Letters: Teaming up for college success

FOR THOUSANDS of young Philadelphians who graduated from high school in June and are now in college, the current season of midterm exams is the first big test of their college readiness. And for far too many, it will be the beginning of the end if those exams come back with lots of D's and F's.

The revolving door for first-generation collegians has been a reality for decades - but it doesn't have to be. The Philadelphia Education Fund's Philadelphia Postsecondary Success Program, or PPSP, has been trying to change that by bringing together high school and college faculty to create consistent academic expectations and align curriculum and teaching strategies with the goal of a seamless transition to college.

PPSP is built on the premise that we need to go well-beyond the traditional college prep menu of campus visits, workshops in SAT prep and financial aid, mentoring and last-dollar scholarships. We must also address the academic issues that explain why so many kids who get to college never get a degree. High school teachers and principals from eight Philadelphia high schools, plus college faculty from Community College of Philadelphia and Temple University, come together to identify how high school classes can better prepare students for college and how college classes can better identify effective supports that address student needs. These PPSP fellows supplement seminars on specific topics with "instructional rounds," site visits to high school and college classes where they observe each other's practice. Each year, they participate in a Spring Institute where they share their findings about best practices and identify topics for upcoming activities.

Last spring, the institute, which was held at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School, included a student panel in which graduates of the participating high schools who are now enrolled at CCP and Temple addressed expectations and realities in high school and college writing instruction. They cited the need for better preparation and support in writing research papers, distinguishing between opinion and analysis, summarizing texts, expanding vocabulary and supporting a point of view with evidence. The level of candor was deep. One student observed, "When our high school teachers don't challenge us enough, we resist when college teachers are demanding." The panel elicited a standing ovation from the high school and college faculties and an insistence that similar panels be incorporated into all future PPSP institutes.

PPSP has taught us that we can flip the age-old script from a blame game - with college faculty, high school teachers, parents, students and principals all pointing the finger at each other when a first-generation college student fails - to a constructive problem-solving dialogue in which everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to contribute and everyone has a voice. And those voices will ensure that for future thousands of Philadelphia high school graduates, fall midterm exams will be nothing more than a first step on the way to a college degree.

Darren Spielman is the president and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund. Erin Feerick is the special education liaison at Kensington CAPA High School.