College Tries “Mini-mesters” and More to Improve Readiness

The Vermont Community Foundation’s 2009 report on postsecondary education asserts that college graduates live longer, healthier, more lucrative lives than their peers who did not graduate college. But the report is harsh in its assessment of the readiness of Vermont high school students for college, revealing that: one in three juniors is not proficient in reading; seven in 10 are not proficient in math; and six in 10 are not proficient in writing. Vermont’s expenditures for high school students are among the highest in the nation, yet these students lag in college preparation. These are troubling data about the possibilities for Vermont youth to achieve the goals of college graduates.

These data become even more disturbing in view of a 2001 report by the National Center on Educational Statistics on academic preparation and postsecondary success. That report focuses on the challenges confronting first-generation students, noting the sizable success gap between college students whose parents graduated from a four-year college and those who did not. The report points out that a person’s graduation from college is correlated to his or her parents’ completion of bachelor’s degrees. Interestingly, first-generation students who undertook a rigorous high school curriculum, one that was aligned with the core expectations of college, were able to reduce that identified gap significantly. In short, a rigorous high school curriculum aligned to the college curriculum is an antidote for failure.

Given the need for a bachelor’s degree for many future jobs, improvement in collegiate graduation rates could not be more important. Nevertheless, if there are weaknesses in college preparedness among Vermont high school students, which the VCF report suggests, and if these weaknesses are exacerbated by misaligned and non-rigorous curricula, then Vermont’s first-generation students will struggle mightily if and when they progress to college.

At Southern Vermont College, more than 60% of our students are the first in their families to progress to a bachelor’s degree. We are acutely aware of the challenges facing our students, and we have been deliberate in our efforts to provide them with needed support across the institution. That support takes many forms: a first-year course emphasizing civic engagement, an academic advisor/counselor, a retention committee, improved residential life, peer tutors and peer mentoring, professional tutors, and specialized tutoring for those with learning differences. We are adjusting our entire curriculum to facilitate hands-on, laboratory learning across the curriculum. We will continue to explore ways we can increase student success.

The aforementioned data suggest, however, that our internal collegiate efforts are not enough; something has to happen at the K-12 levels. In consideration of these studies, Southern Vermont College is turning more attention to its links with its K-12 neighbors. The college has had a history of partnering, and we already have several programs in place with K-12 students. These include reading programs in elementary schools, a poetry contest for elementary school students, a math program tying collegiate athlete statistics to elementary school problem-solving, and an Upward Bound program that has been operating for 30 years to prepare high school students for college. These initiatives, however, have focused on K-12 and SVC students; they have not been part of comprehensive efforts to promote collegiate success through year-round K-12 faculty development and K-16 programmatic alignment.

As we move forward, we are relying on a proven practice in our nation’s teacher-preparation colleges and universities, that is, the idea of a K-16 “professional development school” arrangement between higher education institutions and neighboring schools. Within that model, we are trying existing approaches, but also developing some new initiatives that we are testing on a pilot basis. Our programming involves, among other strategies, aligning high school and collegiate curricula, assisting with state-identified teacher-development needs, and introducing a different type of involvement with high school students—namely their participation in a credit-bearing “mini-mester,” a variant of bridge programming and Upward Bound’s residential programs that focus on academic readiness.

Here are some concrete examples of our new initiatives.

We have begun to connect faculty at SVC with teachers at Bennington’s Mount Anthony Union High School (MAUHS). Our immediate hope is to establish an SVC/MAUHS partnership so there may be ongoing teacher-inquiry groups comprised of MAUHS teachers and SVC faculty. In these groups, best practices and current theories will be shared for better preparing Vermont students to achieve success in college. To that end, we have already conducted a workshop at SVC on preparing writing assignments to which MAUHS English faculty have been invited. A related hope is to help students from MAUHS achieve those core competencies that are expected at a college like SVC, including reading, writing, critical and creative thinking, speaking, ethics, information technology and respect for the globe. Our ultimate hope is to create a strong partnership between the two schools, not just so more students from MAUHS will elect to attend SVC, but so that MAUHS students are as prepared as possible for ongoing academic success in college.

We have also engaged in similar partnering discussions with MAUHS’s neighboring technical high school: the Southwestern Vermont Career Development Center (SVCDC). To inspire SVCDC students to consider college, we have created a college atmosphere by enabling SVC students to take college-level laboratory courses on site at the SVCDC, as they are doing this term in a forensic criminal justice class. In addition, as with the MAUHS teachers, we are making it possible for teachers at the SVCDC to work with faculty at SVC to align curricula so the transition for college-eligible students becomes more negotiable. We are considering offering some co-branded courses at the SVCDC site and having some SVC faculty teach SVCDC students.

Our new efforts expand how we include elementary and middle schools. The twist here is to prepare students early to meet challenges for state-identified deficits, for example, in reading. To that end, we have a number of courses now in which SVC professors and their students work with area elementary- and middle-school teachers and their students. Examples include SVC’s reading program with Mount Anthony Middle School, titled “Questing for Literacy: Guiding Middle Schoolers in the Search for Wisdom Within and Without.

In addition to these initiatives, the mini-mester program offers high school students a brief, intensive, on-campus academic and residential life experience that has a career focus and opportunities for students to try out their navigational skills in a safe, caring and controlled environment. This program will be especially beneficial for those who are the first in their families to consider a four-year residential collegiate opportunity.

Based on the stories told in Ron Suskind’s book, Hope in the Unseen, this program will enable students to gain familiarity with the complex aspects of the collegiate experience that often make college transition difficult and uncomfortable. Some attention, depending on the age group, will be paid to the college admissions process itself. If successful, this program will mean more Vermont students will attend college and, more importantly, progress effectively toward graduation.

To extend the idea of partnering using the mini-mester idea, Southern Vermont College and Wheelock College are collaborating to pilot a one-credit mini-mester this summer geared towards high school juniors from both urban and rural settings. It will provide these students a unique opportunity to learn about and engage in hands-on experiences related to health care, with problem-based learning that demonstrates the difference between urban and rural health care delivery systems. Spanning two weeks and one weekend, students will examine a timely healthcare question and discover approaches to its answer by examining urban clinical healthcare sites, rural clinical healthcare sites, experiences in SVC’s Simulation Laboratory and experimentation in several science laboratory sites.

Partnering is one way, in addition to SVC’s current on-campus efforts, to help more Vermonters succeed in higher education. The stakes are high, but the rewards for students and the larger community are clear: longer-living, healthier, wiser, more engaged citizens. The very future of the state depends upon the success of such partnering initiatives.


Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College. Albert DeCiccio is provost of the college.


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