As her first semester of college at Delaware State University began in fall 2020, Kadiatu Mansaray had a problem: She didn’t have a computer. While the first-year college student was excited to live independently on campus, a laptop was more important than ever due to COVID-19 safety protocols that meant she would attend some of her courses online.

Kadiatu was already tutoring to save money for the laptop, but she had another avenue to try. As a graduate of DC Public Schools (DCPS), she’s part of a program called DCPS Persists — an initiative, started with the DCPS class of 2020, that provides college-bound alumni with a support network and resources to help them graduate from college.

“I thought [the money for the computer] was fake,” said Kadiatu. “So, when they emailed me the money … it was a relief.”

Supported by an investment from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation, DCPS Persists aims to raise the college graduation rate of DCPS students by 10 percentage points in the next five years. The program, which completed its first year with students in the 2020-21 academic year, matches 750 students per year with 1:1 coaching and provides other DCPS graduates with regular information and connections to the broader DCPS alumni community.

A commitment to students that extends beyond high school graduation

Over the past 15 years, many public K-12 school districts have gotten more serious about college access – they have invested in college counseling positions; held college “signing day” events to celebrate a culture of college-going; and partnered with community-based organizations that provide additional college advising. And while enrollment rates in postsecondary institutions have gone up since 2000, only about 60% of students complete a postsecondary degree within six years. For Black students, that rate is about 40%.

DCPS has raised its college enrollment rate by an impressive 15 percentage points in five years, partially by identifying and encouraging attendance at “Smart College Choices” — those institutions where DCPS students have historically graduated in high numbers. However, college graduation rates have remained stubbornly low. Only 38% of all DCPS students who enroll complete college within six years. Many students are sidelined not by academic challenges but by issues that seem small but can disrupt education for those without a safety net, like not having access to a computer or being able to travel back home for Thanksgiving break.

An extra push at an uncertain time

Extra help could not have come at a better moment.

“[DCPS Persists] was perfect timing,” says Agnes-Laure Signou, who enrolled at Marymount University, one of the colleges DCPS considers a “Smart College Choice” for its high graduation rate of DCPS students. “Persists was the quiet call for help for a lot of students.”

The coronavirus pandemic closed schools and upended end-of-year traditions for the Class of 2020. While plans for DCPS Persists had long been in the works, the spring of 2020 felt like an opportune moment for students facing unexpected uncertainty about their next steps.

“School just ended out of nowhere. You didn’t have the final hooray that you wanted, so it’s like ‘why start up something new when you feel like you’re incomplete?’” said Agnes-Laure, thinking about the perspective of peers who chose not to enroll this year. She credits the relationship with her coach, Jan Quijada, for helping to push her forward.

“Having people like Coach Jan, helping you, pushing you, telling you all the things you could accomplish … just has you thinking about the different options you could take instead of just sitting at home in quarantine.”

About her coach, Ricardo, Kadiatu adds: “You don’t have to stress because you know you have a coach in your corner who really cares about you. You can call them for any small thing and they’ll be there for you.”

DCPS Persists coaches say their role is to empower students by providing the small nudges that can make a big difference, as well as a source of support when a student runs into an issue. “My job is not to make them amazing — they already are,” said Coach Jan. “It’s to support them to become more confident in college and build their self-agency to navigate it. I think they just need a little scaffolding to put the pieces together.”

The DCPS Persists coaches work with students for two years, with a goal of building self-advocacy and confidence for students to continue their college journey without the same level of intensive support. Coaches check in with students several times a month through a variety of methods – texting, video chats, email newsletters, even hosting a monthly virtual “game night” for students to connect with each other. Coach Ricardo shared that even in his first semester of working with students, he could see their confidence grow: “Students become comfortable, they begin to develop independence and take ownership, and you see the gratification they have.”

An approach to data that support relationship-building and systemic improvements

DCPS has applied its rigorous approach to understanding and using data to DCPS Persists. The district has invested in GradSnapp, a system for managing information about college students, to help coaches keep tabs on communication with students and track student progress through college. This careful tracking also helps make meaningful individual relationships possible — both Coach Jan and Coach Ricardo said they make sure to connect with each of their students on their birthdays and on holidays and to communicate with the student in the way the student prefers, whether that’s by phone or over Instagram.

For the district, getting serious about data goes beyond understanding the pathways of individual students. In its first year, DCPS Persists established partnerships with five colleges attended by many DCPS students and plans to develop more partnerships in the future. Together, DCPS and these higher education institutions will look at student persistence trends and work together to make changes that they hope will lead to higher graduation rates. Longer term, this could mean altering the way DCPS approaches postsecondary advising or making other systemic changes to improve the experience for all students.

In launching DCPS Persists, DCPS is taking ownership for student outcomes in a way that most other K-12 school districts have not — committing to helping students achieve their educational goals after they are no longer DCPS students.

So why should more K-12 school districts take this approach? The answer is clear for Coach Jan: Committing to the educational success of first-generation students of color ultimately means a more diverse and equitable society.

“We need more students of color in higher education. There’s a push for diversity and inclusion in higher education, but it’s easier said than done,” she said.

“Sometimes the focus is sending them to college, especially for K-12. ‘They went to college, they are good. We did our jobs.’ For DCPS Persists, it’s only the beginning.”

Lindsay Peck is the director of DCPS Persists, a new alumni support program for graduates of DC Public Schools

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