How the CES Common Principles Help Essential Schools Create Transitions to Higher Education

How do the CES Common Principles inform Essential schools as they prepare their students to make the transition from high school to higher education? Through the experience of leaders, teachers, advisors, parents, and students at Essential schools, Horace explores what college readiness means in a CES context, noting the unique ways our schools create support systems as students make choices and confront ongoing obstacles and challenges.

First, some snapshots of the schools through the lens of each Common Principle:

Commitment to the entire school. For 20 years, Kizzi Elmore-Clark has taught English and related subjects at Federal Hocking High School, a CES Mentor School. Elmore-Clark is also seeing her advisory through its senior year at the rural Stewart, Ohio school, which educates 472 students in grades 9-12. Federal Hocking High School is the single public high school serving Stewart and neighboring towns; many of its students will be the first in their families to go to on to higher education. Elmore-Clark and the rest of the Federal Hocking High School staff are committed to inhabiting the multiple roles of teacher, advisor, and, as Elmore-Clark says, “parent away from home” as they prepare all students academically for college, helping them develop the skills, confidence, and other resources to attend and graduate from the schools of their choice. “From the time I get my advisory students as freshmen and in all of my classes, I push the idea that if you are prepared to go to college, you have options after high school. And if you don’t prepare to go to college, it shuts a lot of doors,” says Elmore-Clark.

Using one’s mind well. Charlene McKowen, principal of Anzar High School, a rural, public 9-12th grade school serving 374 students in San Juan Bautista, California, believes that college success skills can be acquired through teaching habits of mind. Though thousands of miles apart, Anzar and Federal Hocking High School each serves as its region’s sole public high school and works with many students who will be the first in their families to seek post-high school education. “If the school has a common language about how it wants students to be able to think, that streamlines things and makes defining ‘college prep’ a little easier,” says McKowen. “For us, habits of mind guide curriculum development. They’re posted on huge posters in every classroom, and they are refined and addressed in assessment rubrics. They become the foundation for how students approach their learning here at Anzar and we hear consistently from graduates that they are successful in college because these five habits of mind. These are what I wish I had to read the newspaper when I was 20, what I wish I had before I finished college and graduate school.”

Student as worker, teacher as coach. School of the Future, a CES Mentor School, is a New York City public school located in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan. Its 625 6th through 12th graders come from across New York City and many are first-generation college-goers. With a stellar track record of college admissions for nearly all of its students, School of the Future is developing students’ capacity not just to matriculate but to succeed in higher education by restructuring the curriculum, pedagogy, and schedule during the senior year. As principal Catherine DeLaura explains, “After the kids apply to college, we work on transitions. How are you going to register for courses? What’s going to happen if you do need help with writing? What’s a credit card?” In the spring, School of the Future moves its seniors to a college-like schedule, offering electives and longer, less frequent classes, with intense and independent reading, writing, and other assignments designed to model college-level work. Teachers demonstrate different instructional delivery styles, including lectures. “We are engaging kids at the end of the year who would otherwise be checking out,” says DeLaura. “Their last exhibition is due in March, students know they’re graduating, and they tend to get lax. The students love it at first, but then they freak out, and we say to them, ‘Yes, this is what it’s going to be like next year. This is stress. Get it together!'”

Demonstration of mastery. Boston Arts Academy is a CES Mentor School with 326 students in grades 9-12 that aims at developing artistic and academic excellence. More than half of its students will be the first in their families to attend college. Boston Arts Academy challenges its students to write a proficient grant proposal for an arts project as their senior capstone activity, reinforcing an experience and set of skills that artists will need to practice and refine as their careers evolve. The stakes for the grant writing capstone project are real: 20% of the seniors’ projects are funded. Beth Balliro, Senior Institute coordinator and visual arts teacher, says, “We are transitioning the kids from under the umbrella of the school to be out in the world. After high school, they need to know how to do real life stuff, how to make connections, solicit letters of support, write resumes and articulate their goals and dreams persuasively. Going through the process helps them see feasible ways to make their vision practical and related to behavior patterns they can use after high school.”

Democracy and equity. For Anzar High School’s Charlene McKowen, maintaining equity while creating college readiness for all students means creating vertical articulation with Anzar’s feeder middle schools. McKowen says, “Equitable ‘college prep’ requires a vertical teaming approach that extends into the middle schools that send students to Anzar. We can target Latino students all we want in AP English, but if we say that the class is open to everyone, then we need to start preparing them long before 9th grade.”

