Drew Charter School in Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood has pioneered the “cradle to college” education philosophy of Purpose Built Communities. Rachel Kaney and Michelle Stinson are part of a team of counselors and tutors who lead a suite of programs designed to help students successfully transition from high school to college and to succeed once they have left Drew.
What is the goal of the College and Career Readiness Program?
Rachel: We support students to be their best selves. Our collective college and career team – comprised of a wide variety of support professionals –make sure all of our students have a great plan. We do that through lots of avenues. We host a senior showcase for rising 9th graders to let them know about the high school experience and what to expect. For juniors and seniors, we host planning meetings to get them ready for making college decisions. We help them get ready for high stakes exams, even making sure they have a good breakfast the day of.
When they leave us, we want them to be happy, healthy students who have options. We want them to have the skills to be good people in the world.
One focal point of the program is to support students in the months following high school graduation. Why is that important?
Rachel: The first Drew class graduated in 2017, and they were all accepted into college. There were a few students who ended up not enrolling in college that fall. Between high school graduation and college entrance, real life happens, and some students need help. In the college admissions world, it is called “summer melt” – students who are accepted, plan to enroll in college, and then for a variety of reasons end up not enrolling.
We want Drew students to know they are supported by our institution all the way through, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to get them to the next step, even if it takes a little longer.
How are you tackling “summer melt”?
Rachel: We were determined to emphasize those crucial months after graduation, so we brought Michelle on board to serve as a persistence coach. Before students leave for the summer, Michelle makes sure we have all of their contact information, which might sound simple, but it is so important. She builds relationships with students and their families so they want to be in touch with us.
Michelle: Summer 2017 was my first experience as a persistence counselor. We support the students who are on the path to college enrollment, and we are ready to react when we hear that a student has told a friend, “I’m not going to school.” Or, “This is hard and I can’t do it.”
What specific actions are you putting in place?
Michelle: We want students to understand they are members of the Drew family. It is an exciting time for them, but also scary and new. We created some tools to help. For example, we partnered to create an online text messaging platform to send messages over summer, asking students questions such as have you paid deposit? Have you registered for classes?
We also get to know their families and do home visits. We want them to know that when an obstacle comes up, it doesn’t have to derail them. They just need to ask for support. If I hear of a student who is wavering, I intervene as quickly as I can.
What results are you seeing?
Rachel: We had an 88 percent matriculation to college rate in 2017, which is higher than state and national averages.
Michelle: But for us, that wasn’t enough—because those numbers represent children who we know and believe in. I have continued to follow up with the 10 or so students who did not enroll in college. We keep checking in, meeting for coffee so they know we’re still here. A year later, six or seven of those kids are determined to go to college after that unplanned gap year.
It’s really all about watching these young people be successful. One student we thought would matriculate did not, so I got in touch with her in the fall to find out what was going on. She was interested in nursing and had her heart set on certain schools, but they didn’t work out. After some encouragement, she decided to go to a school that wasn’t on her original list, and she is now in her first college semester and doing well. Some students don’t have the innate confidence they need and fear they will fail. We showed her we were there for her, and that seems to have made the difference.
What about the students who do enroll in college? Are you continuing to focus on their success?
Rachel: Absolutely. We prioritize strong alumni programs because we are building a cradle-to-college pipeline within the context of strong neighborhoods. Michelle is looking at private schools in the area to learn how they engage their alumni. What best practices have they employed, and how do we level the playing field for our kids?
Michelle: We sent care packages of stationery, pens, lots of candy, and an encouraging note to students in their first year of college to say we are thinking about you. We also organized a welcome back holiday party and gave away Drew alumni t-shirts. We created an Instagram community for the students to share photos and stay in touch with us and each other.
To support their development and foster a sense of community, we ask alumni to come back to sit on panels for younger students to talk about applying for colleges, scholarships and other programs. We also try to be strategic about planning college tours so alumni can lead Drew students around campus.
This program seems unique – how are you making it happen at Drew?
Rachel: It is an easy case to make when you get to know the amazing young people we have the privilege to serve. So many stand out, like an artistic young man who began to struggle after a family member passed away. Drew counselors worked with him and his family, and, with their support, the student received a full scholarship through the Posse Foundation to a university in New York.
We arranged for a student who came to Drew in his junior year from a school where very few students went to college to begin taking courses at a local college even before he graduated high school. He wrote in his application essay that he told his grandmother he was going to be taking a college class. The grandmother said, “Baby, you will be the first person in our family to take a college class.” That made him feel proud, and he has now enrolled full-time.
It is, unfortunately, very rare in the public school setting to have the kind of support we have at Drew to make stories like those the norm. The current climate of counseling is that schools have one counselor serving hundreds of students, responsible for academic advisement, crisis counseling and more. Inequities exist, and counselors are usually in triage mode rather than thoughtfully serving the career planning and social/emotional needs of students. Counselors would love to help students after graduation, but ultimately, that’s the last thing on the list.
Financial support from the East Lake Foundation and other grants have helped make this possible. I am extremely grateful to be at a place that sees a role like persistence counselor and ongoing engagement as important. We are in this for the long-haul, so I am confident we will continue to prioritize this kind of programming.
I would encourage other school leaders to look at what is really holding their students back from success, and then work with students, parents, staff and partners to design creative approaches to address their specific needs.
Rachel Kaney, Director of College and Career Readiness, is a native of Atlanta and has worked to support children and families across the city throughout her career. She obtained her Bachelor of Social Work from James Madison University, her master’s in social work from the University of Georgia, and Education Specialist’s degree in Professional School Counseling. Rachel’s career has centered on providing effective interventions to help students graduate high school and identifying opportunities for post-secondary success.
Michelle Stinson is the Early College/Persistence Counselor at Drew Charter School. She is a graduate of Wofford College where she double majored in English and Government. She subsequently worked as an Admission Counselor and Coordinator of Diversity Initiatives in the Office of Admission at Wofford where her interests in college access grew as she traveled her recruitment territories in Georgia and Florida. Stinson joined the Drew team in 2016.