Less than a third of American youth get what they need and deserve from high school—adequate preparation for work and postsecondary education.  Cut that in half for low income and minority students.  American high schools are large bureaucratic contraptions that evolved in a haphazard fashion in the last century but they remain a gateway to college and careers.

For more than 100 years, high schools have been artificially divided up into departments and courses. Graduation requirements are defined as a checklist of 120 hour credits. Well supported students find the formula to college admission and string together a transcript and resume sure to gain them admissions into selective colleges. But for most students, high school is a seemingly random collection of courses with little goal clarity. With little guidance and limited career and college exposure, high school is a social rather than purposeful preparation.

In many high schools, the shuffle of a discipline-based, big-catalog master schedule can lead to lack of sustained relationships and increased risks for students to fall through the cracks. Important outcomes get little attention with the lack of an advisory spine.

In his new book College Now, Scott Mendelsberg takes on these problems of aims and architecture; of inequitably distributed resources and expectations; and the political dysfunction of urban school districts.  For twenty years the two of us have been preoccupied with improving high school outcomes. About 15 years ago, traveling very different paths, we both became convicted that the chief aim of high school should be college preparedness—that every student should have the transcript and skills to begin earning college credit without remediation.

A dozen years ago, again under different circumstances, Scott and I discovered the power of college credit opportunities in high school for low income students. Access to and success in concurrent enrollment courses—on a high school campus, at a community college, or online—can change the trajectory of young lives.

As principal of Lincoln High School in Denver, Mendelsberg created College Now, a fifth year of high school and concurrent enrollment program that, in one year, changed postsecondary matriculation from 17 percent of graduates to 73 percent.

During the same period, the Early College High School initiative was launched resulting in more than 250 schools where students have the opportunity to earn college credit—even an Associate’s degree—while in high school. “The key is figuring out a way so that poor kids think they have the same opportunities as rich kids do,” says Mendelsberg, “Sounds simple – but it takes a lot of work.”

College preparation is now widely embraced as a primary goal of high school but concurrent enrollment remains an exception. Mendelsberg did succeed in gaining legislative approval for a fifth year of high school to focus on college credits.  But despite obvious successes, the politics and finances of boundary crossing remain daunting.

Through funny, sad, and triumphant stories, Scott lays out the power of high expectations; the need to support and hold educators accountable; and strategies for creating a learning environment that embraces rigor and engagement.  Mendelsberg makes the case competency-based learning with digital resources, self-paced learning, and performance gateways where students demonstrate readiness.

Mendelsberg takes on the ineffective architecture of American high schools, “To have four or five counselors try to help a school of 1,500 to 2,000 students doesn’t make sense and could never work.” He suggests we need to “totally revamp how we offer counseling.” New guidance tools and advisory structures have the potential to create a stronger sense of purpose for school; provide better information to students and parents; provide a better early warning system and stronger academic and social safety net; support better choices during and after high school; and equalize opportunity in order to provide access for all students.

After fighting the battle as a high school principal, Mendelsberg, became Executive Director of Colorado GEAR UP, a program that begins working with middle school students and follows them through high school and resulting in a college scholarship.

Few people understand how challenging it is to be an urban high school principal and how screwed up and unsupportive school districts can be.  This book certainly  illustrates that. It also shows that kids, no matter what their background, can succeed if people believe in them, are willing to fight for them, and provide legitimate pathways for them.

This is a slightly modified version of the forward to College Now!

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