to earn a full associate’s degree in high school, she said, “Why not? It’s free to me. All it costs me is my time and effort, and I have plenty of time on my hands.” How many other high school juniors feel the same way? I’m guessing a
It takes 60 college credits to earn an associate’s degree — essentially, two full years. Many of our students start as early as ninth grade taking college courses, and if they do that, you can see that earning 15 credits a year is practical. However, many start later than ninth grade and take more credits each year, including taking classes over the summer. Demondrick took two classes last summer to put him in position to earn a full associate’s degree. Andrenia started in her second semester of her freshman year taking college courses. There are others who are now in an ASAP program that Ivy Tech provides that allows students to earn a full two-year associate’s degree in one year. Two of our junior students did that this year.
Our students don’t get out of anything. They take college-level courses on college campuses that take the place of high school courses and count for both college and high school credit. As for their time, they split time between our high school and their college campus. If they have one college course, we take them to the college campus for that one course. Some spend all day at the college, like Erin Lewis, who is earning her bachelor’s at Purdue, while others spend half their day at the college. Our college immersion program is hyper-personalized around the specific needs of each of our students.
Adjusting our expectations and support systems away from the traditional model of K-12 education has allowed our students to fly higher than most in the state. Although our school is located in one of the state’s poorest school districts, our students earn more college and career credits in our high school than students in some of the richest communities in Indiana. Our students are set up for success even in the face of adversity. They face adversity every day, virus or not. And if this is possible in Gary, Indiana, it could be done anywhere.
Kevin Teasley is founder and CEO of GEO Foundation, a nonprofit charter management organization that
operates six charter schools in Gary, Indiana, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, serving 3,100 predominantly
African-American and low-income students.