New Designs for School
New Designs for School

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How can a school district ensure young leaders of tomorrow are prepared for postsecondary success? Working with local partners is one answer.

October was BPS College & Career Month in the Boston Public Schools! Throughout the month, BPS and Success Boston, along with multiple nonprofit and community partners, collaborated on the campaign. Events and activities were designed to encourage students at all grade levels—and their families—to begin planning for a passion-filled life after high school as early as possible.

The goal of BPS College & Career Month is to showcase all of the city’s varied and helpful resources designed to get students prepared for, enrolled in, and through college.

“We are so excited to have our intelligent, resilient BPS students back in our school buildings, learning in-person alongside their peers and receiving appropriate supports and resources from their caring educators,” said BPS superintendent Brenda Cassellius. “College month is a critical time to ensure our young leaders of tomorrow are prepared for postsecondary success. Amidst the pandemic, it is more important than ever before that our high school students are provided with information about financial aid, the college application and admissions process, and alternative options available to them after graduation.”

Since its inception, Success Boston has celebrated tremendous wins, dramatically increasing the percentage of BPS graduates who enroll in college as well as those who earn degrees. The college attendance rate is at 80.5 percent and the six-year college completion rate for BPS graduates is now 52 percent (source).

“The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally disrupted education for students across Boston and beyond, even as its economic and health impacts disrupted their families,” said Dr. M. Lee Pelton, the president and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “College & Career Month provides an important entry point for Boston students to both understand the importance of higher education and to access tools and supports that they and their caregivers can leverage to help them toward their college and career goals.”

Tailoring College & Career Supports to Meet Our Students’ Needs

Success Boston has three key strategies for students in Boston: getting in (to college or another postsecondary program), getting through, and getting connected. The overall district approach to college month modeled these same strategies. Each week, we focused on a different aspect of the college/career planning process. The district understands that not every student’s postsecondary journey is the same, and has been working strategically to design high-quality academic, early college, innovation, and career/technical education pathways that align with built-in opportunities for self-discovery and career development.

College Affordability Week with a highlight on FAFSA completion. During College & Career Month 2021 we amplified our effort to support students with completing their FAFSAs (federal financial aid application). The National College Attainment Network, which tracks FAFSA numbers, says that filing a FAFSA is one of the highest predictors of whether students will enroll in college. Without it, students miss out on opportunities, which leads to disparate outcomes. That’s why we set FAFSA completion as a measure of equity and a tool to increase college access in BPS.

The pandemic has already devastated the college plans of many Black and Latinx students in Massachusetts, with an enrollment of first-year students among those groups down last fall by one-third. The lower percentage of FAFSA completers are Latinx students. The drop in completed applications may be an indicator that significantly fewer students from lower-income families will be pursuing college in the fall.

To address these challenges facing BPS students this year:

  • We engaged MassEdCO to deepen language-based FAFSA advising and application support services for students and families during the evening and weekend hours.
  • We created and managed a peer-to-peer communications strategy, developed student-facing content, and amplified social media opportunities among stakeholders focusing on Latinx households and students. Specifically, we made sure students and families knew that there are more state financial aid funds available now than in the last three decades and that they can complete their FAFSA materials regardless of admissions status, no need to wait until they’ve gotten acceptance letters.

Generation Success Challenge. BPS College & Career Month also marks the official launch of the “Class of 2024 Challenge” with Generation Success—a readiness campaign that works with schools, out-of-school programs, parents, and industry groups across Boston to prepare students with the skills they need for college, career, and life after high school. During the final week of college month, the Generation Success Challenge served as a parallel campaign for students to be more engaged in exploring who they are and how that connects to their future selves.

The campaign will engage with businesses, BPS, and Success Boston throughout this month and beyond to ensure young people have the community resources they need to seek opportunities like internships, volunteer programs, and college credit courses—and achieve success in life as they define it.

My Career & Academic Planning Week (MyCAP) highlighting Naviance. Our district's goal is for every high school student to engage in a post-high school planning process using a comprehensive college and career readiness platform called Naviance. Naviance helps students achieve critical milestones to prepare for college or careers. Once students use the platform to identify their strengths and interests, Naviance helps them connect those interests to potential careers and plan a course of study to reach their goals, whether they are heading directly to college, entering the workforce, joining the military, or pursuing another path after high school.

5 Key Takeaways for College & Career Prep

  1. Start early and engage all grade levels: Just because students might still be in elementary school does not mean that they’re not already thinking about what they want to be when they grow up and developing the skills needed to excel in those things. The district has a handful of programs that support early engagement. For example, the Externship program is designed to offer educators exposure to different industries and are then tasked with bringing what they’ve learned back to their students. The externship program is open to any and all educators, regardless of grade level or content area. You can read more about the externship program here and here.
  2. Bring together local assets: BPS (or any other school district) shouldn’t do this work on their own. One of the greatest assets of the BPS is the city itself. There are numerous organizations throughout the city eager to offer their support to our students. We are never afraid to offer outside support to schools as an option for their students. It is also crucial to clearly communicate schools’ needs and expectations to the partners themselves to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship.
  3. Know your students and understand barriers to college/career success for them: For BPS this year, this meant focusing on the FAFSA completion rate. At the surface, it’s a simple task, but completing the FAFSA can be immeasurably complicated or difficult for folks. School and district leaders recognized a need in the student body (specifically our Latinx population) and offered whatever supports were needed.
  4. COVID makes all this even more important—the obstacles more complex, the stakes higher, the needs greater: Sometimes the simplicity of recognizing this and reassuring students that they are still going to get everything they need is enough. Just make sure that the district is equipped to follow up on the support promised.
  5. Continue the work all year long: College & Career Month is a chance to spotlight all of the different postsecondary opportunities available to our students. If we really want our students to pursue and live a “passion-filled life,” we as a district need to make sure that we’re constantly checking in with our schools and our students to ensure that we’re offering what’s needed and what’s useful.

Photo at top courtesy of Boston Public Schools.

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Julia Campbell (she/her)

Social Media Consultant, Boston Public Schools

Named as a top thought leader and one to follow by Forbes and BizTech Magazine, Julia Campbell is a nonprofit digital consultant on a mission to make the digital world a better place. Host of the Nonprofit Nation podcast, she’s written two books for nonprofits on social media and storytelling, and her online courses, webinars, and talks have helped hundreds of nonprofits make the shift to digital thinking and raise more money online.