Alvin Abraham’s journey from KIPP to college has inspired some new ideas about how to do both.
December 14, 2017
For 15 years, Alvin Abraham (Houston ’02) worked night and day to prepare kids for college, first as a teacher, then as a principal, then as the executive director of the KIPP charter school network in Minnesota, where he helped create Minnesota’s KIPP Through College program.
Now, Abraham is entirely focused on students making it through higher education. In August, he became the founding dean of Dougherty Family College, a new two-year program at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota’s largest private college. Dougherty, which does not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, is designed for students who want to complete a four-year degree but are not prepared financially or academically. They receive intensive academic support and financial incentives like free laptops, textbooks, and meals. The average student pays about $2,000 per year in tuition and fees. The goal is for each student, at the end of two years, to earn an associate’s degree and be eligible to continue at St. Thomas or transfer elsewhere as a junior.
Now that Abraham has logged one semester on the collegiate side of the lower-/higher-ed divide, he has a few lessons to share.
1. Rethink Rewards
Dougherty is a program designed to support students who are academically unprepared. That’s why we’re here. But we’re not doing remedial coursework. So students need to be able to work 10 times harder than they’ve ever worked before, utilize all of our resources, make this their top priority, push through. Students need to have that intrinsic motivation. Helping them to tap into that, so far, has been the hardest part of this work.
I think it comes down to rethinking how we motivate students in K-12. At every school where I’ve worked, I’ve planned a ton of really big extrinsic rewards for things like finishing homework all week, or perfect attendance, or behaving well. I would shift that so rewards are based on growth or effort instead of a checked box.
I am a believer in some extrinsic rewards, especially for younger kids. But what’s the plan for backing off on those and helping kids understand that they’re doing something not because of a grade, or a sticker, or because it means they’ll be able to go to Zest Fest on Friday, but because it will better them, or their family, or their community, or their classroom, or the world?
2. Stop Pushing Harvard
As teachers, we named our classrooms Harvard when we knew there was an incredibly slim chance that most kids would be getting into Harvard. We created a false sense of reality around college instead of focusing on what it takes to get there—like doing really well on the SAT or ACT—and what it takes to read and write analytically and do math at a high level. Teachers use so much data in their classrooms, but we need to use it to help students look at colleges, too. Create different narratives around great schools closer to home that our kids can access. That can lead to much more thoughtful conversations with students.
3. Don’t Sugarcoat Feedback
I know a student at Dougherty who’s doing really well in all of her classes except she’s getting a D in English. She told me, “I don't like writing. I’ve never liked it.” I asked her how she got through her English classes in high school, and she told me she wrote whatever she wanted and she always got As and Bs. She never wrote a research paper. She never had a multi-page writing assignment. She never got real feedback. Here, she complains that her professor won’t take her papers because she’s off-topic or she’s not following the rubric. I said, “Good. I’m glad to hear that. That’s her job.”
She's beginning to put the effort in now because she wants to make a good grade. She cares about that. She cared about it in high school, too.
“As teachers, we named our classrooms Harvard when we knew there was an incredibly slim chance that most kids would be getting into Harvard. ”
4. Letting Kids Fail Takes Hard Work
I’ve let love for my students cloud my judgment of what they needed from me as a teacher. And I’ve been at schools where we created systems, out of love, that never allowed them to fall on their face and then learn from that. At Dougherty, I see how that plays out in our students’ struggles with motivation.
But we can’t just “let kids fail.” In a lot of schools, the teaching still sucks. It does. If a kid has gotten to ninth grade and he’s still reading at a third grade level, that’s an enormous systemic problem. If we say, “Sorry, you failed. Figure it out,” then we’re blaming those problems on the kid.
Once we’re doing what we need to be doing in the classroom to make sure students are prepared, and when we work alongside them to build the skills for them to reach and attain their goals, then we can “let them fail.” But those have to be paired together.
5. Put Academics First, Middle, and Last
I used to believe that the best schools would figure out how to be everything to every kid. Now, I believe a school can be a unit of change for a student, but not the be-all end-all.
Kids do well academically when schools focus on great teaching and a really tight understanding of what kids need to know pre-K through 12th grade, at every step. Schools still need robust programs supporting kids with mental health and medical issues. They still need extracurriculars and partnerships with families and community. But at the end of the day, schools can’t be everything. The best thing they can do to prepare kids for college is to be really great at teaching at every grade level, which on its own is really, really tough.