When Indianapolis Public Schools reopen their doors next week to middle and high school students, they’re going to face more than just the logistical challenges of COVID-19. With no in-person learning since March, many fear students have lost ground socially, emotionally and academically. Getting students up to speed will be a difficult challenge, even for the best teachers in the state, and at GEO, we are fortunate to have lived, survived and thrived through a transformative change which requires a new approach. Mindset is everything.
In our Gary school, we didn’t experience a pandemic that forced us to change. We learned to change the hard way when we started a K-12 school in 2005. We had the same goals as IPS (and most other school districts in Indiana): to graduate 100% of our students from high school on time and get them to and through college. Not an easy task given Gary’s perennial 50% high school dropout rate and it didn’t help that very few households had college graduates. Even today, less than 15% of homes have any college degrees.
We approached our goal just like any recognized college prep school — by offering college tours, application nights, scholarship nights, etc. But we found out quickly that we were not doing enough. Our results were lacking and after surveying our students we found out they weren’t motivated to learn because they didn’t believe in themselves. Take, Vincent Pena, a very smart sophomore, who in 2010 told me he was going to drop out because he didn’t believe he was college material and that “no one in his family went to college, so why should he.” We had to come up with a dramatically new approach.
We needed to motivate Vincent to stay in school. Talk was not the solution. Action was needed. We convinced him he was college material by bringing him to a college — Ivy Tech — to take the entrance exam. We told him if he passed any part of the three-part test, we would pay his college expenses while in our high school. He took the test. He passed all three parts. And in 2012, he not only graduated from our high school on time, he had earned a full associate degree, too. Mindset is everything.
How does this story relate to IPS and addressing the pandemic? It shows the power of going beyond believing in students. We motivate students to do more by actively supporting them to believe in themselves more, by providing them the opportunity to attend real college, while they are in our high school. Vincent was able to see and experience his future while in our high school. And it worked.
Today, instead of 50% dropouts, we enjoy nearly 100% on-time graduation rates every year. And, our students graduate with full associate degrees, career certifications, and one — Raven Osborne — earned a full bachelor’s degree from Purdue University while in our high school. Raven is now a third grade teacher at 21st Century Charter School in Gary. Our students are motivated to study more than just high school coursework — because they can go further and accomplish more, including college, with our support and while they are still within the security and familiarity of their high school experience.
We’ve created a change in the mindset in Gary when it comes to high school and college. Our students are not just trying to graduate from high school, they are trying to earn as many free college credits and degrees as they can, while in high school. They are not just closing the achievement gap, they are jumping the gap. Their college and career readiness rating is among the best in Indiana, too, beating the whitest and richest school districts in the state.
If this works in Gary, it can work anywhere, and even in a pandemic. COVID-19 or not, we currently have nearly 50% of our Gary high school students taking college and career courses, and nearly 20% of our inaugural enrollment at GEO Next Gen Indy are taking college courses. In fact, two high school juniors in Gary earned a full associate degree during the COVID shut down and in May 2021, we will celebrate our second student to earn a bachelors degree from Purdue while in our school, despite the pandemic disrupting her senior year.
It is time to widen the pathways to college for high school students in order to see dramatic improvements in results. Opening doors to schools with a traditional mindset during this pandemic will not reach our common goal. To ensure successful outcomes, a change in mindset is mandatory. Mindset is everything.
Kevin Teasley is president and founder of Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation. For enrollment information for GEO Next Generation High School, go to www.geonextgenhsindy.org.