How Georgetown is supporting teachers to strengthen the college access pipeline

Georgetown University this fall is embarking on the pilot year of a network that connects high school teachers, professors, colleges, and students to address “undermatching”—the disconnect between students’ academic talents and their college attendance that results from systemic barriers in the college access pipeline. The new initiative, called The Pivotal Network, focuses especially on supporting, celebrating, and elevating the work of outstanding high school educators, who play a crucial role in shaping the educational trajectories of first-generation, low-income students. 

Housed within Georgetown University’s Hub for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education—a discovery and design unit at the university—The Pivotal Network across the past year has worked to identify and (virtually) convene its first cohort of 25 high school teachers, who hail from 16 different states. These “Pivotal Educators” are now working collaboratively with Georgetown staff to design the network’s online platform and activities. 

With undermatching, students and colleges both miss out 

Every year, 500,000 U.S. students with “college-ready” academic records and test scores graduate from high school but never earn a college degree, lowering their lifelong earnings potential. Low-income students and students from racial and ethnic minorities are especially likely to undermatch. 

Undermatching is a problem not only for students but also for higher education, as colleges work to fill classes with exceptional students who will enrich their academic communities with diverse perspectives. More broadly, preventing undermatching is essential as higher education seeks to remain relevant and facilitate social mobility—rather than magnify entrenched inequality

To date, many nonprofits’ efforts to address this disconnect have focused on direct contact with individual high school students or have narrowly defined undermatching only as it relates to applications to elite colleges and universities. But undermatching is often pervasive in underresourced schools serving lower-income and first-generation students—and affects students with a broad range of personal and professional goals.  

A scalable way to bridge the K-12, higher ed divide 

With that in mind, Georgetown across the last year developed The Pivotal Network, choosing to work with educators at underresourced high schools for maximum impact. “We think teachers are the inroads to address this problem at scale,” says Georgetown professor Heidi Elmendorf, who serves as the director of The Hub and founded The Pivotal Network. “They have an amplifier effect. The educators in our first cohort, on average, teach 110 students every year. They also work collaboratively with other educators, creating an immediate broader impact.” 

Elmendorf, who formerly served as senior advisor to Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia for equity in education, has a unique window into high school teacher excellence: the letters of recommendation teachers write for low-income and first-generation students applying for admission to Georgetown. 

“One of the things that struck me in reading students’ admissions files is how remarkable many of their teachers are,” Elmendorf says. In their efforts to describe their students’ accomplishments, teachers have to describe their own classroom teaching practices. They write passionately about students at risk of undermatching, and about creative teaching practices that set expectations high and support a diverse student population. 

But these high school educators also describe a sense of isolation—as they teach students whose families don’t have a history of college-going, in schools with few college counseling resources, often without professional development opportunities tailored to their students’ circumstances and college-access hurdles. 

Elmendorf realized, “these teachers, their schools, the communities these kids are coming from, have been investing a huge amount in these kids. And then they come to Georgetown and they bring with them not only their selves, but all of those earlier investments.” Elmendorf and her team see The Pivotal Network as a way for Georgetown to reinvest educational capital back into the communities that send Georgetown their motivated and well-educated young people. 

Hear about The Pivotal Network’s beginnings from founder Heidi Elmendorf >

Building The Pivotal Network

To do this, The Pivotal Network will bring together several key “nodes” in the undermatching equation, connecting high school educators (Pivotal Educators); their former students (Pivotal Messengers), who often feel a desire and obligation to give back to the communities that nurtured them; and college professors (Pivotal Professors), who set the tone in first-year courses for welcoming students into the academic culture of higher education. 

The network also is collaborating with experts throughout the Georgetown community, including its Education, Inquiry and Justice, Master of Arts in Educational Transformation, and FutureEd programs. A robust advisory board representing various sectors across K-12 and higher education will further support the initiative’s work. All of these nodes have an important role to play in strengthening the college pipeline and ensuring students thrive in their transition to higher education. 