Personalization. Marianne Head both helps coordinate the service learning program at Mentor School Quest High School in Humble, Texas, a school of choice with 320 students in grades 9-12, and is the parent of two Quest High School graduates. Head believes that the ability to advocate for themselves and a belief in the power of relationships are the most valuable assets her sons and other graduates took from Quest. “They learned to communicate in the adult world. One of my sons, upon arriving at college, said to his professors, ‘I went to a small school, so you’re just going to have to get to know me.’ That kind of confidence is rare but it’s so crucial to doing well in a new environment. If you can’t have the relationship, then the rest of it can’t fall into place,” maintains Head.

Resources dedicated to teaching and learning. Joan Macri created and is the coordinator of the Aspirations Program at Lewiston High School in southern Maine. With 1,400 students, Lewiston High School serves all of its district’s students, most of whom will be the first in their families to pursue higher education. Macri recognized that in order for her students to make the transition to college, they needed a resilient, responsive support system at school that replicated the kind of support that students from college-going families might get at home. “I’ve been a teacher and debate coach here at Lewiston High School for 20 years, and I’ve always mentored students. We started the Aspirations Lab because we thought it would be the best way to work with kids on anything to do with the college process,” explains Macri. “During the first semester of their senior year, we do applications in loco parentis; during the second semester, we navigate the FAFSA and scholarship processes. Students use this space during their junior year to do college searches, and during their sophomore year, we help them with career exploration. Students like to hang out here; it’s lounge-like, with couches, a big table, computers, and dedicated phone line, and we are busy all day, every day. The Aspirations Lab has become a central place for guidance staff and teachers to meet with students and with each other. It doesn’t cost a lot but has a huge impact.”

Less is more, depth over coverage. 2005 Quest High School graduate Denise McLean attends Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont. She believes that Quest’s focused curriculum and high standards for proficiency served her well as she made the transition to demanding college-level work. “Among the specific things that Quest did was work with us so much with writing. My English teacher, Mrs. [Barbara] Yeatman, was really hard on me. The standards that Quest has for us and learning to write research papers and position papers have been really helpful. We’re expected at Bennington to be able to write fairly proficiently, and I came there ready to do that,” says McLean.

A tone of decency and trust. Federal Hocking High School’s Kizzi Elmore-Clark acknowledges what many Essential school educators know: being ready to attend and succeed in college does not necessarily mean that making the decision to go to college is right for every student. Elmore-Clark notes, “I never want to belittle kids because they decide not to go to college. There are wonderfully intelligent, cool people who do plenty of different sorts of jobs who haven’t gone to college. But the push has to be to prepare you for options.” It’s a balancing act: Elmore-Clark and her colleagues do all they can to motivate students to attend college but are mindful that insisting that higher education as the only possibility for the future success runs the risk of denigrating many members of students’ families.

Goals apply to all students. School of the Future addresses the process of preparing for the transition to higher education in a weekly for-credit college class taken by all juniors and seniors-a clear indication that it sees higher education preparation for all students worth of significant time and resources. School of the Future also takes all juniors to at least four college campuses at the start of heir junior year; this includes a long day trip and an overnight trip, ensuring that students experience schools outside of the New York metropolitan area. “We don’t want them to decide to stay in the city just because they don’t know what the possibilities are or because they’re scared,” principal Catherine DeLaura says.

Of course, commitment to the Common Principles is essential but not sufficient. Through the six schools introduced above, Horace explores how Essential schools use other measures-such as creating district and statewide K-16 systems, employing internal and external resources to build college-going cultures in a school community, leveraging personalization, and facing thorny equity issues such as financial and cultural access in higher education settings-to help individual students expand their options and interrupt longstanding patterns of higher education attainment.

