Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What to do when students literally do not have access to education?

I am part of a small group (we call ourselves a think tank but we're more like a think puddle) on access and success in Utah higher education. We met yesterday to talk about how to track access and success work, share information, and figure out how to come at the policy and practice challenges facing people who want to improve college success for underserved populations in Utah.

Near the end of the meeting we had a depressing conversation about refugee students in Utah. Like most states, our refugee population is growing, with a good sized portion of high schoolers among them.

High school aged refugees are at a particular educational disadvantage. Many have had little access to schooling in their home countries. Their age places them in high school, but many aren't prepared for high school level work, and so they have very little chance to get enough credits to graduate. And once they reach age 18 they age out of high school.

One pathway would be to get a GED and/or enroll in remedial classes at the community college. But the community college folks at our meeting said that many of them have poor enough english skills that they don't qualify for college-level ESL courses. Since they don't qualify for college courses, they can't get federal financial aid to improve their english skills enough that they can get an education.

So, they are stuck. Unable to graduate high school, unable to afford the costs of ESL courses, and in a down economy, often unable to find work. (The term of art in the education bureaucracy is that they lack the "ability to benefit.")

How can educators respond? Perhaps a single-purpose school, one designed simply to prepare refugee teens to graduate high school and enroll in college. What would it look like? Here are a few thoughts:

1. Mastery-based not credit-based. One reason these students don't go on educationally is that they come to school too late to get all the credit requirements for graduation. But Utah has a battery of basic skills tests and established learning outcomes (of a sort) for graduation. So this school, instead of focusing on credit-hours would work with students to pass the tests, and by so doing demonstrate mastery of the subject. Once they pass a particular test, they don't have to do work in that area any more. Instead, they redouble their effort in the areas where they have yet to demonstrate mastery.

2. No age limits. Though the school would ostensibly be a high school, students would remain a part of it until they demonstrated mastery.

3. Connection/obligation to their communities. Many refugee youth carry the hope of older generations of relatives--parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. So their task in learning is not just their own success, but sharing that success with their communities.

I'm sure there is more. But this seems like a great opportunity for a social entrepreneur in partnership with refugee families and the agencies that serve them to fill the gap between our K-12 and community college systems.

1 comment:

David G. Pace said...

A series in the Salt Lake Tribune beginning 12/3/2011 on the experience of refugee teens is instructive. It not only provides a compelling narrative--following one particular teen--but is raising a lot of the questions that your thinking "puddle" of associates :) have come up with.