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New Orleans Students Reflect On The Transition From High School To College

Relay Graduate School of Education
Sci Academy teacher Jim Kline leads a college success class to help prepare students for higher education.

Many of New Orleans charter schools are focused on preparation for college, especially for low-income students of color who would be the first in their families to go to college. But what about preparing these students for that big academic and cultural transition?

More studies show this student population is at a higher risk for dropping out of higher education. One New Orleans school is focused on the high school to college transition.

Raven Matthews graduated from New Orleans’ Sci Academy and was really excited for college. She was pumped to get out in the world. The University of Louisiana at Monroe, about four hours' drive away, was as far as she could get and still use a TOPS scholarship in state.

“I thought it was just gonna be peaches and cream,” Matthews says. “You know, partying. Going to class like in your pajamas. Just, you know, the typical stuff that we see on TV. But it wasn’t like that.”

She felt lost in large classes.

“It was my first time experiencing the stadium-size classrooms,” she says.  “So I was in classes with like 100 and more students. And it kind of freaked me out ‘cause I was looking at a little teacher at the bottom, and you can barely see my hand over like 50 other students’ hands.”

And she was scared to approach that tiny, far away teacher. Office hours were intimidating.

“It was like once class was over, I just ran out the door,” Matthew says. “And if I got the material from a friend that was in the class, I got it. But if I didn’t, I just sort of swept it under the rug. So that hurt me in the long run.”

Her GPA plummeted. In one year, she bounced around without really focusing on anything. First marine biology, then nursing, then French. She started to think ULM wasn’t right for her.

“Me and my friend was sitting in Starbucks and we was just talking about how we missed home and how we wasn’t doing well,” says Matthews. “And we just bawled out in Starbucks. Like crying. And I was like, it’s time for me to go home.”

Home to New Orleans. But not out of higher education. Matthews transferred to Delgado Community College.

“At Delgado, it’s a completely different story,” she says. “The classes are smaller. I know the teachers. They know my name. They know what I missed and what I need to do. It’s amazing."

Also, through this process of transferring, Matthews got support from her high school. Sci Academy is all too aware that unlike Matthews, many students leave college altogether when they face challenges.

According to a study from the University of Pennsylvania, only about one in five low-income college students will complete their bachelor’s degree by age 24. Financial aid falls through. Side jobs to pay for housing and food interfere with homework. But a main challenge is also just knowing how to be a college student.

Lauren Katz is Director of College Completion at Collegiate Academies, Sci’s parent organization. “Things like what is an academic calendar, when does your add/drop period end, can be major for students if they don’t have someone at home who really knows how to guide them through some of those college knowledge pieces,” she says.

Katz works with students after they graduate, maintaining a relationship through their entire college careers.

“If I can be there to remove some of those barriers so they can just focus on being a happy and learning college student, then I want to do that,” Katz says.

More and more schools are creating positions like Katz’s. And their understanding of what students need is evolving.

On a recent afternoon, teacher Jim Kline stood in front of Sci Academy seniors and asked a stream of questions. What is sexual orientation? What is "coming out?"

This sounds like a health class. But it’s a diversity and identity unit Kline recently added to his college success class. The mandatory course covers topics like financial aid and campus resources. But several graduates told Kline a unit on diversity could help with culture shock when they arrive on campus.

Sci alum Darren is in a culture very different from his New Orleans home: Swarthmore College, just outside Philadelphia. He was a reserved high school student who did well academically but didn’t attract attention.

“Like some people in my high school, they didn’t even hear my voice until I was a senior,” Darren says.

He wanted a small, academically rigorous school and learned about Swarthmore from his college counselor, who also helped him snag a scholarship. Now, he’s a sophomore.

“People often pontificate that Swarthmore is this intense school, but I’ve found that it wasn’t as intense as people would say,” he claims.

Darren asked to use a pseudonym. He wants to go into finance and a mentor told him to limit his web presence for that conservative career path.

Darren has come into his own in college. A double major in economics and computer science, he’s also super active on campus. President of the African-American Student Association. Proud member of the feminist and anime clubs. In training to be a doula.

“I am now just this much better person. Like I think I’m a much clearer reflection of who I want to be than who I was in high school,” he says.

But there is a private liberal arts school paradox. Those schools tend to be smaller and easier to navigate. It’s harder to fall through the cracks. But they also tend to be whiter -- and, in some cases, less welcoming. Swarthmore was among several schools that made headlines this fall.

“The French department, they have a board containing the names and pictures of all students, all majors and minors of that department,” Darren says. “And someone tore out the faces of all students of color. And so it was obviously racially targeted. It was specifically just those faces.”

Darren says that and other incidents have been disturbing but not debilitating.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m trying to make excuses for it because it’s very difficult to understand ideas that are antithetical to my existence.”

In general, Darren says, Swarthmore is a good fit.

For Raven Matthews, moving back home was the right choice. She’s thriving at Delgado, where she just became president of student government. She’s studying education and applying to four-year colleges in New Orleans.

“You go through life and you sort of realize some things just aren’t for you,” Matthews says. “You have to figure out what is and then you have to go with that flow. I felt like it was rough at times, transferring. But it’s definitely worth it once you find the college that’s for you.”

She recently returned to Sci Academy and met with current students, sharing her experience so they might have a smoother college transition.

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