Creating a culture of post-secondary education

Creating a culture of post-secondary education for Anoka-Hennepin students is the goal of the College Connector Team.

Anoka High School’s Colleen Neary is one of many staff from Anoka-Hennepin high schools who have created “college walls.” Part of the College Connector program, staff encourage students to ask them about where they went to college and the process of getting there.
Anoka High School’s Colleen Neary is one of many staff from Anoka-Hennepin high schools who have created “college walls.” Part of the College Connector program, staff encourage students to ask them about where they went to college and the process of getting there.

The school district has joined the Minnesota College Access Network and Minnesota Minority Education Partnership and established a College Connector Team.

Anoka-Hennepin is experiencing an increase in the number of children and families of color, low-income and immigrant students who speak a language other than English.

Fifteen years ago, there were 118 English language learners (ELL); currently the district has more than 2,650 students receiving English as a second language (ESL) services.

Along with language barriers for some families, many students are also struggling with socio-economic barriers.

In the last several years, Anoka-Hennepin has experienced dramatic increases in the number of students and families experiencing homelessness.

According to the Bush Foundation, by 2030 nearly 70 percent of job openings will require a post-secondary degree. At this point, both high school and college graduation rates are falling.

Kari Xiong, the district’s cultural liaison, first heard about this opportunity in January.

A member of the student services department, Xiong said the department’s vision for the district is to be a culturally responsive public school system that prepares all students for college and the workforce.

“We want kids to think about college,” Xiong said. “They don’t have to go to the University of Minnesota; we want them to have any education beyond high school.

“It could be going to school to earn a cosmetology certification or to study the culinary arts. It could even mean going into the military.”

Anoka-Hennepin was one of 12 teams to be trained for the overall work as well as to be trained in specific areas.

Team members and their areas of specialty are Kerwin Bell, a teaching and learning specialist, “early awareness and preparation;” Cassidy Pohl, the student learning advocate at Blaine High School, “career exploration;” Angie Richie, a career and college specialist at the Secondary Technical Education Program, “selecting and applying;” Xiong, cultural liaison, “parent and community outreach and engagement;” and Colleen Neary, a career and college specialist at Anoka High School, “financial aid and scholarship.”

With their training, members of the College Connector Team brainstormed how to improve and support the district’s efforts to increase college enrollment and access for students of color, ESL students, students experiencing poverty and first-generation college students.

To create a district identification, the team collected data regarding college-going activities already taking place. Creating an identification will lead to a full understanding of current programs for college readiness and access, according to Xiong.

To promote a college-going culture districtwide, posters are displayed in Anoka-Hennepin schools.

“You are college material” is the high school poster’s theme. Students are made aware of the five powerful ways college can transform their lives – greater wealth, more security, better health, stronger community and better prepared children in the next generation.

Anoka-Hennepin’s high schools received two other posters.

One helps students to understand the examinations required to receive a high school diploma – Graduation-Required Assessments for Diploma (GRAD) writing, reading and math tests. The second outlines college entrance exams and terminology tied to those tests.

In addition to the formal posters, school staff are encouraged to create a “college wall.”

The college wall highlights where they went to college, what year they graduated and what degree they achieved.

This “window and mirrors” representation is designed to encourage students to look out the window for college possibilities and see the reflection of their full potential.

“Several teachers want students to see that they didn’t go right from high school to a four-year college,” Xiong said. “Some teachers first went to a two-year college or into the military.

“Having the college walls will help students to have conversations with their teachers and to build relationships.

“And staff are getting to know more about each other; two administrators both graduated from the University of St. Thomas and didn’t know it.

“And I found out about a teacher who went to Yale. Now if I know of a student interested in going to Yale, I know where to send him or her with questions.”

In addition to posters showing where staff went to college, Xiong wants to add posters of school alumni and where they went to college or what school they currently attend.

“The College Connector is a great way to build rapport with alumni,” Xiong said.

“We can find out where our kids went to college and connect current students with them.

“During a college tour last year I ran into a graduate from Champlin Park High School. He said he was proud of being an Anoka-Hennepin graduate and would do whatever he could to help other students.”

The team has developed short- and long-term goals as well as a long-term impact.

In the short and long term, the team would like to increase exposure of the definition of college (any education post high school that results in an earned credential certificate, associate degree, bachelor’s degree and beyond) and to raise staff awareness of current college programs and activities.

The long-term impact of the group’s work is to see an increase in the number of students accessing and enrolling in college and to create a college-going culture in Anoka-Hennepin’s communities.

“Overall we want to increase the number of Anoka-Hennepin students enrolling in college,” Xiong said.

“Hopefully parents and guardians will be aware of this and have conversations at home with their students. Parents and guardians are always welcome to visit the high school career and college centers.

“We want to be supportive not only of students but of parents and guardians and to provide them access to resources they need for their students to go to college.”

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