… Prepare At-Risk Girls for College

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Numerous programs address how to keep at-risk students in high school and ensure that they graduate, but there are far fewer concrete pathways for getting at-risk youths into college and making sure they have the academic and personal support they need to remain there. Even fewer programs focus specifically on girls, who, in some ways – teen pregnancy, for example – face greater risks than boys.

Anne Stanton, youth program director at the James Irvine Foundation in San Francisco, says she believes the nation’s educational system is failing in getting at-risk youth to consider post-secondary education and in making sure they are prepared for the transition. The Irvine Foundation recently instituted a new program called ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, which is designed to establish a network of schools across nine state school districts that will focus on integrated education to help prepare youth for life after high school graduation.

“Tying education to career is critically important,” Stanton says. “How does what kids are learning relate to their aspirations?” She thinks classrooms need to put more focus on teaching youth how to ask questions, how to work in teams, and how their academics relate to the world’s industries. ConnectEd is a brand-new program, envisioned to work on a grand scale, inside school classrooms.

But a few promising local programs have paved the way for reaching at-risk girls, ensuring that they are aware of how post-secondary education can change their lives and also ensuring that they have the resources to pursue and finish that education. “These are gems for the young people who are in them,” Stanton says. “The question is, can you do this at a system level?”

How to find candidates

Most organizations that help prepare at-risk girls for college rely on an intensive application process to find promising candidates. Girls’ Empowerment Mission (GEM) in Baltimore, which accepts just 14 new recruits a year, relies on school faculty to nominate girls. Once nominated, the girls themselves have to submit an application with teacher recommendations and be interviewed by GEM staff. “We look for girls with the spark to achieve,” says GEM’s founder and director Debbi Weinberg. “And they have to be willing to commit to 100 percent attendance.”

REACH, a relatively new college mentoring program based out of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has partnered with the Cincinnati Metro Housing Authority (CMHA), which identifies girls in need of mentoring. The girls, whose grades must be below average, have to apply for the program, supply teacher recommendations and obtain parental consent to participate.

What works

Weinberg says that when working with at-risk girls, it’s important to provide them “drama-free” zones where they can focus on personal development and goal setting and achievement. That means getting them out of the schools, neighborhoods and family settings where young women in poor socioeconomic conditions often feel a lot of pressure. To help, GEM holds monthly weekend retreats for its participants.

The students in GEM also make regular field trips to area colleges to become familiar with the college lifestyle.

GO-GIRL, a college exposure program for seventh-grade girls based at Wayne State University (WSU) in Detroit, focuses on getting girls interested in pursuing math and the sciences. All of its program workshops take place on the Wayne State campus. “They’re in the classrooms, using facilities, using the library, and exploring the labs,” says Sally K. Roberts, assistant professor of mathematics education at WSU and co-founder of GO-GIRL. “We try to immerse them in college life, and we hope they have a good picture of what college life is like.”

Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis, founder of Miami University’s REACH program, believes connecting teen girls with female mentors who are college students is a major key to her program’s effectiveness. “The high school and college students … establish strong rapport with one another. These college students really care about these girls.”

GO-GIRL and REACH provide nuts-and-bolts help with college and financial aid applications.

Ensuring long-term impacts

Getting at-risk girls into college is only the first step. They also need support to ensure they stay there, and many college prep programs aren’t well-equipped for long-term follow-up. Roberts recognized lack of follow-up as a weakness of GO-GIRL, so last fall, with the help of a grant from the RGK Foundation, she initiated GO-GIRL’s first alumnae reunion, as part of GO-GIRL’s new Operation Keeping in Touch initiative. The reunion drew 100 alumnae. The program has also started holding once-a-semester workshops for alumnae on science careers and technology.

Weinberg says GEM is also actively working on college follow-through.

“We know that 85 percent of first-generation college students drop out, so continuing to work with our alumnae is key,” she says.

GEM holds three alumnae events each year; the organization also awards scholarships to help girls enrolled in college meet the costs of their education. The group encourages GEM mentors to stay in touch with their mentees after high school. “You need to be prepared to spoon-feed these girls,” says Weinberg. “They’re not going to get that support at home.”