By Wayne Dominick
Districts across the commonwealth are looking at programs to ensure students are ready to go to college when they graduate from high school. But Covington Independent wants them ready before their senior year.
“Our goal is that every graduate will have at least 12 credit hours of college work completed when they walk across the stage to get their high school diploma,” said Superintendent Lynda Jackson.
That is a lofty goal for any district, especially for a district with Covington’s demographics. Eighty-nine percent of Covington students qualify for the free/reduced lunch program. Twenty-two percent qualify for special education services. Fifteen percent are identified as homeless, 42 percent are minority and 12 percent live in public housing.
It was something else, however, that concerned the Covington staff.
PHOTO: JaJuan Keith is all smiles after getting some positive comments on his essay from Gateway College Access Center Coordinator Kimberly Connell. The Holmes High School senior said he wasn’t sure he could do college-level work, but since being in the Access program he not only feels confident, but is looking forward to entering school in the fall.
“What we discovered was that a great number of our students didn’t believe they could be successful in a postsecondary program,” said Dennis Maines, principal of Covington’s Holmes High School. He said most students come from families where no one has ever attended college. “A lot of these kids will be the first ever to finish high school,” he said.
Because of this student mindset, Covington staff realized achieving the college-credit goal would be impossible without some drastic changes. Program offerings also would need to be retooled.
Jackson sought a commitment from the board before she started the program and praised board members for their belief that every child can learn and succeed. Drastic changes, she said, would be impossible unless every board member was solidly behind them.
“Lynda (Jackson) does a phenomenal job making sure she has the data to back up any new program she brings to us. That, along with the long-standing relationship we have with Gateway (Community and Technical College) made it an easy program to support,” board Chairwoman Krista Athey said.
After completing an intensive internal self-study, revamping the entire curriculum, and putting an increased emphasis on Individual Learning Plans, the district looked for ways to give students more exposure to college opportunities.
One of those was the CARE (College Access Resource Environment) room, which provides students with information about college course offerings and admission requirements and scholarships; it also helps with the procedures necessary to apply for student aid.
“I help the students find schools that offer programs that meet their interests and help them do what they need to do to get in,” said Wendy Nealy, who staffs the federally funded program.
In addition, Nealy works to get families involved in the process. “We host several family nights so everyone knows what is expected and what they can do to help their student succeed.”
The next step for Jackson and her staff was to find a way to offer more college-level classes to Holmes students.
“We already had a dual credit arrangement with Gateway, but most of the courses were offered through our Career and Tech Center. We wanted to find a way to offer more,” she said.
With the help of a grant from the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, the district was able to set up the Gateway College Access Center and bring Gateway instructor Kimberly Connell to the high school.
Connell works with the school staff to identify and counsel students who are looking at postsecondary education. In addition, she teaches GEN 102, a first-year course required of all Gateway freshmen.
“We start looking at sophomores and help them select courses they will need in order to get into college,” Connell said. “The second semester of their junior year they can take GEN 102 right here at school and then as seniors they can take classes at Gateway’s urban center here in Covington.”
Connell said the students must have at least a 2.0 GPA, good attendance and no more than three disciplinary referrals in order to qualify for the program. “You don’t have to be a 4.0 student to qualify; I’m looking for kids who aren’t afraid to work hard to achieve a goal,” she said.
One of those students is senior JaJuan Keith. He said he had always been interested in engineering, “but I had no idea what the courses would be like.” After taking GEN 102 and several math classes at Gateway, he discovered the courses weren’t necessarily harder – they just covered more information.
“They throw a lot at you,” said Keith, who eventually was accepted at three universities. “You have to pay attention and there’s more homework, but the professors are always willing to give you help if you need it.”
Fellow senior Caeza Reynolds believes taking college courses in high school will be especially helpful for her when she heads to Jackson State in Mississippi. “I know I can do college work now, so I’ll be more confident and less nervous when I get to school,” she said.
Not all the students taking the Gateway courses are heading to four-year institutions. Jan’a Sullivan plans a career in nursing and now has a head start. “I want to go into nursing social work and that requires more schooling, but I already have some of the requirements out of the way, so it won’t take me as long to finish,” she said.
— Dominick is a writer from Frankfort