This year, a culture change is sweeping through select schools within the Cincinnati Public Schools district. Eleven of the district’s 17 high schools are part of a pilot project to establish a college-going culture throughout their student bodies.
While the district has always promoted college, this initiative is different: It’s being led by students. And it’s not just about encouraging their peers to go to college. Student leaders are educating fellow students about the college application and financial aid processes, keeping them on task with deadlines, and showing them that, despite real and perceived obstacles, college is a viable option.
“This is more than the typical ‘go to college speech,’” said Shavell West, a Hughes STEM High School senior and a leader of the initiative at her school. “We need to start a movement to let students know why it’s important to go to college.”
The grassroots enterprise is tied with My Tomorrow, the district’s visionary goal to ensure all students graduate high school ready to pursue the career path of their choice. The district is partnering with the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, Leadership Scholars and College Summit, a nonprofit that connects low-income youth to college and career through peer leadership, to build capacity for initiative.
“Our aim is to make sure our students graduate with a plan,” said Deputy Assistant Superintendent Laura Mitchell. “With this initiative, student leaders are using their influence to encourage their peers to prepare for what comes next after high school.”
A team of up to 10 juniors and seniors at each participating school are charged with raising awareness about the benefits of and admission requirements for college. Team members have received training on leadership, the college application process and fostering culture change. In addition, student representatives from Hughes STEM and Withrow high schools attended an intense, week-long workshop hosted by College Summit in June.
“The premise of this is, who do 16- and 17-year-olds listen to—it’s other 16- and 17-year-olds,” said Vivien Carter, director of education and community impact for United Way of Greater Cincinnati. “Many times adults look at situations and challenges in schools and think adults need to fix it. But the beauty of this is that everyone is part of it, and students are leading it and driving it.”
It’s also completely data driven. The teams are using their respective schools’ performance data—such as GPA trends, ACT composite scores, Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) completion rates, graduation rates and attendance rates—to develop college-bound campaigns targeted to the needs of their schools.
Daniel Barnes, a senior from Oyler School, said some of the numbers for his school surprised him. “We want to see these numbers improve at Oyler,” he said.
Barnes said his group will, in turn, use stats to encourage their peers to complete their education. “We will use numbers to show them how much better they can do with an education. After that, we will see what they need help with moving forward so we can help them.”
At Hughes, the student leadership team has used their data to create a three-prong campaign with measurable goals: to get the entire senior class to complete at least five college applications by December 1, to encourage all students to complete the FAFSA by March 31, and to hold a College Signing Day at the end of the year. The students are using events, social media, surveys and face-to-face time to promote their campaigns and help remove any obstacles for their peers.
“We want students to know college is something that is accessible, but maybe they just didn’t know how to go about applying or have the support,” said Nicole Keith, lead secretary at Hughes and a sponsor for the school’s College Summit team. “The students have been really receptive and they are extremely excited. It gives the entire school something to look forward to.”
While the focus is on creating a college-going culture, the aim is for all students to have a plan, even if it doesn’t involve a 4-year college.
“We are telling students that it’s important to have a plan—not just a plan on whether or not to go to college, but what to do after high school,” said Melvin Smith, a senior at Hughes who attended the College Summit conference in June. “I want to see my class succeed; I want to see the whole senior class graduate. That’s what drives me the most.”