The Stakes of College Graduation

This fall, I found myself reflecting — not as a PelotonU staff member but as a former teacher — on how grateful I am that a program like PelotonU now exists for so many students I’ve served over the years.

It was in my first year of teaching high school history, in the fall of 2007 in South Texas, that I began to realize the vital importance of student pathways and relational support. For whatever reason, students have always felt comfortable opening up to me. In Brownsville, where I first started teaching, it meant I heard everything.

I heard about crushes and ex boyfriends, about loving parents and abusive ones, about coming to this country and about family lines that traced back centuries. I heard about parties, and overdoses, and abortions. I heard about decisions to drop out of high school and about decisions to leave home for UT.

And I also heard about what happened in other classrooms. And more than almost anything else I heard, this made me the most sad. Students would tell me about how a teacher sat at his desk reading the paper while they colored maps — in high school. I heard about a teacher who would yell at her entire class of students and tell them they were dumb, and that they should have been held back in middle school. I heard about a teacher who never assigned essays because he thought they were “too hard” for his 9th grade English students.

There were absolutely teachers at this school working SO hard to ensure our students were learning, that they were safe, and that they were reminded daily that they could do it. But then every day — 6 times a day — those students left our classrooms for ones where teachers were earnestly ineffective at best, and downright negligent at worst. It was heart breaking. It felt like the social justice version of watching the tide sweep away the best sand castle you’d ever built: you were powerless to stop it.

But it made me wonder — what would happen if an entire school’s worth of teachers were actually effective? If they actually held students to a high standard AND helped them get there? If they challenged them to think critically about the world and their place in it? And what would happen if an entire school’s worth of teachers cared what happened when their students went to another teacher’s classroom — if we actually all wanted every adult in the building to be excellent at their job, too.

That’s why, eight years ago, I made the decision to leave Brownsville and move to Austin — and, more importantly, to leave a traditional public school for a public charter school.

I joined the team at KIPP: Austin. Our shorthand mission is “to and through college.” And for a school that’s 90% low income and 98% students of color, that’s a radical mission. Teachers in that building were everything I hoped for — beyond just a single classroom, it was an entire school working in sync (most days!) to ensure that our students had the same opportunities as their peers on the west side of town.

I worked there for 5 years. I saw 3 classes graduate. And it took me a while — I was so busy, and once the students aren’t there every day, it can be hard to keep track of how things are going — but I finally realized: we were facing the same problem I had faced in Brownsville. Except this time, instead of sending them into another teacher’s broken classroom, we were sending them to broken colleges.

I don’t need to go into the statistics here — I think we all know them — but just to get us on the same page: fewer than 10% of low income students graduate, compared to 80% of high income peers. Between 6%–23% of our community college students graduate, depending on how you slice the numbers. And if you go to college part-time, you have only a 16% chance of graduating.

I know these students. It’s Angela, who took 5 AP exams, helped create the student government at KIPP, who volunteered, who gave tours to funders, who translated at events. Her financial aid fell through for her first choice college, so she ended up at Austin Community College (ACC). Five years later, she’s only earned 30 credit hours and is working a full time and a part time job to support herself and her family, who she loves dearly.

It’s Jorge, who begrudgingly came to KIPP in 9th grade because he’d gotten into so much trouble in middle school. He never thought he’d live through high school, let alone graduate. College was never an option for him. But my god, was he curious. In 10th grade, he stayed out of trouble long enough that he got to come on the 5 day end of year field lesson — part college tour, part learning about other places — that went from Austin to Nashville. At a diner in Memphis, he got up in front of 80 peers to give a toast (of root beer) about how grateful he was for all of them, to be on the trip, and to KIPP for giving him a chance.

When he graduated two years later, he went to ACC. A month later, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, so he dropped out, picked up a 3rd job, and earned as much money as he could to support him and his new family. He’s now married and they have two beautiful daughters. He’s never earned a college credit.

It’s 50 other stories I could tell you of students who I saw blossom into talented, bright, curious, caring young adults — who we sent off to colleges with our fingers crossed and our breath held that they would take as good care of our kiddos as we did.

And they failed. They’re failing. They’ve been failing.

So when I think about PelotonU — when I think about what our students have build, what our team has built, what our supporters in Austin have built — I’m glad not just for the hope it brings to the many strangers who want a college degree and come join our program.

I’m grateful in the deep down place of my heart because now I know, with 100% certainty, that there is an option for college in Austin where Angela, and Jorge, and Jairo, and Valéria, and the Martinez brothers can go when they’re ready. And they’ll be able to afford it. And they’ll graduate. And they’ll be able to provide for their families. And they will be loved and valued and a part of a community that cares about what happens to them.

THAT is what we have built at PelotonU — a place of hope, not just for our current and future students, but also for their parents, and their friends, and their teachers who want them to live they life they’ve always dreamed of.

What a thing.

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PelotonU — Rethinking College

PelotonU provides working students a personalized pathway to graduate from college on-time and debt-free.