In its initial design phases this past year, The Pivotal Network focused on building out a “Pivotal Team” of staff, experts, and advisors with the depth and breadth of skills needed to launch the project. The team also established a process for recruiting Pivotal Educators, focusing on standout teachers who successfully advocated for students who were accepted to Georgetown. After reading 910 recommendation letters, inviting 225 educators to complete a survey, and conducting 38 first-round and 28 second-round interviews, The Pivotal Network emerged with its first cohort of 25 Pivotal Educators. 

The educators—about half of whom are first-generation college students themselves—teach at 19 public schools, three charter schools, two Catholic schools, and one private school, covering the full breadth of the high school curriculum. “We are trying to create a different kind of bridge between K-12 and higher education, a broad-scale national approach, that we just simply don’t see elsewhere,” says Jerome D. Smalls (B’19), program manager for The Pivotal Network. 

Creating collaborative, adaptive professional development

Having identified its first cohort of Pivotal Educators, The Pivotal Team in April began working with those teachers to co-design a networked community focused on professional development that advances high school teachers’ growth goals. “What makes us novel is our focus on teacher development specifically to address undermatching among low-income and first-generation students,” Smalls says, adding that, typically, the professional development provided to high school teachers comes from the top down.

Meet The Pivotal Network’s program manager, Jerome Smalls, and hear about the pivotal educator in his life >

And while Georgetown certainly can share its deep knowledge of college admissions, financial aid, the educational equity landscape, and so forth, “I think the teachers have things to teach each other—and to teach us,” says Elmendorf. “We want to create a space, an intellectual professional community, where they can help one another, and where they can take their own path through professional development, based on what they need and what their kids need. We want to help them build it and then be part of a system where they feed the system and the system feeds them.”  

Pivotal Educators recently completed a 16-week series of five design sprints to refine the virtual network’s structure and facilitate shared discovery. They also have developed a rubric that will allow them to evaluate, direct, and measure their professional growth. (Learn more about The Pivotal Network’s progress thus far in its July 2020 biannual report.) 

Long-term plans for expansion

During this coming year, The Pivotal Team will work with the Georgetown community to bring on Pivotal Messengers and Pivotal Professors and define their involvement in the network. The team also plans to build out the network’s digital platform, and begin the process of creating meaningful professional development opportunities that help elevate and amplify the Pivotal Educators’ work. 

In the longer term, The Pivotal Team will measure the network’s impact on college applications and matriculations of students taught by Pivotal Educators. They also will seek to form alliances with other initiatives in the undermatching and professional development space—and to recruit additional colleges and universities to join in this work. Ongoing philanthropic efforts are underway to help expand The Pivotal Network’s reach.

“We have no intention of this remaining a Georgetown-specific venture,” says Elmendorf. “I’m proud that Georgetown is starting it, but we are building this to learn from it, and we’re building it so that we can share with others what we’re learning and grow the network’s impact.” Finally, the team hopes to establish a sustainable funding model for The Pivotal Network, recognizing its importance to the university’s strength and mission. 

“The work of The Pivotal Network builds on and extends Georgetown’s long-standing commitment to ensuring that talented high school students—regardless of their socioeconomic status—have access to the very best college education,” says Georgetown Dean of Admissions Charles A. Deacon (C’64). “It joins well-established Georgetown initiatives like the Summer College Immersion Program and the Community Scholars and Georgetown Scholars Programs in building a sustainable pipeline to and through higher education.”

Related: How the Community Scholars Program reimagined students’ 2020 summer experience >

Elmendorf adds that The Pivotal Network is a natural continuation of Georgetown’s leadership in educational innovation and access. It also reflects the university’s deep commitment to the common good and Jesuit tradition in its efforts to meet teachers and students where they are. “We want to make sure the network is reaching the full breadth of where undermatching happens in our country,” Elmendorf says. “Georgetown sees undermatching as a broad societal challenge. We’re asking ourselves, ‘How can we elevate every kid’s ambitions for higher education?’”    

THE FEED will continue to share updates as The Pivotal Network grows and evolves. Visit The Pivotal Network website to learn more.

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