From the Statehouse to the Schoolhouse: Maine’s Push for College Readiness for All

Essential schools in Maine are benefiting from state level efforts to increase the number of students pursuing higher education. According to research compiled by Lynne Miller, Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Southern Maine and co-director of CES affiliate center Southern Maine Partnership (SMP), just 30% of all 2005 Maine graduating high school seniors will earn a 4-year college degree. Jean Haeger, SMP Senior Associate, believes that Maine is on the road to improving that percentage along with the economic prospects of its citizens by creating a continuous K-16 system with an emphasis on communication between high schools and higher education institutions. “There is a really strong statewide message that all kids need to graduate from high school ready for college and that if they do decide to go to college, they should have the opportunity,” notes Haeger. “The alignment that we have statewide among legislators, state department of education personnel, the teachers’ association, the school board association, the state school board association, and the state school board is remarkably strong. I see that as support for schools; no matter where they turn, they get the same message of equity, rigor and personalization in order to prepare all students for college, work, and citizenship. It’s a consistent message at all levels that schools are hearing.”

Longtime Lewiston High School educator Joan Macri believes that the statewide effort to enroll more students in college is serving to interrupt longstanding educational patterns and habits that no longer serve Maine’s citizens well. “We need to change the culture of Maine, which is predominantly working class based on employment in industries that have changed. There’s an enormous amount of work at the state and county levels, and it will take a generation. And right now, there is a groundswell of energy and interest in increasing college enrollment. I have been in education for 35 years and this is the first time that colleges are talking to high schools.”

The Southern Maine Partnership and other educational leadership organizations believe that their role is to facilitate the kinds of conversations and policy changes that will lead to a viable K-16 system. Among the most powerful policy changes is the requirement that all juniors in all Maine high schools take the SAT instead of the previous NCLB-mandated Maine Education Assessment.

“It’s not enough to focus on high schools. Teachers are starting to talk with one another and are becoming aware of what’s happening from grade to grade,” says Haeger. “What it really takes is district vision at the superintendent level.” Clearly communicated curriculum guidelines, such as the University of Maine system’s Statement on College Readiness (which is reprinted here), that tell high schools what coursework entering freshman need to have mastered, are changing what many high schools offer and expect of all students. For many in Maine, this vertical communication is helping bridge the gaps between high school and college, which developed not only in Maine but nationwide as separate systems.

Essential Schools Build College-Going Cultures

Along with other Maine high schools and various CES schools nationwide, Lewiston High School offers the option of concurrent college enrollment, another crucial strategy for developing effective high school-higher education communication and for reinforcing to students that they really do belong in college. Joan Macri leads the effort for Lewiston as part of the Aspirations program work. “When I first heard about early college programs, they seemed like a wonderful way to get kids to experience success in college classrooms.” Ninety Lewiston High School juniors and seniors are concurrently enrolled in five nearby colleges. “We are stunned at how well they have done,” says Macri.

Macri notes that concurrent enrollment is available to all students who are passing their core classes rather than an elite few, and this commitment to equity characterizes how other CES schools view preparing students for college success as a goal that applies to all students. Catherine DeLaura of School of the Future says that concurrent enrollment options allow Essential schools to maintain untracked, fully heterogeneous classes. “Graduates tell us in surveys that they feel prepared in various academic areas, though we get some feedback that they need more math work, for example. Our students do have the option to go to New York University to take math classes there, but it’s still a real challenge.”

Essential schools with a high degree of control over how their students and staff spend time often choose to devote significant resources to college readiness. Joan Macri’s work with the Aspirations program at Lewiston High School demonstrates a significant investment in the prospect of increasing college attendance. Macri says that though the Aspirations program and her release from classroom teaching is currently grant funded, Lewiston’s Board of Education chose to fund her position as Aspirations program coordinator and set aside $10,000 to cover the tuition expenses of concurrent enrollments. “It’s a big vote of confidence,” says Macri.

Macri and other educators also know that part of their work is to create the intrinsic motivation in students to do the hard work necessary to prepare for college. A crucial component of that is to help them see that they are “college material,” and that requires building a school-wide college going culture that replicates the supports and momentum on which students who come from families in which college is a given can rely. “Here in Androscoggin County, only 14% of our residents have college degrees. So at Lewiston High School, we are doing many different kinds of things to increase awareness of educational options beyond high school. Right now, for example, we’re creating posters for each teacher’s room displaying where she or he went to college. These will remind students that they know lots of people who went to college; we hope that kids will start asking questions and realize they have a lot of ways to learn more about college.”

In order to build support and motivation among her students, Kizzi Clark convenes conversations between recent college-going graduates and current Federal Hocking High School students, starting in the ninth grade. “Our students hear someone they know or who is like them say, ‘You can do this too. It’s possible.’ If you grew up in a household where no one had ever been to school beyond high school – or even all the way through high school – it doesn’t register that college is a possibility.”

