Preparing for life after high school

Published 1:31 pm Sunday, August 31, 2014

Destiny Otto picked up lessons pretty easily in high school. That was one of the reasons why she chose to go to Riverland Community College to take Post Secondary Enrollment Option classes. By the time Otto graduated from Austin High School in 2009, she was already three to four credits shy of her associate’s degree.

“It was nice,” she said.

Otto is a standout among her high school class, according to state data. She’s among 34 2009 AHS graduates to obtain an associate’s degree and one of about 77 students to earn a postsecondary diploma or certification. Otto graduated in a class of about 307 students.

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As school starts around Minnesota, school districts will once again focus on preparing students for the college and working world. Yet recent data shows only about 2/3 of high school graduates get a postsecondary education, and less than half of AHS graduates are likely to finish college.

In recent years, Austin educators have made a specific effort to get students ready for life after high school, through college and career readiness programs and a new program that could significantly increase the amount of AHS grads who get college degrees.


Measuring success

Data released by the Minnesota Department of Education this summer shows between 60 to 70 percent of Austin students have continued their education in college every year since 2006. On average, a little more than 40 percent AHS graduates complete a postsecondary program to earn a certification, degree or diploma. What’s more, a little more than 1 in 5 Austin students finish college of any kind in four years or less.

Austin trends slightly lower than statewide averages, though the district isn’t far off from national averages either.

It’s the first time Minnesota districts have been able to track what high school graduates do after high school. Yet the data only extends back to 2006, so district officials don’t have data that reflects their current college and workforce initiatives.

“Just initially diving in, it’s something that obviously is going to be powerful for us,” said Katie Baskin, AHS principal. “Any time you get a data set, you really need to digest it and fully understand what it’s all about.”

Austin has consciously encouraged students to think about life after high school since 2010, when the district was one of eight pilot sites selected by the University of Minnesota’s Ramp Up to Readiness program, which stresses college and workforce readiness.

At the time, the district set up a number of classes and programs throughout its secondary schools, including a sixth-grade college readiness class that taught students lessons about choosing schools, financial aid and other lessons.

Austin High School has had similar classes for the past several years. Students get 29-minute lessons during their Connect time every week, along with five workshops throughout the year that involves bringing speakers and other professionals in to speak with students about college and professional life.

“For us, it’s quite powerful, because our 10th-12th graders have the same Connect teacher for their high school year,” Baskin said. “It’s powerful, because these connect teachers start to form a bond with the students, so they can really then shift the curriculum to meet the needs of the kids in their room.”

Those classes focus on more intensive college skills and assessments. Students even use their scores from PLAN tests, a precursor to the ACT, and other exams to determine what their strengths are and how they can move forward.

The district also prepares students through the ACT, as Austin High School has provided ACTs for all eligible high schoolers over the past two years.

“It’s part of that idea that we wanted all students to have an ACT score,” John Alberts, Austin’s educational services director, said. “We felt like there were some students that might not take the ACT that may value, or benefit from taking it.”


A new course

Austin is about to start another program that could help more Austin students get college degrees.

AHS will offer a class that helps middle-of-the-road students learn necessary skills to succeed in college. The Advancement Via Individual Determination program (AVID) is a nationwide program that has seen success in many states, according to Alberts.

“It targets populations of students who have academic potential and have some type of inner drive to want to succeed and attend college, but for whatever reason have some barriers to getting there,” he said.

To that end, average students will take an AVID elective course, where they’re taught study and organizational skills, college prep skills, and college-level tutoring, which involves group discussion similar to college-level classes.

AVID students will also have to take an honors or Advanced Placement course before they graduate and apply to at least one four-year college.

“The idea is that AVID prepares students for what it would take to get into a four-year university,” Alberts said.

About 40 to 60 students will take the course this year, with one section in ninth grade and one class in 10th grade. The district will add junior- and senior-level courses over the next few years.

That means more students like Otto will have the chance to continue their educational dreams. Otto turned her attention to a massage therapy degree after she realized she didn’t want to go into nursing. Now a massage therapist, Otto is going back to college to earn a business degree from Riverland.

“I want to someday own my own business, so it seemed like it was a good idea to learn about the other side of that,” she said.