By Louisa Durkin
At a recent dinner party, my friend’s grandfather said to me that my students had the same chance of attending college as I did of going to the Olympics. This stuck with me. His lack of understanding was so overwhelming that I could not shake it. At Stanton Elementary, the school in southeast DC where I serve, the idea that each student will graduate high school and attend college is part of the overall culture. I had never doubted it. The hallways are covered in college pennants, each classroom is named after a different university, and there are field trips for each homeroom to a university nearby. Just by walking around Stanton for the first time it would be easy to see that the goal is clear and the intention is strong. Stanton wants every student to be prepared to attend college.
Recently, each homeroom visited the university that they were named after. I had the opportunity to visit American University with Ms. Haynes’ fourth grade scholars. After breakfast, she instructed the students, “Walk into the classroom, take a notecard and write down one question you have for a college student.” The fourth graders wrote down their questions. Soon we were onto the school bus which we shared with a third grade class heading to Georgetown University. As we stopped to let them off, many exclaimed, “Wow, it looks like Hogwarts!”. Off to American we went.
The bus pulled up and we met our accommodating tour guide, Mr. Price. We walked through the library, the all-you-can-eat dining facility, through a study abroad expo, the library again and finally through the gym. The students were mesmerized by the facilities. At the end of the tour they were sent out onto the main quad with their notecards in hand. They walked right up to current students and even some professors. They asked what the math classes were like, what it’s like living with your friends, and why they didn’t have a football team. The fourth graders were so invested in this school they left with some promotional pens and a new goal, to attend American University. I’m sure their goal will be adjusted somewhere along the line as they’re exposed to different schools, but it was completely exhilarating to see the students so captivated with not only an idea but a concrete goal.
It wasn’t just this one fourth grade homeroom that was charmed by a school on their college visit. All the third through fifth grade homerooms got to see a different school and report back to their friends at Stanton. Ms. Reilly’s third graders attended Catholic University that day. One of their biggest takeaways was the amount of choice and freedom offered to college students and how they wanted to be there and have those choices some day. Because many of the students would be the first in their families to attend college, exposure is key. This type of exposure is particularly compelling for our students as I was able to see first hand. I will certainty never be an olympian, but I have faith that these students will be college graduates.
Louisa Durkin, author, is a corps member on the Stanton Elementary School team.