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Using a Federal Grant to Hook Kids on the STEM Subjects -- and College

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Christopher Emdin (Photo by Jonathan Sapers)

Christopher Emdin (Photo by Jonathan Sapers)

By Jonathan Sapers

Chris Emdin uses hip-hop and rap to bring a sense of play to the teaching of physics, but his message to a room full of high school educators and their college partners in June was to approach their work with nothing less than a life-or-death sense urgency.

“If science and mathematics are the classes where kids are less likely to be successful, then they are the classes they are most likely to cut and they become the classes that lead them to leave,” Emdin, Associate Professor of Science Education, told 240 attendees from over fifty-five high schools, school districts and colleges gathered for a summer professional development institute held in Jersey City by the Middle College National Consortium (MCNC). “And we know that leaving classes is the first step towards being entangled in our criminal justice system. So if they leave school because of their lack of engagement in science and mathematics, then those of us who teach STEM are the ones who are most responsible.”

The MNC meeting was the venue for the launch of a unique partnership, led by Teachers College’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching (NCREST), that aims to increase access and achievement in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) for 22,000 high-need middle and high school students in Michigan and Connecticut. Known as the STEM Early College Expansion Partnership, the project is a collaboration among NCREST, MCNC and Jobs for the Future (JFF), a nonprofit that serves low-income youth and adults in 25 states. The work is supported by a five-year, $12 million grant from the U.S.  Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (I-3) fund, the largest single federal grant TC has ever received.

There are a lot of moving parts to the effort. Teachers in the target schools will participate in professional development provided by Emdin and his TC faculty colleagues Erica Walker, who will provide guidance on moving teachers to teaching higher-level math, and Ellen Meier, an authority on project-based learning that harnesses education technology. The schools will implement the Early College model by forging new links or strengthening existing connections with nearby colleges in order to get students taking college courses so that they begin to think early about their college potential. The goal is to promote student engagement so that students have the capacity to succeed in college. The mantra, to paraphrase Malcolm X quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, is “by any means necessary.”

In his keynote and a subsequent workshop, for example, Emdin elaborated on his use of the cypher, a free-flowing arrangement in which participants taking turn “spitting” raps while moving together rhythmically. 

It’s okay to let students use their own expressions to discuss science, Emdin said, because discussion of any kind is the first step toward using “the language of “college professors.” He described scenes from the “rap battle” he had held the night before, in which a student rhymed about peristalsis – the muscular contractions that take place during digestion – as part of a rap that employed the phrase “swallowing pride” to describe falling in love.

“She would not have learned that in school unless she was given the opportunity to express that knowledge poetically,” Emdin said. “She laughed and she cried because she was so emotional after her presentation. And I don’t think the emotional part was her talking about love. It was, ‘I showed them I know something and it’s all on my own terms.’” Ultimately, such moments result in formalized “code switching,” Emdin said, in which students recognize the connection between their own language and academic parlance.

Indeed, a sense of ownership about knowledge can be life-changing – and that’s where the early college aspect of the new partnership comes in. Studies show that students who accumulate a critical mass of college credits while in high school are more likely to go to college and graduate. Following the previously validated Early College models, participating schools and their college partners will provide their students with opportunities to take college classes or earn a combined high school and college-level associate’s degree while still receiving a high school level of support and supervision.

“Ideally, by the time this coming year’s eighth graders graduate from high school, they’re going into college feeling really prepared,” says Elisabeth Barnett, Associate Director of NCREST, who serves as the partnership’s director. 

The STEM Early College Expansion Partnership represents the culmination of years of collaboration between the organizations involved. In 1974, MCNC established the first model for the movement, Middle College High School, on the campus of LaGuardia Community College in New York City. TC alumna Cecilia Cunningham was the founding principal, and is now MCNC’s Executive Director – work that earned her the prestigious Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education Award in 2004. NCREST has been MCNC’s research partner for a decade, providing data support and helping to assess the success of its students.  JFF, for its part, has worked with the Gates Foundation to scale up early colleges across the country. 

“The early college model has been validated through random controlled studies – it gets results,” says Jacqueline Ancess, Co-Director of NCREST.  “The students who work under this model are kids from under-served communities who wouldn’t otherwise go to college – yet they go, pass college-level courses and stay in college in greater numbers than their peers.” 

Yet to say that the middle/early college idea sometimes meets with skepticism is putting it mildly.

“People think that you’ve lost your mind,” says Chery Wagonlander, former principal of Mott Middle College in Flint, Michigan, who led her school’s transformation from a middle college to an early college requiring students to earn credit. But persistence paid off, says Wagonlander, who now serves as state coordinator for the partnership’s activities in Michigan, “and people now say we’re the best kept secret in our own county.”

“My dream is that we’ll have high school after high school expecting the total integration of a partner college while the high school still has influence and power over the student, because you can say, ‘This is required,’” she says.

In Michigan, the effort will focus on the Genesee, Washtenaw, Delta-Schoolcraft and Lapeer County Intermediate School Districts reaching from the Southeast corner of the state into its upper peninsula. The effort is also intended to accelerate the state’s own initiative to promote students gaining 12 college credits by 12th grade. As part of the work, partnerships will be formed between the target schools and colleges located in or near each district that have shown a commitment to collaboration with high schools and have existing strong STEM curricula. 

In Bridgeport, Connecticut, strong relationships already exist between the Bridgeport Public Schools and area public and private colleges, so efforts will focus on aligning the high schools’ STEM programs with those of the college partners and improving students’ achievement in STEM subjects so that they can increase their access to STEM college and career pathways.   

For Heather Albanez, an eighth grade teacher at the Nah Tah Wahsh School in Wilson, Michigan, which serves Potawatomi Native Americans, Emdin’s words resonated strongly. ”It’s just getting to know your kids and the fact that the kids need to feel valued when they walk in the room,” she said. “They don’t need to be your friend necessarily, but they need to know you care. It’s getting kids involved in the classroom and making them feel valuable for what they have to contribute. I know they'll give more of themselves when they are valued and are given ownership of their learning."

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