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Twenty-five eighth-graders stood in a circle at the Woodlawn campus of the University of Chicago Charter School, tossing a ball of pale-blue knitter’s yarn to each other as they traced their own social network.

“If I wanted help in history, I would call on Jason,” one student said while passing the ball across the circle.

“If I wanted help with math, I would get a hold of you,” Jason said as he handed off to a female classmate. And so the game continued, until a web resembling the product of a busy spider stretched out a dozen feet across.

It may seem like a game, but such exercises are based on findings that students with networks of mutual support are more likely to succeed in school and beyond. Developing the skills that will lead students to success in college is one of the key aims of the Urban Education Institute’s “6to16” college preparatory program, an innovative and growing effort that shepherds students from sixth grade through their senior year of college (16th grade).

The UEI program offers a combination of in-class and online help, building a web of support from instructors as well as the students’ own peers. The approach already is showing promise in helping students identify and strive toward their common goals, says Timothy Knowles, the John Dewey Director of UEI, which operates the charter school.

“UEI’s Consortium on Chicago School Research has shown incredibly high percentages of students aspire to go to college, says Knowles, “but they are sidetracked both by poor academic preparation and a lack of knowledge navigating the process of getting to college and succeeding when they do. This is what 6to16 seeks to overcome.”

‘The Transformational Power of Education’

The program began as a way to help eighth-grade students get into selective enrollment high schools, says Shayne Evans, director of the Woodlawn campus, who was assistant director of the Carter G. Woodson Middle School Campus when he helped start the program. The students learned the importance of getting good grades and filling out the high school applications to show their contributions outside the classroom.

“We were trying to inform young people of the transformational power of education, to prepare them to become leaders, and to get them thinking about college by starting to talk to them about getting into a good high school,” he says.

“The lessons are the same for getting into a good college: You have to know what you’re looking for, know how to choose a good college, and not pick one because you happen to like the mascot, for instance,” he says. “This program shows students why college is important and turns over to them ownership about making decisions about their futures.”

A National Model for College Preparedness

6to16 works as a class that students take every year. It is part of a participating school’s college success program, which also includes visits to colleges, work with parents about filling out financial aid forms, and special counseling with recent graduates in college as well as seniors.

“Students in under-resourced urban schools need this information and support as early as possible if they are going to understand and navigate the path to college completion. Too many of them just won’t get it otherwise, and unfortunately will be left behind,” says Nyasha Nyamapfene, director of product and program design for UEI, who leads the national work of 6to16.

The preparation is designed to include lessons plans, more than 30 e-learning activities, and an online social network. The program, which was initiated in 2008 with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and piloted for two years, launched a national pilot this fall with KIPP charter schools, where it is used in 27 schools across 10 cities. A total of 5,000 students, including students enrolled in schools in the Woodlawn Promise Community, are engaged in the program.

“For a national network of schools like ours, an electronic library of lessons is much easier to manage than a traditional, paper-based curriculum,” says Matt Niksch, director of the College Completion Initiative at KIPP. “The greatest thing about the program is that it helps students internalize both why college is important for them personally as well as what steps they’ll have to do to get there.”

Avoiding the Potholes

The University’s Consortium on Chicago School Research has done pioneering research on the problems Chicago Public Schools students have when moving from high school to college. A 2008 report found that only 41 percent of the students who wanted to go to college took the steps they needed to apply. Among students who were most highly qualified, college mismatching was a big problem. The study found that 27 percent of the students qualified for a selective college enrolled in a selective or highly selective school, while 29 percent of those top students enrolled in a two-year college or did not enroll at all.

“Among the most highly qualified students, having discussions on postsecondary planning and having strong connections to teachers is particularly important in shaping the likelihood of enrolling in a match school,” the report found.

6to16 teaches students to be aware of the impact of their decisions and how to connect with people who can help them. Other CCSR research informs teachers in the program, says Nabiha Calcuttawala, a middle school social worker/counselor who teaches the 6to16 course. For instance, CCSR work has shown that attendance and successful course completion are critical to students staying on track and graduating from high school.

“When we talk about that, some students will say something like, ‘yeah, well that wouldn’t apply to me. I could miss school and still make it,’ but I remind them that we have facts that show otherwise,” she says.

Alumni Benefiting From Program

This is the first year that the school can gauge how 6to16 is helping students beyond high school, as the first graduates of the Woodlawn campus are now freshmen in college. Nearly all of the graduates are attending four-year colleges, and many say the program is helping them succeed.

Alumna Mecca Wilkerson, a student at the University of Missouri, says her former 6to16 teachers inspired her. “A lot of times I thought school was too stressful, but they gave me words of encouragement. They said I was going to be somebody someday.

“With 6to16, I felt like they prepared me to go to school and actually work,” she says. “I’m going to prove to everybody that I can go to school and be successful.”

By William Harms