As reported here at various points, a frequent topic of discussion at Weston High School is the achievement gap — as seen in Weston and elsewhere. In its starkest form, standardized tests show that white and Asian kids from upper-middle-class and wealthy suburbs do significantly better on the average than do black and Hispanic kids from the inner city. Of course I’ve thrown a lot of variables into a single sentence, and any solution to the achievement gap will need to tease these apart. How much of the issue is race? How much is economics? Geography? The tests themselves? Living in Dorchester and teaching in Weston, I have a special interest in these questions.
I’ve also reported here from time to time on the Crimson Summer Academy. Thirty low-income students ninth-graders from Cambridge and Boston schools (including Dorchester) commit to spending all three summers of high school, plus significant time during the school year, to intensive learning experiences at Harvard. The hope is for them will get into competitive colleges, a hope that would have seemed unlikely — or perhaps not even on their radar screens — before they had this opportunity.
A huge amount of time, energy, and money goes into this effort. Is it worth it? Does it work?
The answer is a resounding yes. Those of us who teach at CSA know that it works, but what’s the proof? Well, the proof must lie in the college admissions process. And now the results are in for the first cohort (those who entered the program in 2004 and are graduating from high school and CSA next month): among the colleges that admitted one or more of these students are Boston College, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Carnegie-Mellon, Connecticut College, Dartmouth, Drexel, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Hamilton, Hampshire, Harvard, Haverford, Mt. Holyoke, Princeton, Rochester Tech, Simmons, Smith, St. John’s, Syracuse, Tufts, UNC-Chapel Hill, Villanova, WPI, Wellesley, and Williams! And of course there are many others, such as U.Mass. and Northeastern, but take a look at that long list of highly competitive schools: would we expect any better from 30 representative students who lived in Weston and had attended Weston Public Schools for 13 years?
A couple of words of caution are needed. No one is claiming that this is an easily replicable model in its entirety. No one is claiming that the 30 students are a statistically random selection, representative of inner-city kids as a whole. But despite these two caveats, it’s clear that CSA is onto something here. These kids are admittedly both self-selected and selectively chosen, but most of them aren’t outliers; there are thousands like them. We need to identify the variables that will let us close the achievement gap for others, since 30 per year is just a drop in the bucket. Here are the relevant factors that I see:
- an intensive summer program, every summer, culminating in genuine college courses
- small classes
- close monitoring by and individual attention from college students (who serve as “mentors”) both in the summers and in the regular school year
- in-depth college counseling
- a long-lasting sense of community and shared purpose