Southern Maine Partnership’s Jean Haeger suggests that a school-wide program of college visits is of the most powerful strategies to create a college-going culture. “Among the college access strategies that we’ve studied, college visits have the biggest impact,” reports Haeger. “It’s imperative to get kids on college campuses as early as possible in order to increase their likelihood of enrolling and persisting. When they are on the campuses, they can picture themselves there. Starting in the sophomore year, most schools do a range of visits: to two-year schools, four-year schools, public universities, and private colleges.”

Catherine DeLaura of School of the Future agrees and suggests that school visits play a crucial role in ensuring that students not only choose to go to college but choose a school that is the right fit, improving the prospect that they will persist and graduate. DeLaura recalled that Colby College in Waterville, Maine was particularly interested in one young Latina woman from School of the Future. Colby demonstrated its commitment to the student and her non-English speaking mother, who was concerned about her daughter leaving home, by funding the cost for the mother’s visit, demonstrating to the mother that the school was safe and demonstrating to the student and her teachers, counselors and advisor at School of the Future that Colby was a particularly good fit.

DeLaura has used this strategy of making it possible for a family to visit schools in other cases, sometimes paying for the visits with School of the Future funds. DeLaura believes that one of School of the Future’s key assets in the college readiness effort is that students and their families decide higher education is important and opt for School of the Future, which does send nearly all of its students to higher education, as a result. “Maybe I’m being na?ve,” says DeLaura, “But I think there are very few families that don’t want to give their kids the opportunity to go to college.”

Essential Schools Leverage Personalization to Guide Students to College Success

Colby’s commitment to understand and honor the culture, experience, and concerns of the School of the Future student and her family mattered. Boston Arts Academy’s Beth Balliro believes that culture differences are far more serious impediments to college persistence than academic preparedness. She and others at BAA, including student support and guidance educator Cynthia Hairston, who guide students in their college process, believe that finding a good fit is crucial-not just for students getting into college but for staying there. Balliro says, “Some schools have bad track records with kids of color; the kids may get in, but the schools don’t advise and support them. Our students need guidance; often they do not know what schools are right for them. They are not educated consumers and are prone to be manipulated by advertising for schools offering overpriced nonlegitimate degrees. Our families have no experience in the college world; some have paid $1,000 to attend a workshop that shares nothing useful about financial aid. These are families that are trying to do right by their kids. They are ships lost at sea, and people are out there preying on them.”

Balliro continues, “One of the things we try to teach students that they have to be good consumers. Though they don’t see themselves this way, they are a commodity; well-prepared urban kids of color are a hot ticket – they have clout in the higher education world, but they need to know how to use it.”

Students thrive in Essential schools because of the close relationships they develop with each other and with the adults in the school community. Along with race, culture, economic and other demographic concerns, this expectation of personalization also influences considerations of what a “good fit” between student and higher education institution might be. Federal Hocking High School’s Kizzi Clark says, “We try to push kids toward smaller colleges, which allows them to build relationships and go from this community to another where they can get involved. Our kids are used to instructors knowing who they are. If there is any way we don’t serve our kids well, it is that they don’t really know how to function effectively as a number. Of course, that is a real positive for us. But when some students go off to Ohio State, they feel really lost. On the other hand, we’ve had kids go off to big schools, get involved in small communities through clubs and organizations, and thrive.”

Many CES schools, especially those with autonomy and control over their budgets and staff allocation, have preserved and strengthened the role of college, career, and guidance counselors, positions that elsewhere are vulnerable to the budget ax. And in Essential schools dedicated to creating college-going cultures, the work of college counseling is spread out the entire staff. Common planning time and good communication make it possible for advisors, teachers, and counselors to collaborate, increase the likelihood that all staff members will have access to sound, accurate information about higher education and the application process. Joan Macri at Lewiston High School reports, “I’ve done a lot formally and informally. The Aspirations program provides advisors with all kinds of materials and professional development.” Macri’s Aspirations Lab is a central hub of college information and inspiration, useful to teachers and students as the whole school sets its sights on college preparedness.

