Charter schools staying hands-on longer to support students through college

As charter school networks mature, some are tracking and advising their graduates well beyond high school, hoping to support college completion.

Charter schools’ growing involvement in their alumni’s college pursuits is unusual in a system where “K-12 and higher education institutions generally exist separated from one another across a vast divide,” Education Next notes. But charter schools say the sustained support is crucial in helping their students—many of whom are first-generation and low-income students—attain college degrees.

Using data to find, address gaps

Ajuah Helton, director of the college advising arm for the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter school network, says that many KIPP graduates face a “triple threat” in their transition to college as they manage financial challenges, seek a sense of belonging on campus, and navigate “what it looks like to be able to compete academically in situations where there are not enough resources.” Currently, 43 percent of college-enrolled KIPP alumni earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Hoping to improve attainment, KIPP—which serves around 113,000 students in 21 states—and other leading charter networks are taking steps to better understand their alumni’s trajectories and steer graduating seniors toward schools where they will have the opportunity to thrive.

Specifically, high schools are using newly available data from the National Student Clearinghouse’s Student Tracker to understand when and where their graduates enroll in college and monitor their progress. Counselors also can cut the data by characteristics such as gender, race, and ethnicity—and sharpen their college guidance accordingly.

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“You could imagine a situation in which K-12 would start to use those data to advise their students differently, as in, ‘These institutions are doing a terrible job with Black students, with Latinx students, with low-income students—don’t go there,’” Mandy Savitz-Romer, director of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s master’s program in prevention science and practice and a former high school counselor, told Education Next.

Bright Star Schools—a Los Angeles-based network of three charter schools—is doing just that, recommending against some southern California community colleges with especially low completion rates.

Counseling students on the path to completion

Bright Star also is one of several networks deploying advisors to support charter-school alumni at college. Bright Star students begin working with the alumni support and college success team during high school. Once they enroll in college, students work with Bright Star coaches throughout college to access financial aid, seek internships, apply for transfers, and navigate campus resources.

College success advisors “are constantly encouraging students through our support to be better self-advocates,” says Patrick Rametti, director of college completion at the Uncommon Schools network, which operates schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

KIPP’s college-transition specialists, meanwhile, start working with students during their senior year, guiding them through a college-prep checklist and checking in to ensure they actually enroll. Once on campus, KIPP alumni can turn to their alumni counselors as they pick classes, arrange housing, obtain course materials, and seek other resources.

KIPP alumni also receive prompts from a chatbot called Kipper. The messages remind students to complete tasks like submitting financial aid forms, and Kipper can offer encouragement and answer common questions.

Teaming up, collaborating with colleges

Looking ahead, collaboration between charter schools and colleges—and among charter school networks—will be the “next frontier” in this effort to inflect campus supports and college attainment rates, says Amy Christie, senior director of college access and success at the Achievement First charter school network.

Achievement First currently partners with Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. “Their success is our success, and our success is their success. It’s completely intertwined,” says Gregory MacDonald, the college’s vice president for enrollment management. KIPP, meanwhile, partners with 97 colleges and universities to support KIPP alumni.

While it’s too early to know the impact of charter schools’ college involvement, the efforts include many strategies proven to help increase first-generation and low-income students’ chance of completion.

Stakeholders are optimistic, noting the shared benefits when high schools and colleges collaborate to facilitate a successful transition for students.

Related: How Georgetown is supporting teachers to strengthen the college access pipeline >

“If we saw [K-12 and higher education] as connected, maybe we could really strengthen the learning that our students experience,” said Liane Hypolite, assistant professor of educational leadership at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a former charter-high-school college counselor.

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