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Posted at 5:30 AM ET, 01/ 7/2011

Making college the goal helps non-college dreams too

By Jay Mathews

Thad Nodine, a researcher and writer based in Santa Cruz, Calif., recently sent me a report he did for the much-admired nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future. It was about the Hidalgo school district in one of the poorest parts of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and what it was doing to disprove myths about the inability of poor Mexican American kids to get far in life.

I will describe some of the more unusual aspects of Hidalgo Early College High School in a moment, but what caught my eye were a few sentences that seemed almost an afterthought, unrelated to the report's main topic. The Hidalgo district had a history of strong leaders and innovative programs, and became so self-confident that it persuaded a somewhat doubtful Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to let it create an early-college program for the entire 800-student high school. The rule in such matters has been no more than 400 students, a school-within-a-school. But once the whole building was committed to the project, the organizers noticed something, Nodine wrote:

" … many challenges were unique to Hidalgo due to its emphasis on early college for all students. … For example, the district and the University of Texas-Pan American quickly realized that they needed to expand postsecondary options for those students who were not interested in pursuing four-year degrees."

Interesting initiatives began with that insight. The school and its university partner, although focused on creating a new generation of four-year college students, made contact with two local community colleges, South Texas College and Texas State Technical College, and worked out ways for less academically oriented students to take college courses in computer maintenance, aviation mechanics, nursing and other subjects that would give them an advantage in finding good jobs when they graduated. They would be earning college certificates in marketable skills before they left high school.

There was a shame factor involved, to be sure. If Hidalgo was spending all that Gates money to move the sons and daughters of farmworkers up to the level where they could succeed in college, they could not turn their backs on students who had other dreams. It also showed, at least to me, that those who criticize high schools for putting too much emphasis on college preparation don't understand the benefits such a mindset creates for all students.

Instead of the standard high school attitude that, well, if you are not going to college, that's too bad, lots of luck, a high school that has committed itself to preparing all students for college is more likely to do its best to get those resisting that policy the best non-college options.

The Hidalgo district also deserves credit for its efforts to upgrade the whole system, from its free preschool and full-day kindergarten to a high school that, since the early college program began in 2006, has made remarkable strides. The high school gave 567 Advanced Placement tests last May. That is huge for a school with only 186 graduating seniors and a student body that is 89 percent low-income. It will rank in the top 1 percent of all U.S. public high schools on the next America's Best High Schools list, which will publish this spring.

But Hidalgo doesn't devote itself just to AP courses. So many students took UT-Pan American and other college courses that when the class of 2010 graduated last June, they had accumulated a total of 3,743 college credit hours. Two-thirds of them earned at least a semester of credit. Graduation rates also went up and the district won an award as the best small school district in Texas.

Hidalgo elementary and middle schools are now decorated with college banners and posters. Every one of the 24 classrooms at Salinas Elementary School adopts a university that the class researches, Nodine wrote. "The students write to the institutions for information, as well as for free pens, pencils, erasers, notebooks and other items with college logos," he said. One 10-year-old came home to announce, "I'm going to Michigan when I go to college. I want to be a Wolverine."

This might seem trivial, and juvenile, until you think about the difference between growing up with parents who are college graduates, and parents like those in Hidalgo who are not. The college graduate parents create an atmosphere of expectation without even trying. They cheer for their alma mater's football or softball teams on TV. They wear the old school sweat shirt. They take the kids to their 10th or 25th reunion. That soaks in the same way that being part of the University of Michigan classroom at Salinas Elementary can have a lasting effect on thoughts of the future.

I asked Nodine to keep me in touch with how well those Hildalgo graduates do when they get to college. Even more important will be the experiences of the graduates who go right to work after graduating, and find out whether that extra effort to get them ready made a difference.

We shall see what long-term effect this has. There is no question the feeling in that community about where their kids are going is different than most neighborhoods full of people without much money, Nodine reports. That is worth thinking about when we worry that putting such emphasis on college may be too much for those kids.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | January 7, 2011; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Hidalgo (Tex.) school district, Hidalgo Early College High School, Hidalgo makes special effort to get students ready for jobs, Salinas Elementary School, Thad Nodine, emphasizing college for all helps kids who don't go to college, top one percent on the America's Best High Schools list  
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Jay - Spot on. Thanks. My Dad was career Army. He enlisted at 16 and stayed in 41 years - no college (no time, as WWII, Korea and Vietnam intruded). Even so, when I grew up it was never IF I was going to college, it was WHERE. And I never questioned this. The expectations of my environment was the reason, just as it is at Hidalgo.
Anything that creates a personal understanding of the need for and benefits of continuing education - of whatever sort - is a good thing. It appears that this is the case at Hidalgo. Kudos to them.
And continuing kudos to you for the Challenge Index, where you point out for all to see how well a school creates these expectations by permitting its students to challenge themselves.
It's a virtuous circle.

Posted by: LoveIB | January 7, 2011 7:48 AM | Report abuse

Here's hoping this catches on around the country. Truth is, back in the day many high schools had vocation programs. They were dropped for many reasons, but one came from not being an academic topic.

I wonder what Hidalgo will look like in 5 years.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 7, 2011 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for the very kind comments. A Jobs for the Future official has correctly pointed out that the last part of this paragraph is confusing:

Instead of the standard high school attitude that, well, if you are not going to college, that's too bad, lots of luck, a high school that has committed itself to preparing all students for college is more likely to do its best to get those resisting that policy the best non-college options.

By "the best non-college options" I meant good jobs after high school rather than going on to college, and Hidalgo sets them up for job success by getting them into good college tech courses while they are in high school. The official is also right to say that such students may, having seen what college can be like, decide to go to college after high school after all.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 7, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Oh, lord. First it was "not just college prep classes, but AP classes for everyone." Now it's "ot just college, but early college for everyone!"

Let's send kindergarden students to AP Stats classes! They won' learn a thing, but they'll learn to say "I want to go to college!" and lord knows, that's all it takes to make people think they're learning.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 7, 2011 7:39 PM | Report abuse

“When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.” - Erica Goldson

Posted by: MisterRog | January 8, 2011 5:10 AM | Report abuse

Over the past week, former students of mine have found their way to my classroom. They are college students now. For some, especially the ones at prestigious schools, they are simply continuing a family tradition. But most are starting one. It does this old teacher's heart well to see their young lives unfolding on solid ground. I saw two more in the bank on Friday who struggled academically. Both are in community college now while working full-time. I have not been teaching long enough to have a host of such reunions, but I cherish every one. The effectiveness of my teaching will never be measured by standardized tests or Impact scores. It shines in the eyes of my former students who do not seem intimidated by life. I will blog more about this later today at I invite your readers to visit.

Posted by: dcproud1 | January 8, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Lanier:
I think you have revealed something of yourself that you may not have intended. Reading your comments over the years, and especially the emotional one it's clear that you see college, college prep and advance classes as a sorting mechanism to filter out those less capable. Just as clearly, Jay believes that some college and or advanced coursework is better than none - almost regardless of whether college or college graduation is in the student's future.
I hope this is just a budgetary concern and nothing more. If so, your concerns are misplaced as those with more education (degree or no) earn more than those with less education. And those who earn more contribute more to society as well ($$). There is a real payoff to educating everyone as much as possible.
It's also the right thing to do.

Posted by: LoveIB | January 11, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

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