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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

Preparing Students for Life After High School

High schools that provide students with in-depth academic andcareer-related learning experiences outside of school foster theskills that students need to succeed in postsecondary study andthe world of work.

Many students are ready to begin the transition from high schoolwell before they receive their diploma. Some hold paid or volunteerjobs for which they shoulder adult-level responsibilities. Some havetraveled widely; others have been responsible for their own welfarefor years. Some have already received acceptance letters fromcolleges and universities and therefore believe that their remaininghigh school coursework is irrelevant. This belief may manifest itselfin what educators often refer to as “senior slump.”Unfortunately, few high schools are prepared to provide thesestudents with challenging academic or career experiences outsideof school.
Other high school students have spent 12 years in schools thathave made most of their decisions for them. These students areoften unprepared for postsecondary academic learning environmentsand the world of work. Moving from the highly structured andcontained environment of the high school to situations in whichthe consequences of their own decisions are more immediate andsevere may be less difficult if students have access to controlledopportunities to venture beyond the institutional support of thehigh school during their junior and senior years.
Engaging both groups of students requires curriculums and projectsthat encourage them to demonstrate mastery of content knowledge;develop problem solving, critical analysis, and independentresearch skills; and cultivate personal characteristics such asinquisitiveness, organization, perseverance, and punctuality.In high school, these dimensions of intellectual development areoften overlooked in favor of class attendance and grading systemsbased on the accumulation of points.
How can high schools customize learning for older students inways that help them extend and apply their knowledge? How canschools help these students develop the skills and abilitiesthey need to succeed in college and the world of work? Existingprograms seek to ease students' transition to postsecondaryeducation and careers by providing them with a range of learningoptions and ever-widening circles of experience that move themaway from school. These programs tailor experiences and learningobjectives to students' developmental levels and interests.

Postsecondary Options

Postsecondary options allow students to study college-levelmaterial—and receive credit for their studies—whilestill in high school. Well-developed programs exist in Coloradoand Washington State.
In Colorado, public school juniors and seniors can enroll incourses at Colorado public institutions of higher education.School districts pay students' tuition, and the program isopen to all students. Students may take courses for high schoolor college credit or both, depending on the agreement between thehigh school and the postsecondary institution.
At Denver's Manual High School, about one-third of seniorsenroll in courses at the local community college. These studentsare predominantly from low-income families and are first-generationcollege attendees. About 60 percent of them are second languagelearners. The experiences they have attending college while inhigh school improve their college attendance rate. Manual isdivided into three learning communities—math and science,leadership, and arts and culture—and students' placementin a particular school often guides their course choices at thecommunity college. Students from the math and science community,for example, frequently take courses in medical terminology oremergency medical response. Leadership school students oftenenroll in psychology, sociology, or freshman composition courses.Arts and culture school students may take classes in Web pagedesign or courses to help them improve their English languageskills.
Similar to the Colorado program, Washington's RunningStart program allows 11th and 12th grade students to take coursesat community colleges while they are in high school. During the2000–01 school year, 13,442 students—about 10 percentof the state's 11th and 12th graders—participated inthe program statewide.
South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia enrolls approximately500 high school students annually through the Running Start program.Half of these students take all their classes at the communitycollege. Most Running Start students are successful at SouthPuget Sound: Approximately 25 of them make either the dean'sor the president's list each year. Some students who reportthat they didn't “fit in” at their high schoolsare happier in the college setting. Few are placed on academicprobation, although some struggle during their first term withthe higher expectations of the post-secondary academic environment.Last year, 45 Running Start students at South Puget Sound completedthe 90-credit associate of arts degree by the end of the summerterm after graduating from high school. This feat took considerableplanning by the students, their schools, and the college, but all45 subsequently enrolled at four-year institutions as juniors.

Middle College High School

The middle college high school concept began in 1974 at LaGuardiaCommunity College in Long Island City, New York; today there areat least two dozen middle college high schools in 11 states. Highschool students involved in the middle college high school approachtypically complete a core curriculum by age 16 and attend theirfinal two years of high school on a college campus. After completingthe core curriculum, students may choose among applying immediatelyto college, engaging in “advanced secondary education”at a technical college, or enrolling in structured internshipsor apprenticeship programs designed to prepare them for careers.
Different middle college high school campuses target specificstudent populations. The goal of the LaGuardia middle collegehigh school program was to reduce dropout rates by gettingstudents with college potential onto a college campus and intoa post-secondary program before they dropped out of high school.Skeptics of the program's focus on at-risk youth did notbelieve that these students would benefit from participation incollege programs, particularly before they had even completedhigh school. Today LaGuardia addresses the needs of recentimmigrants. A program in Las Vegas, Nevada, focuses on highschool sophomores in trouble. A San Mateo, California, programadmits juniors and seniors who are creative, artistic, independentthinkers who may not be a good match with the typical high schoolprogram.
Between 64 and 74 percent of graduates of the Mott Middle CollegeHigh School in Flint, Michigan, enroll in either a two-year orfour-year college, a higher enrollment rate than that of the restof the school district. The middle college high school on thecampus of Shelby State College in Memphis, Tennessee, has contributedto the growth of the college and, even more important, to lowerdropout rates and improved test scores at the high school. Thepercentage of Shelby Middle College High School students judgedproficient in writing nearly doubled—from 33 to 63percent—in a three-year period.

