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This Nonprofit Is Helping Low-Income Students Forge A Path To College

Equal Opportunity Schools is attempting to break the cycle of inequality in high school college prep.

This Nonprofit Is Helping Low-Income Students Forge A Path To College
[Photo: Flickr user Chris Clogg]

Success is often about making the right choices, but what if choice were taken out of your hands? Every year, an estimated 640,000 bright American high school kids are excluded from high-level classes due to tracking that steers low-income and non-white students toward less rigorous coursework. This common practice dictates their college and career choices–and their earning potential–for decades to come.

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It’s a practice that stuck with Reid Saaris, founder and executive director of Seattle-based Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), after he first saw it in high school. While he found himself pushed into advanced college prep courses, his best friend, who he describes as equally bright, but from a lower-income background, was signed up for less challenging courses right across the hall. The result? Saaris went on to get his bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University, and a master’s in business and education from Stanford University, while his friend was funneled straight into the work world, which is what his education had prepared him for.

Saaris encountered it again while teaching at a high school in rural South Carolina. After learning that one of his high-performing students had been enrolled in lower-level courses–like most of the black students in his school–he personally switched the student’s classes. It was then that he knew there was more to be done, and he started right where he was, identifying students in his school who should be in the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, but weren’t.

“Teachers don’t have a lot of time and guidance counselor caseloads are through the roof, so that encouragement to reach for a higher level is haphazardly and unequally distributed. I thought we could be systematic about ensuring that life-changing conversations about how high to aim in school happened for every student,” says Saaris, 32. “More than socioeconomics or past test scores, the opportunity to experience academically intense classes in high school will drive whether or not a student attains their goals after high school. Our goal is to ensure everyone gets the opportunity to be challenged so that their learning abilities enable them to lead a life of their choosing.”

Saaris continued to build on the concept during his time at Stanford, where he wrote a business plan and ran pilot programs in the San Jose Unified School District. He incorporated in Seattle in 2010, which put the organization on track to partner with schools to develop systems that identify and support students who are capable of doing more. Research plays a major part in the development of those systems. “EOS is the first to conduct a randomized controlled trial of the impact of AP. We began our work by studying the issue of access to rigor at every high school in America, by constructing a dataset that connected massive datasets from the College Board, the International Baccalaureate Organization, and the U.S. Department of Education,” Saaris explains. When it’s time to craft tailored plans for their partners, EOS combines that data with an analysis of academic records and student and staff surveys. “We study how students are activated to achieve the highest standards nationally, and we enable our partners to apply that knowledge at the individual level, for a 1:1 conversation between a teacher and a student about all that that student can do and why the teacher believes so deeply in them.”

And it’s working. To date, EOS has successfully moved more than 10,000 students in 70 school districts in 11 states into AP and IB classes. “When our schools double the number of low-income students and students of color in their most challenging courses, they may see a doubling or even tripling of the number of students in the school passing the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams associated with those courses,” Saaris says. Google even took notice of EOS’s work and honored the organization with their Global Impact Award. The $1.8 million in funding allowed them to triple the number of students they were engaging and even provide grants to help partner schools innovate the way they teach advanced courses.

EOS is on track to double the amount of partner school districts by this time next year. But Saaris is hoping to expand their reach beyond the confines of the formal program. “We’re exploring creative ways to enable our school partners to work together, to access our tools and self serve, and for other nonprofits to support our implementation partnerships in more schools than Equal Opportunity Schools could manage alone,” he says. “It’s what our teachers want, it’s what our students want, and our research is starting to suggest that it may be the highest-impact thing that we can do with the limited time and resources available to our schools.”

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About the author

Kenrya Rankin Naasel is an award-winning author and journalist whose whose work has appeared in more than a dozen national publications and been translated into 21 languages. She writes about innovative people, products and processes for FastCompany.com.

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