Partnership aims at getting teenagers college-ready

For many years, a problem has festered at colleges and universities around the country: Many graduating high school seniors are not transitioning smoothly into college-level classes.

The blame has been passed around from students to parents to high schools to the colleges themselves, for expecting too much. The issues, however, are complicated.

In Tacoma, we’re ready to move beyond finger-pointing to working together to solve the problem with a partnership between Tacoma Community College and Tacoma Public Schools. Supported by a $150,000 grant from College Spark Washington, the initiative will bring college faculty and high school English and math teachers together to better prepare students for college and bridge the gap between what happens in high school and college classrooms. We believe that teachers working together will come up with creative solutions to our most pressing problems.

We hope that this project will reduce the need for developmental classes — formerly known as remedial classes — in college, which are a barrier to success because students and their families pay for courses they’ve already taken that don’t apply to the certificates and degrees students seek. We know that too many students who start out in pre-college classes do not earn a degree.

The initiative aims to capitalize on the adoption of the Common Core Standards in math, science and writing. If we can build a set of common expectations among college faculty and high school teachers about what knowledge and skills our graduating seniors need, then our students will be more successful as they move into college. In many of our Tacoma high schools, serious work is already underway to understand and work with the new standards.

One of the goals of the project is to help eliminate the speed bump caused by high school students stalling out in their senior year. Nationwide only about one in four high school juniors who take the ACT are college-ready in all four subject areas: English, reading, mathematics and science. Without thoughtful course-taking and effort, graduating seniors wind up in developmental courses, which can affect both their confidence and continued enrollment in college.

We hope that our project leads to agreement about common expectations, a focus on the relevance, and stronger math, English and advising requirements. If juniors aren’t demonstrating college-readiness, they should be enrolling in classes focused on getting them to that level by graduation.

Much of this work is already under way. TCC writing faculty are meeting monthly with their English teacher counterparts in Tacoma Public Schools, wrestling with the question of what a rich education looks like for high school and college students.

The College Spark Washington grant will help us better define the knowledge, skills and mindsets that students need to be college ready. What are the gaps? How does Common Core fit in? Are current assessments up to the task of measuring these things? How can we help students understand and improve soft skills, such as persistence, organization, and communication that are vital to doing well in college?

We hope to propose changes that will benefit all students, such as placement into college courses based on transcripts and portfolios, not just testing. We hope to create a rich environment of collaboration, professional development and common expectations to help ensure that all Tacoma Public School students are college ready, whether they attend Tacoma Community College or another college or university. Finally, we hope to align high school and community college courses so students can move smoothly into the next level in their education.

We believe those of us in higher education have a responsibility to work with our public school colleagues to address these serious challenges. We look forward to the work.

Tod Treat is executive vice president for academic and student affairs at Tacoma Community College.