Rural Educator Bringing Change

 In 2005 when I first began working with the Alamance-Burlington School System in North Carolina to start a college access and career awareness program, “What’s After High School?,” this quote in the office at Eastern Alamance High School caught my attention and I wrote it down:

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not. This is the first lesson to be learned. –Thomas Huxley

Later I thought to myself, “that’s really what college access is…teaching young people about the world and opportunities beyond where they live, showing them how a college education can help them realize those opportunities and equipping them with the tools and resources to do what they ‘have to do, when it ought to be done, whether (they) like it or not’…”

Prior to working with the local school system, in 2004 I organized a group of friends to start “YES I CAN,” a one-time, faith-based college access program at Children’s Chapel United Church of Christ. Our goal was to serve 25 African American children in grades 6-12 and their parents to help them understand how to be successful in school, prepare for college and pay for it. By the end of the summer we had served more than 100 students and parents. Seven years later the YES I CAN Program is now Youth Enrichment Series, Inc., a 501c3, serving students in grades 3-12. Parents, friends, family and colleagues play a major role in this all volunteer operation. Our graduates and former student advisors are enrolled in or graduates of more than twenty 2- year and 4- year colleges and universities in North Carolina and other states. I was encouraged to contact the Alamance-Burlington School System about opportunities to develop college access programming to impact all students and families in our community. That’s how the “What’s After High School?” Program was conceived.

The goal of the “What’s After High School?” Program has been to provide more uniform and consistent student support and counseling services, especially to those students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who have potential as first-generation college students. Activities are developed and conducted in partnership with school faculty and staff, students, families and community organizations. Grant funding and community partnerships are actively pursued to enhance the program and increase the number of Alamance-Burlington students who attend and graduate from college, receive adequate financial aid, and are exposed to viable workplace opportunities.

 Today in Alamance County, one in five adults has a bachelor’s degree and about seven percent have an associate’s degree. That is a much lower figure than our award-winning neighbor an hour away, the Research Triangle Park (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill). My community is like many rural Southern communities where tobacco, textiles and low-skilled, low-wage labor were once king. Now more than ever the “What’s After High School?” Program has become an integral part of our school system’s effort in transitioning our community into one where more students are graduating from high school, enrolling in college and completing the FAFSA correctly. It takes a Superintendent with vision and many, many people and hours, if not years, for such a transition to occur, but we are on our way.

In our elementary, middle and high schools now we talk about the “Three E’s: ENROLLMENT, EMPLOYMENT and ENLISTMENT” to help every student (K-12) understand that we expect them to choose one or more of these “E’s” and decrease the number of high school graduates who receive diplomas and have no postsecondary plans and nowhere to go. College access data covering SAT participation rates, AP and Huskins enrollments and FAFSA completion, among other indicators like EVAAS data, are now reviewed wholistically by central office administrators, principals, counselors and others to guide American School Counselor Association (ASCA) model plans and school improvement plans. Our designation by the state as a “low wealth” school system has often left our schools without many of the programs our neighbors have, but now Race to the Top funds, for example, have allowed us to start the AVID program in one middle school and develop data collection and assessment tools for the “cloud.”

College tours and coloring books about college for elementary school students, financial aid sessions for middle school parents, partnerships with universities to provide academic summer camps, a Saturday college access conference for students and parents are now on the menu in Alamance County. Among other things, the opening of a new Career Technical Education Center and an Early College this year will help the transition and ultimately complement the efforts of the Alamance County Area Chamber of Commerce to attract industry and better paying jobs for our community.

 National Student Clearinghouse data we receive through a pilot partnership with the Carolina College Advising Corps and Stanford University confirms that about 60% of our high school graduates enroll in college the fall after graduating from high school. However only one in three of our students completes the FAFSA based on detailed information we receive as part of the Secretary of Education’s FAFSA Completion Pilot Program. We must do better and we will. Today’s global economy requires a different kind of entrepreneur and employee than the ones that graduated from high school in the 1980’s like I did. School systems, school leaders, politicians and parents will have to adapt to these requirements quickly, but systemically to create pathways for children to climb into the ranks of high school and college graduates.

Robyn is a Champion of Change and is a Rhodes Scholar, first generation graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a product of Head Start. She is the Founding Director of The “What’s After High School?” Program for the Alamance-Burlington School System in NC and author of “Within View, Within Reach: Navigating the College Bound Journey.”

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