The Cole Challenge

david52_gwApril 14, 2012

Several years ago, the then-mayor of Denver (now the Governor) had lined up private funds to back an offer to kids at Cole Middle School, the "...

financially impoverished, lowest-performing middle school in the state ....

Mulling ideas that would inspire and motivate, he settled on a simple pledge: Every student at Cole Middle School that January day in 2004 would have the money to go to college.

And the Cole Promise was born.

Eight years later, all but 33 of those 496 Cole students have left Denver Public Schools. But only 54 - just under 12 percent - of the original group have taken advantage of a scholarship program designed to fill any gaps left after federal and institutional aid.

"My wildest hope at the time was that the kids would believe it - that they would believe it and work harder," said Hickenlooper, now Colorado's governor. "What an incredible addition to the school that would be."

He had hoped for a much higher participation rate from the Cole students - perhaps 20 percent to 30 percent instead of 12 percent. For the 2009-10 school year, the latest figures available, 58 percent of all graduating DPS students enrolled in some form of post-secondary education.

"If nothing else," he said, "it shows how far we still have to go." - snip -

Nicole Veltz, then principal at Cole and now principal at North High School, isn't surprised - at least in retrospect - at the low participation rate.

"Back then, it would have surprised me," she said. "Had we been able to keep momentum and continuity, the number would have been drastically different."

That continuity took a blow when the state closed Cole in May 2005, a little more than a year after Hickenlooper's promise, because of persistent low test scores and converted it to a charter school. Then, a year later, the district closed Manual High School.

And that, Veltz said, diminished the unity of a mission that had been greeted with high expectations at the announcement of the Cole Promise.

"When that headline hit, it was a very big deal, very inspirational not just to kids, but to parents and the whole community," Veltz said. "But then kids got dispersed to lots of different schools. We couldn't keep them together to carry on that promise as a unified force."

Administration of scholarships from the Cole Promise goes through the Denver Scholarship Foundation, a charity that has partnered with DPS and, with its inception in 2006, embraced the larger vision to provide college funding for all Denver students.

This year, the Cole scholarships range from $1,100 to $6,000, depending on level of need, type of school and whether a student attends full time or part time.

To qualify, students who were in sixth, seventh or eighth grade at Cole in 2004 - end quote

end of that article.

Today the head of the program has a column:

The Denver Post's recent coverage of the eight-year-old Cole Promise might prompt many to think twice about mixing money for college as a means to breaking the poverty barrier. After all, only 54 out of 496 students accessed the financial support for education after they completed high school.

What gives?

As the director of the Colorado I Have A Dream® Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to help kids from challenged neighborhoods and struggling schools graduate high-school" and then go on for more education " I see the eight-year "experiment" to be more impactful than the 12 percent figure might indicate.

I believe it would be a mistake to wring our hands that these scholarship-driven incentive programs don't work.

They are absolutely the asset that kids in poverty must have available in their back pockets to climb out of the cavernous hole of poverty.

The problem is that the civic, education and other leaders had one hand tied behind their backs most of the time. Or maybe even both.

They took a risk that their promise for the future would be enough of an incentive for these youth to overcome their everyday battles and pursue academic success.

But even with a generous offer of help through an educational lifeline like the Cole Promise, getting out of poverty to achieve "the American Dream" is a murky, sloppy, uphill trek.

What we can learn and apply to most scholarship programs to youth in poverty is that the promise of financial help after high-school completion is the frosting on the cake. It sounds good at first, but it doesn't hold up by itself. We've got to make sure we understand the long haul it takes to get to the point where these worthy students can make use of the promise.

To that end, here are some recommendations:

1. Beef up the coordination of early-on, whole-child supports. Track it. Some of this is being undertaken through a new, multiyear grant to Denver from the Wallace Foundation. And while Cole and Manual school closings might have contributed to lack of participation, it is a fact that high percentages of youth in poverty move around a lot.

On average, our classes of approximately 50 "Dreamers" who leave fifth grade together from a struggling neighborhood school end up in 25 different schools -" or more -" by the time they are high-school age.

Because we have small numbers, we can stay on top of their high mobility. Hopefully, improved data coordination is coming for most of Denver's kids. It can't happen soon enough.

2. Mentoring is great for some --" and the leaders of the Cole Promise tried to get supports for this --" but volunteerism can only do so much. Many of these youth have really serious issues and need professionally trained help on a consistent basis. Invest now, or pay later.

3. Expect high academic and life-skills achievement for these kids, while understanding, delving into and dealing with the complex poverty issues with which they cope constantly.

Don't dummy down expectations, but give the kids and the parents the tools they need for a more rigorous outcome.

Transportation can be key, and so are adept and trusted community organizers within a neighborhood who can support the parents being advocates for their children --" whether they're in a higher achieving or a struggling school.

4. Make the hope of achieving post-secondary education real for undocumented students. I believe we're teasing them with a carrot as we encourage them to work hard as children so they can go on for more education. When they do just that, we beat them down with unreasonable financial obstacles as they attempt to enter the halls of higher education.

-snip end article.

so what happened is this promise was made, but NCLB came in and closed the school, sending the kids every which way. And then it turns out that a pretty big segment of the kids were undocumented.

what a snafu.

At the link below is a story about one kid who took advantage of this - pregnant at 13, managed to pull through.

Here is a link that might be useful: link to story of one who made it

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Colorado managed some Federal exemption from NCLB because they just implemented something where teachers are 'graded' on their kids test scores, and if they don't make the grade, in two years they get fired - tenure or not.

Imagine, then, the number of teachers fighting to work with kids from the above situation.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 4:17PM
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I am tryig very hard not to click on links anymore David, but thanks for posting this - we have such a job ahead of us as far as our schools go, I wonder sometimes if it's fixable. To do so would mean the meeting of the minds from all sources to make it happen. I don't know if this is possible, especially in this country.

I cant quite remember, but I think I saw this covered a few years ago on a newsmagazine type of show similar to Dateline, Primetime or 20/20. If not the Cole Challenge, something similar.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 10:42PM
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Looking at the larger picture, a dumbed down citizenry is less of a problem within our elitist system. It makes it a lot easier to keep chipping away at our freedoms, divide us, keep us unaware...

    Bookmark   April 15, 2012 at 6:06AM
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