School of the Future has two counselors for its 400 high school for students. Each follows a group of students four years, one focusing on 9th and 11th grades, the other on 10th and 12th, ensuring that when it’s time to start making decisions about where to apply, the counselors and students know each other well and can make appropriate choices. “It’s a child-centered model,” observes Catherine DeLaura. “Our school does what many middle class families do. Kids can ask their parents, ‘What do you think about this? What do you know about this topic?’ But lot of our kids don’t have those resources, so we teach them how to advocate for themselves, how to find adults who will have helpful relationships with them.”

Kizzi Clark reports similarities at Federal Hocking High School. “As an advisor and in my classes, I’ve become a parent away from home. I’m Aunt Kizzi. I get to know my students really well. I get to know what their ability is in any given area. I get to know what they enjoy and because I get to know them so well, I tend to then push them to try things that they wouldn’t have thought they could do. I stay on their butts in terms of keeping their grades up and being responsible for their own actions. Ultimately, it’s that kid who feels that she or he can go to college-that’s what we push for.”

Essential Schools and Students Struggle with Financial Barriers

In addition to helping students navigate cultural barriers to find a good fit between graduates and colleges, educators at Essential schools are acutely aware of the financial burden that students face as they opt to continue their education rather than enter the workforce fulltime, join the military, or pursue other options. Boston Arts Academy’s Beth Balliro reports, “Though we have a sense of which schools are generous and which aren’t, kids end up over their heads. We do cultivate external relations as much as we can to create internal scholarships and take advantage of existing programs. Berklee School of Music and Massachusetts College of Arts have guaranteed us scholarships, for example.”

All of the schools featured in this article, and many more, guide students through the process of applying for loans and grants, working with families and higher education institutions to create the best, most sustainable situation for each student. Still, it’s an increasing challenge. State and federal trends in financial aid reveal increases in loans and decreases in grants to the least financially advantaged students. Kizzi Clark at Federal Hocking High School says, “We don’t have figures on who drops out, but we know that a lot of our kids end up leaving college because they don’t have financial support. Even though they’re admitted to college with great full tuition packages, they can’t pay for gas, their car, or books.”

Higher education attainment is seen among a wide cross section of American educators and families as the best way to ensure a financially sound future, and Essential schools are committed to supporting students and working with the system to change the social patterns and interrupt generational inequities. The data on the improved economic conditions of college graduates is persuasive, but ultimately, for Boston Arts Academy’s Beth Balliro, it’s not enough. “I’m selling college to my students as economic progress: you are going to college to get a good job and have a bright future. But I do wonder about that bias. In my family, when I was in high school, I wasn’t told that. I got to go there to learn.” Balliro’s observation provokes us to remember that all students have the right to pursue not only economic justice but the countless benefits of the life of the mind, benefits that can’t be measured by job titles, bank balances, or college diplomas.

Related Resources

Horace 21.3 featured a sidebar on College Summit, a college readiness program used by the Mapleton [Colorado] Public Schools and other districts. See

Horace 21.4 features “Using Advocacy and Communication to Create and Sustain Essential Schools,” a discussion of Mentor school Amy Biehl High School that includes description of Amy Biehl’s concurrent enrollment program, in which all students are required to participate. URL

At the 2005 Fall Forum, Southern Maine Partnership’s Gerry Crocker and Mark Kostin facilitated “Getting to the Core of a College Curriculum: Ensuring All High School Graduates are Ready for College,” which featured a detailed College Ready Core Curriculum Self Assessment, a set of indicators schools can use to assess the status of their curriculum. It’s available online at

In CES’s earlier days, researcher Sharon Lloyd Clark led the Admissions Project, which aimed to build relationships between Essential schools and higher education institutions. See Horace 10.5, “College Admissions and the Essential School” for information about the Admissions Project and more.

Boston Arts Academy’s Beth Balliro and School of the Future’s Catherine DeLaura speak highly of the Posse Foundation, a scholarship program that recruits urban students for a select, competitive group of colleges and universities in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. The Posse Foundation, working with college and university staff and cohorts of students, helps create webs of support for its multicultural student leaders, who have won over $112 million in scholarships and are persisting and graduating at a rate of 90%. More information about the Posse Foundation can be found at

CES ChangeLab featured School of the Future School Counselor/College Advisor Shantae Robinson and principal Catherine DeLaura on an Ask a Mentor Panel focused on college preparation. “College Ready: Preparing Students, Parents, and Higher Ed to Understand Small Alternative Schooling” can be found at