College prep, starting early on

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS
  • Star Tribune
  • June 4, 2012 - 9:51 PM

A program to help students start planning for college years in advance is moving from small-scale to statewide.

In the coming school year, 41 middle and high schools will participate in Ramp-Up to Readiness, a program aimed at increasing the share of students who go to college. It gets students thinking as soon as sixth grade about four-year colleges and universities as well as two-year technical and community colleges.

The expanded program, developed in partnership with the University of Minnesota, was officially launched Monday at the St. Paul campus.

"If we only work to increase the academic rigor of our middle and high school programs without also working to strengthen students' desire to take and succeed in those programs, we run the risk of creating a pretty dramatic imbalance," U President Eric Kaler told a ballroom full of teachers, counselors and principals.

Two years of testing

For two years, about 10 middle and high schools have been building, testing and tweaking Ramp-Up's curriculum and college planning tools. Now, those pieces will be combined into a single package.

"The point of that was to try not to sit here at the university in our little bubble and build this thing and hope it works," said Kent Pekel, director of the university's College Readiness Consortium.

Katie Berglund, principal of Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minn., believes the program has "a real chance of success because it was created to work in the real world of schools."

Teachers at Ellis helped develop a post-secondary plan that assists students as they ask and answer the question: What do I want to do with my life after high school? Students there now use that and another tool during parent-teacher conferences.

Such tools are "significantly moving conversations from classroom behavior and assignment completion to effort and course selection," Berglund said, "which are much more long-range."

'Not perfect, but doable'

About 51 urban, suburban and rural schools applied to be a part of the program. Many of the 41 who were picked are struggling with tight budgets and time constraints, Pekel said.

"Every lesson is structured and scripted," he said, so that teachers don't need to spend time creating curriculum. The program has also been "cut and cut and cut and cut," he said, so that it's "not perfect, but doable."

The university will closely monitor students' progress to see if the program helps increase the number and diversity of students in college. Pekel hopes to see students taking tougher courses, scoring better on a series of ACT-administered exams, graduating from high school in bigger numbers and enrolling in college.

During Monday's meetings, several speakers emphasized that a greater share of students -- even those who plan to go into fields that once required just a high school degree -- will need to earn a least a certificate or two-year degree in the future.

By 2018, 70 percent of Minnesota's jobs will require some education after high school, according to a report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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