Institutions are blending K12 and higher ed to improve student equity. Here’s how

The Tacoma Public Schools district (Wash.) shares a guaranteed admissions program with the University of Washington, Tacoma, which partners with its guidance counselors to clarify admissions requirements and provides community resources that students can use to ensure their success.

K12 and higher education have long attempted to forge partnerships to make higher education attainable for more students, especially those from under-resourced backgrounds. With the Supreme Court striking down affirmative action this past summer, blurring the line between both entities seems more critical than ever; colleges and universities need assurance the student bodies they are receiving are as diverse as they are prepared.

But building student pipelines between K12 and colleges is easier said than done. For one, creating partnerships can be extremely overwhelming: Consider the thousands of colleges and universities and the tens of thousands of K12 schools nationwide.

“It’s really hard for us, as an independent public K12 school, to build a relationship with each college or university across America,” says Josh Garcia, Tacoma Public Schools (Wash.) superintendent. “That’s what makes this work so complex. It’s all about partnership-aligned pipelines, but you’ve got to plumb each one of those pipelines individually to some level.”

And pipelines are only as good as the effort that goes into them. If there is no active intention behind them, they are destined to wilt.

“In some of my research, I’ll sometimes talk to leaders in other districts outside of Maryland who will say, ‘Well, we had a university partnership, but it just sort of fizzled out because we just didn’t feel like the university was preparing our students for what we need,'” says Dr. Christine Neumerski, faculty specialist at the University of Maryland (UMD) and associate director for its doctoral program in school system leadership.

However, educators in Maryland, California and Washington are leveraging several strategies to close the delta between K12 and higher education as the need for equitable student outcomes reaches its crescendo.

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Formalized agreements create stronger K12 partnerships

The key to creating a diverse array of K12-higher education pipelines is a solid legal framework, says Garcia, who has been Tacoma’s superintendent since 2012. “That formalized agreement is really important to build trust and credibility with the students we’re trying to serve,” he says. “This is not just a ‘wink, wink.’ This is an actual, legitimized partnership.”

Tacoma shares a guaranteed admissions program with the University of Washington, Tacoma, which partners with its guidance counselors to clarify admissions requirements and provides community resources that students can use to ensure their success. Additionally, the University of Puget Sound has committed to grant 30 Tacoma district students a financial aid package that meets their total demonstrated financial need.

“If you’re going to create generational impact, it’s going to take 10 to 12 years,” Garcia says. “That can’t be dependent on a new leader’s vision; rather, it takes a sustained community vision. That’s why those formalized partnerships are so critical. It’s not just higher ed or K12 or leadership changes, but the promise has to sustain itself despite leadership changes.”

Outside of ensuring the success of Tacoma students, Garcia recognizes that binding legal frameworks must be broad enough to be replicated. This way, higher education institutions can easily partner with more districts. For example, the University of Washington, Tacoma’s guaranteed admissions program extends to 10 other districts.

Garcia’s focus on formalized agreements that are replicable and grounded in long-term change seems to be working. In the 2021-22 academic year, nine out of 10 of Tacoma’s high school students graduated in four years, which is 8% higher than the Washington state average, according to data from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. And in the past nine years, its graduation rate increased by 23% for Black students, 33% for Hispanic students and 27% for low-income students. Along with Tacoma’s impressive graduation rates, more than 80% of its students have attained dual enrollment credits for higher education since the 2017-18 academic year, which applies to its Black, Hispanic and low-income students as well.

Community college pipelines

This year, the California State University (CSU) System unveiled a guaranteed admission program across its 23 campuses, beginning with the class of 2023. It’s different from Tacoma’s pathway in that first-time freshmen must start in the California Community College System, and it is specifically geared toward high school graduates whose personal or financial situation inhibited them from applying to a CSU institution directly.

In addition to offering under-resourced students a secure stepladder to a major state university, the Transfer Success Pathway provides them personalized support and resources from CSU, such as additional academic counseling and access to a transfer planner to stay on track with what they need to accomplish.

“We are excited about the opportunity to work with them earlier in their journey,” said April Grommo, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor of Strategic Enrollment Management, according to Sacramento State. “The Transfer Success Pathway is the CSU’s promise and commitment to those who don’t take a direct route to a four-year degree, particularly those who face academic, geographic, or financial barriers.”

The University of California system may also be embarking on a similar mission. In March, UC introduced to stake lawmakers its mission to enroll one community college transfer for every two first-year undergraduates, EdSource reports.

Preparing the new generation of superintendents

The job of the K12 school district superintendency is mired in political, logistical and administrative challenges that can often strain and overwhelm. Just ask the state of Maryland: Last year, about a third of its superintendent positions were up for grabs.

The University of Maryland’s practice-based doctoral program provides its students with real-world experience to prepare them for the complex political environment and performance objectives that have continued to change since the pandemic. One of those challenges UMD is preparing the next wave of superintendents for is ensuring success for the state’s changing student demographics.

“We pay attention to the needs of all learners in the state of Maryland, and more specifically, those students and populations of color, given that the research trends are showing us that the schools are becoming more heavily populated with the students of color,” says Dr. Pamela Shetley, associate director of UMD’s Education in School System Leadership, Ed.D. “Our workforce is not equally catching up to that change.”

Thanks to UMD’s partnership with state school districts, its doctoral school leadership program challenges students in its capstone project to take on a district’s real-time wicked problem that they’ve identified, diagnose its root causes and alleviate it under the guidance of the program.

While students are already experienced Maryland K12 educators and administrators, they receive a state-approved superintendent certification upon program completion.

“Our goal is to build a pipeline of system-level thinkers that are change agents that have a disposition for change, for equity, for students in a way that maybe hasn’t been as intentionally focused in other programs,” says Dr. Doug Anthony, the program’s director.

One of the guiding posts UMD’s program uses when teaching instructional leadership is the Maryland Blueprint, an equity-based legislative framework that prioritizes college and career readiness. It also intends to raise state funding for education by $3.8 billion annually over 10 years.

While the onus falls on the student-turned-superintendent to effect relevant change in his or her school district, it’s up to administrators in higher education to help equip them with the tools. Some of these lessons may require reckoning with uncomfortable truths.

“It takes courage at the university level to make sure that the curriculum, for instance, isn’t watered down or history isn’t erased when we talk about institutional barriers within the context of an educational setting,” Dr. Anthony says. “Problems exist because there are problems before it, and there are institutional barriers that exist. Many things exist in school systems that the superintendent has to be willing to unpack if they’re going to make a difference.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a DA staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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