The Power of a Dorm Experience for Underserved Students
Replicating the college residential experience is a vital ingredient in preparing students for the future.
Imagine trying to teach someone to swim without ever taking them to a body of water to practice. You can read about it or talk about it, but eventually, they need to get their reps in the water.
Yet that's in effect what we as educators do when we confine education to the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day and then expect students to thrive on their own on college campuses and out in the world.
If we want our students to be independent, self-sufficient, resilient, and able to face challenges in life, we need to give them real-world opportunities to learn and practice these skills in a safe and supportive space before they’re forced to cope on their own in a world that too often lacks those supports.
I know this is true because I’ve personally experienced the benefits of this approach. I was raised in a proverbial “village” that included my Afro-Latinx Panamanian parents, grandparents, and extended family, all crammed into a two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment. We were poor, and I take no shame in this because it was the truth—we had few financial resources. By luck of the draw, I was placed in a classroom in seventh grade with Mr. Roth, a teacher who saw something different in me. This one person gave me access to a world that was unimaginable to me or my peers, and I’m acutely aware of the privileges I’ve been afforded due to this lucky encounter.
Mr. Roth had a side job with a program called Prep for Prep. Prep for Prep’s mission is to develop future leaders by providing gifted young people of color access to a first-rate education, typically through preparing them for enrollment in rigorous day and boarding schools. Mr. Roth took time to notice my academic accomplishments and persistently encouraged me—and ultimately lobbied my parents directly—to apply to Prep for Prep. I reluctantly seized the opportunity and adventure of leaving Brooklyn and being placed at an elite boarding school for grades nine through 12.
Despite the culture shock, boarding school was a formative experience for me—and one that greatly influenced the summer program I created eight years ago, Delaware College Scholars (DCS).
Black-created, Black-owned, and Black-led, DCS is a college-access program for first-generation, underserved students. We teach critical thinking skills development via humanities courses, fill gaps and enhance mathematical skills, and teach the nuts and bolts of the college process for marginalized students.
But without question, our special sauce is the residential component. And I truly believe that such an approach can work for more students across the country.
“Finding success and a better trajectory through education should not be about luck. It should be systemic.”
DCS partners with the Delaware Department of Education, Delaware State University, and a local boarding school, St. Andrew’s School, to have our scholars experience three consecutive summers (starting after 10th grade) of an intense residential experience in campus dorms. In this space, scholars put their organizational skills to the test outside the safety net of home. They learn to live with others, pick up on the soft skills of navigating a campus, and embrace the 24/7 nature of being away from home in a rigorous academic and social environment. Not only are their academic gaps being both solidified and enriched, but they are also learning how to learn outside the classroom, seek help at office hours with teachers, maintain a balanced daily schedule, and plan, all the while internalizing the importance of self-regulating their activities without having a parent or teacher constantly directing them.
In the past decade or so, researchers and educators have been homing in on the concept of “urban boarding schools,” which offer students in cities such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Miami, and others a full residential school year experience. Curto and Fryer in 2014 released their results of a study of the SEEDS schools, a network of public boarding schools with a mission to “provide an outstanding, intensive educational program that prepares children, both academically and socially, for success in college and beyond.” The results have been promising and found that such schools have increased math and reading scores. Their students have higher graduation rates than their peer public or charter schools. But they have also met criticism about what it means to have children away from parental support, how they engage with identity awareness, and students’ homesickness and stress. On the positive side, these schools have the benefits of increased academic and social impact that isn’t boxed into a 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day. It can happen 24/7.
I have lived both sides of this debate, and it has informed how I’ve crafted DCS’s program.
At boarding school, despite encountering the socioeconomic-racial realities of being Black and brown at a predominantly white institution (PWI), I managed to find a voice through academics and a way out of the generational poverty that many of my equally able peers back in Brooklyn continued to struggle with. My experiences were not, of course, all positive; I wrestled with trauma and marginalization at this PWI. But it was nevertheless an experience that set my life on a different trajectory, altering the path I would certainly have taken without having gone to boarding school.
In large part thanks to my own experiences, I see myself in my scholars, and as such, I’ve taken the good and weeded out the not so good from my own encounter with boarding school to maximize the impact my program has for participants.
We give students structure from the moment they wake up until they go to bed, and then within this structure have them learn in real time how to best keep themselves balanced and get work done. They are taught and experience in real-time how to develop relationships with teachers inside and outside the classroom. They figure out the pockets of time that work best for their learning and experience what it is like to extend one’s classroom to the dining hall, dorm rooms, lounges, and beyond. We encourage them to use their voice and lived experiences with all that they learn and discuss, while also embracing the key skill of listening to what others are saying as well.
Finding success and a better trajectory through education should not be about luck. It should be systemic. Imagine if school districts across the country added a residential component to every student's high school career? Whether it was a week or a month, such an experience can be transformational.
We ultimately want our students to be independent, resilient, and able to thrive away from home, so we need to give them structured opportunities to practice, enhance, and master these skills.
Via access to residential experiences, we inform the best-intentioned yet unaware scholars about unknown obstacles they will encounter—and support them through learning and practicing how to address these challenges. Our scholars are often viewed as though they are at a deficit, but I never look at our program’s participants through this perspective; I know for a fact the strength they possess. Let’s intentionally give them the awareness and tools to illuminate what is already there—and to find their way to and through college.
Dr. Tony Alleyne (Charlotte-Piedmont Triad '05) is the founder and executive director of the Delaware College Scholars program. Before founding DCS, Dr. Alleyne served in various senior leadership roles at St. Andrew’s School and previously was dean of student advisement at New Jersey SEEDS. He earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Administration from University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in 2016 and complete the Stanford Graduate School of Business Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders.
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