This school starts early on getting students to think college
It is standard practice for schools to start talking about after-graduation plans to high schoolers. More progressive schools start the conversation in middle school.
And then there’s Des Moines Findley Elementary, where career talk starts with….kindergartners.
“We recognize that it can’t be secondary school where college and career readiness begins,” said Findley Counselor Jaclyn Dehner. “It comes down to what the kids are exposed to early on. We know that 5-year-olds are capable.”
This is no small feat, where 40 percent of the people living in the Findley district never finished high school, a third of the student population speaks a different language at home, and the poverty rate is high in which 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
But exposure alone does not a successful plan make. Enter the I Have A Dream Foundation, a Des Moines nonprofit that has created a comprehensive program – from engaging teachers, students and parents, to creating full wrap-around services for the school’s families. Add to that a bonus, literally: Students can earn up to $200 each school year toward their after-graduation education.
The work is central to the foundation’s mission to get students aware of and enthused about college and career. As a headline on its website says, “Not every child dreams of going to college. Not because they don't want to go, but because it seems so far out of reach – they can't even imagine it.”
Though the foundation had worked with a whole class before, adopting an entire school was new.
“In the past, we would pick one class and follow them along the way,” said foundation program manager Billy Kirby. “Half or more were going to college, so it was working, but it was a small grab.”
The foundation met with Des Moines school officials more than three years ago, and determined that Findley would be the benefactor of the all-school effort.
By grade, students are partnered with private colleges, community colleges and public colleges, and exposed to training beyond high school. Kindergartners, for instance, are taken to Des Moines’ Central Campus where they learn about culinary arts, automotive repair, and marine biology, to name a few.
“We start with their interests and likes,” Dehner said. “What are we good at and what do we like to do? We expose them to different careers.”
Each school year thereafter, the tours and exposure become more in depth. And through class and conferences, after-graduation plans are imbedded.
“We talk about what it takes to be successful,” Kirby said. “They don’t just hear about it, they live it each day. They are thinking about not just what they are going to do, but how they are going to do it. We know if we can expose the students to this early on, they don’t get to the point where they get to high school wondering why algebra is important.”
The linchpins of the program are an emphasis on literacy and attendance. To reinforce it, the foundation came up with a set of criteria they offer to students and parents, all of which goes toward the after-graduation education funds: student attendance, grade-level growth in reading, parental attendance in conferences, including an orientation on college savings accounts, and Financial Literacy Night, aimed at the whole family in which dinner is served.
The effort doesn’t end after grade school, but extends through high school as the students make their way through each grade.
And while the tuition accounts won’t pay for a student’s after-graduation education, it’s an incentivized start.
“Studies show that if they have $500 established for education upon graduation, they are five times more likely to continue their education,” Kirby said. “And they are seven times more likely to finish postsecondary goals.”
The heavy-lifting of the program doesn’t just fall onto Kirby’s and Dehner’s shoulders.
“Teachers are making college expectations a part of the common language used here,” Kirby said. “They are talking about college and sprinkling it into the conversation throughout the day.”
The program wouldn’t get off the ground without the support of parents, Kirby said.
“Parents are such an important component,” he said. “College may not seem too important to them when they may be dealing with food insecurity, immigration problems. Dream is partnered with Des Moines Area Religious Council food pantry, and they pull up right into our neighborhoods. And Habitat for Humanity has expressed interest in some home improvement projects in the area.”
Other partners have come forward, too.
“The Food Bank of Iowa provided 110 Backpack Buddies, which provides food for the weekends,” Dehner said. “We also team up with Mediacom on the Shoes that Fit program, and we hold an annual coat drive. Then we team up with churches for holiday gifts.”
Mobility rates – in which students move in and out of the school boundaries – have decreased, and when parents need to move out of the school’s boundaries, they ask how they can continue to send their kids to Findley. Even Dehner, who lives in a suburb, has open-enrolled her children into Findley because of the culture.
But it’s not just the parents who see a decided change.
Bob Williams, who has taught at Findley for the last 18 years, sees a difference in both students and parents alike.
“In the past, a lot of our parents hadn’t graduated from high school, and may not have had positive attitudes toward education,” he said. “It was more an exception than a rule that kids would go on beyond high school. Now everyone believes they are going onto higher education.
“Kids are more hopeful for the future – they can actually envision a future. They visited these institutions, they have seen it in action, it’s not something scary they don’t know anything about.”
Most important, the program appears to be working. In the annual Operation HOPE-Gallup survey, 73 percent of fifth graders in 2015 were hopeful of their futures, compared to only 47 percent the year before. As the program becomes more and more embedded, students’ attitudes are making a quick shift.
Just ask fifth-grader Jennifer Amezcua.
“I want to go to Drake and get a quality education,” Jennifer said. “I am thinking about studying pre-med and then going onto (the University of) Iowa to be doctor. Or a vet. I like dogs.”
Like Jennifer, her older brother, now in seventh grade, is in the program, with his designs set on being a video game designer.
“I like this program,” she said. “It is really fun, and we have fun when we learn. We are like a family here at Findley.”