Post

During our research for “Falling Out of the Lead,” the third report in our Shattering Expectations series, we interviewed high-achieving, low-income students to better understand how their high schools prepared them for college. This blog post is the third in a four-part series focused on what we learned from students, the struggles they encountered, and the successes they realized. Here, we feature Gregory, a graduate of a large, diverse high school in Virginia.

In eighth grade, one of Gregory’s teachers recommended him for a national scholarship program designed for high-achieving, low-income students. On account of his stellar academic record and his passion for music and the arts, he was selected out of about 1,000 applicants to participate. By the time he started high school, he was on a solid path toward college.

But when he got to high school, it wasn’t what he thought it would be. “I liked learning, but the school wasn’t all that interested in me,” he said, referring to the absence of personalized support and attention in his school community. As an example, he recalled, “My programming teacher was required to have after-school tutoring sessions, but she made it sound like it was such a burden that it made me not want to bother.”

Educators might assume that high-achieving students don’t need academic support. They are, after all, high-achieving. But they still need the same encouragement, motivation, and assistance that other students receive. All of the students we spoke to said that they struggled at least once in their high school career and looked for help from the adults around them. In Gregory’s case, it was hard to find that help. “Ever since I entered school, it was basically like: ‘We’re not going to come to you if you’re failing. You have to come to us for help or figure it out on your own,’” he said.

In our analysis, we found that less than 30 percent of high-achieving students from disadvantaged families received A averages in their academic courses during high school. For high-achieving students from advantaged families, that number was more than 45 percent. Although many phenomena could explain these grading differences, one possible explanation is related to the amount of support students receive to master course material. What’s more, these disparities have important consequences for students’ futures: High school grades are a strong predictor of subsequent college enrollment and success.

The vast majority of educators undoubtedly want their students to succeed, but even those with the best of intentions need to consistently monitor the messages they’re sending to students about their availability and willingness to help. As Gregory says, “When teachers don’t take the initiative to explain things to students or help them learn it, students don’t feel like they can turn to their teachers for that type of help.”

Gregory got his diploma, but he turned down a spot at a four-year university, in part because he worried that college life would too closely resemble his experience in high school. He now works at a local frozen yogurt shop, with hopes of pursuing a career in performing arts. He might consider college, he says, sometime in the future.

Check back next week when we profile Rosa, a college freshman who credits her high school preparation for her postsecondary success.

Related Content