Career-Related Learning Pathways

  • Develop an education plan based on evolving careerinterests and build a self-profile that documents progress andachievement,
  • Demonstrate understanding of key academic skills byapplying them to novel and unique situations and document theseextended applications in a collection of evidence,
  • Demonstrate career-related knowledge and skills in oneof a number of career strands,
  • Participate in a career-related work experience, and
  • Meet selected academic standards of the Certificate of InitialMastery by passing tests in English and math.
Several high schools have instituted pilot Certificate ofAdvanced Mastery programs. Philomath High School in Philomath,Oregon, uses four 87-minute periods to offer six career pathwaysfor certificate students. Each student develops a four-year plan,works with an advisor, and prepares a senior project. Studentsmust consult with both an on-staff advisor and a community mentoras they work on their senior projects, which demonstrate extendedapplication of learning. Teachers identify which career-relatedlearning standards can be met in which courses, and studentsparticipate in an internship that provides them with feedback ontheir ability to meet the career-related standards. To fulfillthe requirement for the career-related work experience, studentscan participate in on-campus activities linked to courses—forexample, the school store, botany class plant sales, or audiovisualtechnology class video sales—or work with any of three localpostsecondary institutions or a number of local businesses.

Practical Steps

Programs that offer postsecondary options and career-relatedlearning experiences to high school students must address suchissues as student athletic eligibility requirements, funding,teacher certification designations, the changing roles andincreasing workloads of teachers and counselors, transportation,and the effects of an increased high school student populationat community businesses and postsecondary institutions.Nevertheless, these alternative programs can combat senior slumpand ease the transition of many seniors to college and careers.Where do high schools interested in such programs begin?
Enrollment patterns. Analyze students'course-taking patterns to determine the need for such a program.How many seniors take less than a full load of classes? Howmany have jobs? How many already participate in some sort ofpostsecondary program? How many have opted for alternativeprograms?
School-university collaboration. Meetwith faculty and staff members of local postsecondary institutions.Are they willing to allow high school students to participate inclasses on campus? Will university faculty members teach at thehigh school? Can high school teachers offer courses for collegecredit? What school-to-career options exist?
School-business partnerships. Determinewhether local businesses are willing and able to enter intopartnerships that allow students access to school-to-careerexperiences.
Personal learning plans. Encourage 9th and10th grade students to create transition plans that include personalgoals; a schedule of the academic work they need to achieve thosegoals; a plan for their transition to postsecondary learning, ifapplicable; and associated school-to-career experiences.
Postsecondary options and career-related learning experiencescan rekindle the flame of interest in students suffering fromsenior slump—but they also provide much-needed academicand career skills and ease the post-high school transition forstudents who might otherwise be unprepared for postsecondarypursuits. Rather than preparing some students for college andothers for work, high schools should prepare all students tosucceed in an increasingly complex and interdependent world byengaging them in significant, meaningful experiences in a varietyof settings outside the school.

For Further Reading

The National Commission on the High School Senior Year (NCHSSY),sponsored by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the U.S. Departmentof Education, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the WoodrowWilson National Fellowship Foundation, issued “Raising OurSights: No High School Senior Left Behind” in October 2001.The report discusses high school reform, preK–16 connections, andthe need to help students make transitions after high school. Formore information on the report and the Commission's researchand recommendations, visit its Web site atwww.commissiononthesenioryear.org.

The Standards for Success project, sponsored by the Association of American Universities and The Pew Charitable Trusts, determines what professors at leading research universities expect of incoming freshmen by examining the content of freshman courses, inverviewing professors, and collecting samples of student work. Equipped with clear expectations and examples of what students produce in freshman-level courses, high schools can restructure the senior year to develop the broad intellectual skills and habits of mind that are important for postsecondary academic success. For more information on Standards for Success, visit www.s4s.org.

David T. Conley has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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