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Sat., April 27, 2013

Guest opinion: Leveling the field for college

For many students, a ZIP code may determine their college and career options.

Comparing course catalogs between urban and rural high schools reveals a startling opportunity gap. In Spokane, high school students choose from a rich menu of honors, accelerated and Advanced Placement courses.

Forty miles north, students at Mary Walker High School choose from three AP classes. Of those three, none is in science or mathematics. By contrast, Spokane high schools offer AP biology, AP chemistry, AP physics, AP environmental science, AP statistics and AP calculus. In addition to honors sections in both science and math, students may choose rigorous courses in robotics, biomedicine and engineering.

Rural districts face three main obstacles in providing coursework that opens college doors to low-income students. In small schools, qualified faculty may not be available for courses in advanced science, mathematics and world languages. Small enrollments make it difficult to cost-effectively offer “low-demand” specialized classes such as AP calculus and AP physics. Finally, purchasing online courses from national vendors in the numbers needed is beyond the means of most rural districts in a time of relentless budget cuts.

Equity demands that key college preparatory coursework be accessible to all students in Washington, regardless of geographic location or size of their school. Last year, the Rural Alliance was awarded a three-year grant to address this issue by College Spark Washington, a private foundation that funds programs across Washington helping low-income students become college-ready and earn their degrees.

Over three years, the Digital Learning Cooperative will create and offer 10 college preparatory courses for students, and develop a business model to continue and expand the program beyond the term of the grant. The 48 districts involved in this project will identify talented teachers in math, science and world languages, and provide them with the support and training to design and deliver high-quality coursework. Similarly, the districts will pool their students to create a critical mass of candidates to take advantage of these highly demanding, specialized classes.

By leveraging the combined enrollment of small districts to form partnerships, the Rural Alliance is able to share best practices and develop projects aimed at equipping all students for college and career success.

For our current students, this project will, at least, provide course options they wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s important, but the issue runs deeper. At one time, particularly for schools where few students went on to college, the goal of simply getting students to the college door seemed sufficient and worthwhile. But even as most of our districts have increased the number of students enrolling in college, we are seeing the limitations of this goal.

The idea that college admissions means every possibility is open to students is far from the case. Course offerings available in a given high school are either gateways or roadblocks to college options. Therefore, developing a course catalog comparable to those available at large, affluent districts is itself a valuable service for rural students.

But even here, access to courses is only part of the equation. The more important considerations go beyond course titles to the academic experiences that result from completing them. All coursework worth engaging in should target and develop content knowledge clearly connected with a conceptual understanding of a particular discipline, as well as the thinking skills and work habits that are essential to college success.

As the Digital Learning Cooperative continues to progress, we look forward to learning of this year’s Community Grants Program award recipients – announced in late April – and their projects to improve student outcomes.

Kevin Jacka is superintendent at Mary Walker School District and a partner of the Rural Alliance, a 2012 grantee of the Community Grants Program of College Spark. College Spark Washington funds programs across the state that help low-income students become college-ready and earn their degrees.

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