Working with High Schools: Lessons From Three CLP Programs

Many CLP-affiliated programs do extensive work with high school students in their communities. We interviewed leaders at three of our affiliates—Henry Ford College, De Anza College, and Los Angeles Trade Technical College—to learn about some of the success stories, challenges, and opportunities each has had involving high school students in their programmatic work.

“We really had to do a lot to adapt on the fly,”
-Robert Yahrmatter, Henry Ford College

For the past year, Professor Robert Yahrmatter at Henry Ford Community College has led a pilot project that enrolled students of Frank Cody High School in Detroit, Michigan through a certificate program in community leadership. The 19-credit program includes three core courses and an internship.

“The model itself is sound,” Robert said. “But there are so many barriers working with high school students, and to overcome all of them is a tremendous challenge.” One of the main obstacles, he notes, is working around a high school student’s schedule—do you require students to take a college course on top of their full day of high school? Or do you interrupt their day by taking them out of one of their normally scheduled high school courses? “I chose to interrupt them,” Robert said, but noted that neither option is particularly ideal.

Deciding where the courses occur — either on the campus of the college or high school — presented another challenge. Conducting the courses at Henry Ford would expose students to and prepare them for a true college experience. But it also presents logistical challenges; how do you transport the students, for instance? Conducting the courses on a high school’s campus also has a practical benefit: “It saves us money,” Robert said. “You’re not worrying about transportation, and you’re not using your college’s buildings and facilities.” Still, Robert’s solution was to split the difference — students take half of their courses at Henry Ford, and the other half at Cody High.

Robert also stresses the importance of flexibility in designing coursework around high school students. “You come in with your syllabi, but then you realize some of your students don’t know how to do a college application,” Robert said by way of example. “Or they don’t know what the FAFSA is, or a checking account, or the Detroit Promise,” he added, the last of which is a local scholarship that guarantees any public high school graduate free access to an associate’s degree. “So we really had to do a lot to adapt on the fly.”

Relatedly, Robert says it’s important to consider whether the high school students in your program are able to succeed in college-level courses. The group of students he has worked with during this pilot program was “hand picked” by the high school. “They are a really strong group,” he said. Still, even with exceptional students, his pilot has suffered some dramatic attrition—though he started with a group of 15, he is now down to eight students. “So you should think about that,” Robert said. “You want to start with a big enough cohort so you can absorb that kind of drop off. Things are going to happen, they’re going to move, switch schools, or simply won’t be capable of doing what we’re doing.”

Despite all of the challenges, Robert is proud of the program’s successes. “I’m going to end up with 8 students who I am confident are going to finish this program,” he said. “The ones I have left, I’ve watched them grow from thinking, oh, ‘this college stuff is just a fun little game,’ to, ‘wow, I actually get what you’re trying to do.’”

“Most high schools don’t want you to put a poster up saying, ‘hey, if you’re undocumented, come to this room at this time,”
–Angelica Esquivel, De Anza

To a lesser degree than Robert’s program in Detroit, the program at De Anza College also recruits some high school students to enroll in college level courses at the school. Cynthia Kaufman, who leads the school’s Leadership and Social Change program, maintains a connection with a high school teacher at a local charter school who teaches a course in social justice, for instance. Each semester he sends some of his students to dual enroll in courses associated with the CLP De Anza program. “It’s really wonderful,” Cynthia said. “High school students add something to the discussions, a dose of enthusiasm that everyone else can feed off of.”

The most robust area of contact the program has with high school students, however, is through outreach conducted through Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action (VIDA) at De Anza, coordinated by Angelica Esquivel. “We want high school students to know about resources available to them at De Anza,” Angelica said, speaking in particular about a center she cofounded, called HEFAS, that provides support to undocumented and low-income students. “We do presentations for both high school students and their parents,” Angelica said, “and the presenters are typically themselves current HEFAS students—so they very quickly meet someone who understands them, and also has resources to help.” Though the goal of this outreach is to help connect potential students with resources that can help them succeed, Angelica notes it also helps as a recruitment tool by exposing students to the Leadership and Social Change program on campus.

