Helping High School Students Develop Tools for Success

By Toni Coleman

Elgin Community College’s Transition Academy helps at-risk high school students develop persistence.

Achieving a college degree often comes down to persistence. Recognizing this, Elgin Community College (ECC) in Illinois created Transition Academy, which helps local minority and potential first-generation college students from 9th to 12th grade develop the tools for college success.

“We focus on underrepresented groups who have a gap between ability and academic achievement,” says Libby Roeger, dean of developmental education and college transitions. In other words, the students who are able to succeed but are disconnected from high school.

Now in its fourth year, the program began in response to data collected through the college’s alliance with local K-12 districts. White and Asian students were testing into college-level English, math and reading at a higher rate than Hispanic and African-American students. “That was a real concern for us,” Roeger says.

 The model

The affective-based model focuses on the emotional component of learning, promoting self-confidence, grit and a positive mindset in students.

About 150 Transition Academy students attend daylong sessions at ECC one Saturday a month from September to April, and there is a two-week summer program. The students are grouped by grade, with a different curriculum for each cohort: Freshmen examine how family culture affects who they are; sophomores learn about working with others; juniors learn about financial literacy and their role in an economic system; and seniors attend an introductory course on college success. Upon completion, the seniors receive one college credit. An ECC faculty member and a K-12 teacher lead each session.

During the summer session, a local business presents the students with a problem to solve. One year, the students devised strategies for managing the Chase Bank call center’s Twitter feed. Another year, students created a new banking product, targeting teenagers, for Wintrust Bank.

“They’re really proud of themselves once they pull together their business plan and presentation. It helps them understand they can do something and make a difference,” says Roeger, adding that several students have been hired for internships and part-time jobs through these projects.

The program, free to students, also offers tutoring before and after the Saturday sessions.

 The mentor

A major component of Transition Academy is the relationship students forge with volunteer mentors, who coach and cheer students on at lunch during the Saturday sessions and often outside of the program.

“To have someone who looks like you and can talk to you and have candid conversations is helpful,” says Roeger, noting that students’ siblings and other relatives also turn to the mentors for guidance.

Other program components include:

  • Hero stories: Guest speakers share stories about how they overcame an obstacle in their lives.
  • Parental involvement: Parents meet four times a year, including for a workshop on applying for financial aid.
  • Field trips: During one trip to Chicago, students went on an “overcoming obstacles” tour that included a stop at the Palmer House Hotel, which was rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire.

The effect

Transition Academy is helping to boost students’ confidence, as evidenced by pre- and post-program scores on LASSI (Learning and Study Strategies Inventory), a measurement of academic anxiety, motivation and other learning factors. Participating students’ high school grades have improved, and teachers report that the students are taking on leadership roles, among other positive changes.

“We know that our students who complete senior year with us are significantly more likely to succeed when they are in college,” Roeger says. Program students who attended ECC had higher grades at the college than a control group of ECC students who applied to but did not attend Transition Academy.

One student’s feedback summarizes the program’s positive impact: “How am I going to get into college? That was me. I had it in me to succeed, but I chose not to apply myself. It’s not too late to make a change in your academics.”

Toni Coleman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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