Woonsocket's College Prep Dilemma

PROVIDENCE, RI – School districts around the nation are trying to send more students to college as the United States looks to better compete in the 21st century. In this installment of our series One Square Mile: Woonsocket, we look at a program in Woonsocket city schools that prepares students for life after high school, but not necessarily a 4-year college.

Founded in 1849, Woonsocket High School is one of the 100 oldest public high schools in country, according to the Museum of Work and Culture. But it has yet to solve one of the most trying problems in public education today: too many students don't go to college.

In the school's central hallway, hundreds of teenagers wearing the informal school uniform of gray and maroon t-shirts gather for a few moments to socialize between classes It's an area students call Times Square because of all the traffic. Of the nearly 18-hundred students who walk these halls each day, more than a third will not graduate on time, and fewer than one in four members of last year's senior class went on to a 4-year college.

"When we get them in the 9th grade, I would say a good 70% say I want to go to college."

Lynn Hawkins, a guidance counselor says she would like to get all of those students into college, but many are failing several classes.

"I will have the students report card up on the screen when I am talking to them, and I try to remind them that you want to go to college, that's great, you want to be a pharmacist, that's a great job, and then remind them gently that if you're failing math and you're failing science, you have a lot of work to do if you want to be a pharmacist," says Hawkins.

Hawkins steers some students to a lower level of class, which the district calls college prep essentials. The curriculum is similar to a regular class, but the pace is slower. One of those students, Narimane Khaled, came to this country from Algeria and was still learning English as a 9th grader.

My freshman year," she says. "Even though I had English as an ESL class, but history and math classes were CP College Essential classes because there is no ESL math or ESL history, so I was put in that."

Khaled later learned about honors classes and collected signatures from all of her teachers so she could take them. This year the 18-year-old got into Worcester Polytechic Institute, where she plans to study engineering.

"I took it as a challenge," she says. "That's what I did. I think that this place like you know school somebody just has to put their mind to it. Like if you want to do something, there's nothing to stop you."

"It hits you afterwards. You struggle."

Jordan DuBois, who graduated from Woonsocket High School two years ago, is having a more difficult time. He got into the Rhode Island School of Design but decided to spend two years at the Community College of Rhode Island first to save money.

I'm barely pulling it off," says DuBois. "I mean, this semester I took the hardest classes and right now I'm averaging a C in two of them, so it's going to drop the GPA which could hurt me in the long run because in RISD you have to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA to get in. " "So this could jeopardize your future at RISD?" I asked. "Yeah."

A student like DuBois might also find he needs extra coursework to transfer to a four-year college like the University of Rhode Island. That's because he didn't take a foreign language in high school, something Woonsocket does not require, though many colleges do.

Not every student is prepared to be successful at the University of Rhode Island. Cynthia Bonn is Dean of Admissions at URI. "Our standards, although we're not a highly selective institution by any means, but we do have some standards which we don't compromise," she says.

Woonsocket school officials say it's simply not realistic to think that every student will graduate from high school ready for a four-year college, and some experts agree. Robert Schwartz, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says focusing too heavily on a bachelor's degree may run the risk of alienating some students.

"It's not that anyone wants to shut off options for young people," says Schwartz. "But I think to the degree that we send a message that all kids are going to go on to four-year institutions and sit in classrooms for another 4 years, that's not a very compelling message for kids who are voting with their feet much earlier."

To stop students from voting with their feet, Woonsocket has created a variety of options, including a large selection of online classes and recently, offering credit for some internships. The school board is also considering lowering the minimum passing grade from 70 percent to 60 percent. Critics say that may reduce dropout rates, but they question whether it sends the right message to students, and whether it will really help prepare them for success after high school.

Listen to more stories and interviews in our series, One Square Mile: Woonsocket.

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