College admissions, the achievement gap, and throwing money at the problem

Boston College (2), Boston University (2), Brandeis, Clark, Denison, Framingham State, Hamilton, Harvard, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Northeastern (2), Skidmore, Suffolk, Tufts, U. of Maine, UNH, UMass Amherst, UMass Boston, Union, Wheaton, and Williams. That’s the complete list of where the members of the Crimson Summer Academy (CSA) class of 2013 will be going to college. Not a selection, but the complete list.

Pretty impressive, isn’t it? You need to realize that the CSA doesn’t select students based on high achievement. It’s not Boston Latin School. It chooses ninth graders with high motivation from public schools in Boston and Cambridge (both district and charter) and gives them an intensive three-year college-prep experience. These students weren’t selected as the top students in their schools — though five of them did go on to be valedictorians. They were selected because of their potential. Most of them are the first in their family to go to college; many are from single-parent households; most are non-white; all are low-income. So how do we achieve such amazing results? Is this year a fluke? No: this year, our tenth, is not special; we have a track record of great success every year. It calls for some analysis.

We seem to have closed the achievement gap for this small group of students (averaging 28 per year). Conservatives tell us that “obviously throwing money at the problem is not the answer.” Well, maybe not, but it’s certainly one of the answers. What has CSA done? Let us count the ways:

  1. It is sponsored by Harvard University, a fact that immediately lends prestige to our efforts.
  2. Our students are known as “Crimson Scholars”; Harvard provides every scholar free tuition, room and board, an iPad, and transportation for three consecutive summers.
  3. Classes are usually small, often with 15 or 16 students.
  4. They are taught by dedicated teachers, if I do say so myself.
  5. We teach the students ourselves in their first two summers, but they take regular Harvard Summer School courses in their third summer.
  6. Extensive follow-up is provided during the school year.
  7. Extensive college counseling is provided each summer.
  8. Finally, we have 25 “mentors”: Harvard students and CSA alumni who function as teaching assistants in class, provide homework help, and serve as role models for the scholars. The mentors are truly the heart and soul of the program; there is no way we could succeed without them. They devote countless hours to caring about and helping the scholars, teaching them as much about the content and process of our curriculum in the afternoons and evenings as we teachers are able to do in the mornings. Most important is the third function I mentioned the first sentence of this paragraph: the mentors are invaluable role models for the scholars. I salute them.

All of this is expensive. Harvard foots the bill as a way of giving something back to the community. Yes, Harvard has deep pockets, but there are plenty of other institutions and individuals with deep pockets. They need to invest a lot of money and a lot of time into closing the achievement gap. It takes us three years of very intensive work; I don’t think it can be done with less. Throwing money at the problem can work.

Categories: Dorchester/Boston, Teaching & Learning