Angelica says their outreach program is successful in part thanks to its comprehensiveness. “We go to all high schools, not just those around De Anza,” Angelica said. “Many of our students will pass by two or three other colleges just to get to De Anza, and it’s because they’ve already learned about our services while in high school. They know there are people on campus already that they can connect with.” A challenge to conducting this outreach, however, is navigating the bureaucracy at high schools for opportunities to present to students. “Most high schools don’t want you to put a poster up saying, ‘hey, if you’re undocumented, come to this room at this time,” Angelica said. “So usually we just go straight into the classroom to present, or if there is a club we’ll go through them.” Forging good working relationship with high school teachers and administrators, she says, is key. She also  tries to maintain a team of at least five HEFAS students, with diverse schedules, so that someone is able to travel on a moment’s notice to present at a high school when they’re given the opportunity.

For her part, Cynthia notes that, over the years, VIDA has previously tried to create steady access points at the area’s high schools by helping develop social justice clubs. “But there’s so much turn over” at high schools, she said. “As soon as we’d get someone who wanted us there, they’d move on.” Creating clubs isn’t an idea she’s written off entirely; it’s one she’d be eager to try again, in fact. “It just requires a lot of capacity,” she said.

Another opportunity Angelica says she is interested in exploring concerns De Anza’s voter registration efforts. As part of their Political Science coursework, students at De Anza are required to register at least eight people to vote. Thanks to a Californian law that allows those 16 and older to preregister, she thinks this could provide another opportunity to create a formal entryway between De Azna and the area’s high schools. “This isn’t something we directly manage right now,” Angelica says, “but it may be an area where we can do some more intentional work.”

“If we could make this a yearlong program, we could build on the successes of that first semester.”
-Shelia Balque, Los Angeles Trade and Technical College

Shelia Balque, who manages the CLP-affiliated Community Planning and Economic Development program at Los Angeles Trade and Technical College, says her main interaction with high school students takes place via the YLead Program, through which she recruits between 15-30 students from three of the area’s high schools—Jefferson, Maya Angelou and Santee Education Complex.

“The students meet every Tuesday to learn about leadership development skills, talk about issues happening in their communities, and it ends with some sort of a capstone project that they do on their own,” Shelia said. The students start meeting prior to the beginning of the semester as a way to onboard and prepare the incoming cohort. The students then take one or two units of coursework through the semester.

Echoing some of the challenges that Robert says he faced in Detroit, Shelia says that organizing the program around the schedules of high school students can be particularly challenging. “I want to think more about how we can have these classes embedded into their regular schedule,” Shelia said, and notes that California provides for a mechanism to do just that. “Here, you can work with high schools and actually take one of their free periods for a college course.” That way, she says, high school students can earn college course credits during high school hours. “It’s just intensive work to set it up, which we will need to do with the schools.”

The advantage of hosting courses on the LATTC campus, she says, is the opportunity to help prepare high school students for the college experience early on. “But you need to be focused on what that transition is like for them and support them through it,” she said. “You need to work more internally with instructors and staff, hold study halls, stuff like that.” She also says it’s important to be mindful of the experiences of the other college-aged students in the classes. It can be a huge benefit to everyone involved to have the perspective of high school students represented in the class. But, she said, if the students aren’t prepared for the demands of a college-level course, or are disruptive, “it could distract from the learning experience of others.”

An exciting part of the program with YLead students, Shelia added, is the opportunity to do a paid internship, during the summer, following the conclusion of the coursework. It isn’t a required part of the program, but this past year six students nonetheless took advantage of the offer. “It’s great because it gives high school students a taste of both the academic side while also getting them paid work experience,” she said. But their ability to continue offering this feature of the program, she notes, of course depends on funding. “We got a couple of grants from the United Way, but without that it would have been harder to do.”

After several years of working with high school students in this way, Shelia says she is helping rethink elements of the program. “We want this to be a multi-year experience,” she said, noting that currently high school students currently only enroll in one semester as part of the program. “If we could make this a yearlong program, or even multiyear program, we could build on the successes of that first semester.”