This Program Preps Middle Schoolers for Top-Notch High Schools
By Catherine Gewertz
April 3, 2019
Middle school students in a handful of cities are getting a powerful and rare boost: a team of adult advisers who help them win acceptance to college-preparatory high school programs, an accomplishment that can pave their pathways to college.
Because of the intensive academic and social-emotional support they receive after school and during the summer as they move from 5th through 8th grades, students in Higher Achievement outscore their peers on standardized reading and math tests and are more likely to attend college-preparatory high schools—and earn diplomas. Those outcomes are particularly notable for the low-income students the program serves.
Irvin Pagoaga is only in 5th grade now, so he’s just starting in the Higher Achievement program in Richmond, Va. He enjoys the fun things he gets to do in the program, like visiting a science museum and swimming at a nearby park. But after a recent trip to a college campus—one of the program’s routine field trips—he’s feeling like his big dream of becoming a biomedical engineer could be a real possibility.
“I want to go to a good college so I can get the job I want,” said Irvin, who works with an academic coach and a life mentor in Higher Achievement’s program at the city’s Boushall Middle School, at no cost to his family, for three days a week, from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. This summer, he’ll be there five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., for six weeks.
“It’s so important for him to have a chance for a good high school,” said Irvin’s mother, Celia Segovia. “The neighborhood [high] school is getting worse. Kids bring knives. They sell drugs outside. I don’t want him [going] there.”
Higher Achievement is one of the relatively few programs nationally that spotlight an all-too-often overlooked age group: middle schoolers. Activists and policymakers push hard for strong pre-K and elementary programs, noting the importance of a solid early start in life. And they call for challenging high schools that prepare students for college.
The ‘Forgotten Middle’
But middle school is often missing from K-12 conversations, even though it offers educators an important chance to offset trouble. Research shows that poor attendance, behavior, and grades in middle school signal that students could stumble in high school. One study showed that 8th grade is a “critical defining point” that predicts college success.
“When they go to high school, that’s the first true test of whether we did our jobs or not,” said David McDonald, an assistant superintendent who oversees middle schools in the Greenville, S.C., district. Each of his schools has a “transition team” that coordinates students’ journeys from 8th to 9th grade.
That journey, for many families, is a no-brainer: Students attend the public school zoned for their neighborhood, and few—or no—options exist. But in cities that allow students to attend any district high school, or where charters and magnet programs abound, the choice process can be daunting, especially for a 13-year-old.
“It’s like a mini-college-application process,” said Jeanette Castellanos, the CEO of Spark, another program that helps expose middle school students to career options and transition them to high school.
“For our families in under-resourced communities, it’s challenging to navigate that complex system, and the schools and counselors don’t always have the bandwidth to help.”
Higher Achievement, which operates in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Va., and the District of Columbia, is unusual among middle school programs because of its mission to get traditionally underserved students into top-notch public or private high schools near their homes.
Some organizations, such as the long-standing Prep for Prep and A Better Chance, concentrate on getting middle school students into elite boarding schools. Higher Achievement, in contrast, “is agnostic on school type,” CEO Lynsey Jeffries said. Its aim is to help young teenagers find better options than the neighborhood high schools they’re zoned for.
Needing Something Better
Across the country, only 15 percent of the program’s “scholars” end up attending their neighborhood schools. Ten percent choose private schools, and three-quarters enter competitive public magnets or well-regarded charter schools. All but a few of those other options are within an hour’s drive of students’ homes.
When Higher Achievement first began in 1975, its central mission was to help students build the academic muscle to thrive in middle and high school. But gradually, that focus sharpened as it became clear that the program’s students—nearly all of whom are from low-income, noncollege-going families—needed a lift that only exceptional high schools could offer.
“We saw some of our scholars rising to the top and noticed that they have abilities and talents they’re not putting to use if they attend their zoned [neighborhood] high schools,” said Anj McClain, the development manager of the four Richmond-area Higher Achievement sites, which enroll about 250 students from across the district.
“A lot of those zoned high schools don’t perform well,” she said. “So for them to have a chance at college, they have to have a chance at getting out of those schools.”
Higher Achievement has taken deliberate aim at students’ out-of-school time to maximize access to the kinds of academic coaching and social support wealthier children get.
“As we do our work, I’m thinking, what are the wealthiest kids getting? How can we make sure we up our game to give our scholars the chances they deserve?” Jeffries said.
Operating five full days a week during the summer and three afternoons a week during the school year, the program adds 650 hours of instruction and enrichment to each year students participate.
The Role of Family Commitment
Families hear about the program through teachers’ referrals or in presentations at their elementary schools. Any student may participate; all that’s required is a strong family commitment to stay in the program for at least three years. One challenge, however, is that students must find transportation to the after-school program if it isn’t located on their own middle school’s campus.
In the after-school program, students spend part of the afternoon with paid “achievement coaches,” who work in small groups with them on their academic skills. Some of the coaches are local teachers; others are recruited from teacher-training programs. After an early supper, students participate in electives, such as cooking, basketball, tennis, or deejaying. Then they spend time working with their mentors.
Mentors are volunteers recruited from the community and trained by the program. They range from college biology majors to lawyers and retired bankers. They follow a curriculum designed to support the younger students’ social-emotional growth, such as building self-advocacy skills and envisioning their futures. Mentors commit to only one hour per week, but many go beyond that, driving students to high school interviews or rewarding them for good work with outings like a trip to the zoo.
As students reach 7th grade, conversation tilts more toward high school planning, and in 8th grade, mentors play a central role in helping students with applications and financial aid. Students at all grade levels visit colleges: 5th and 6th graders only for day trips, with overnight visits for older students.
The summer program echoes the same elements, expanded to a full-time schedule.
Stephane Solis, an 8th grader at Boushall Middle School in Richmond, credits her Higher Achievement mentors with a make-or-break role in her high school application process. She’s excited that she’ll go next fall to Cristo Rey Richmond High School, a local outpost of a national network of Roman Catholic college-prep schools that require students to work in their communities while they attend school.
“I would never have been able to do it by myself,” Stephane said. “The application, the essay, it was scary. My mentors helped me with everything. And now I get to go to a really good high school.”