By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Katelyn Hunter dreams of one day being a veterinarian — and she has an idea of what she’ll need to do to get there.
“I think if I don’t go to college, I won’t be able to be a vet,” the Joplin fifth-grader said. “And I think it (college) will give me all the classes, and teach me all the different kinds of animals and how to take care of them.”
Katelyn and her classmates at Columbia Elementary School are part of a new program called Operation College Bound, which launched last month and is designed to get students thinking about college, even at a young age. It’s being piloted this year at Columbia, and its creators hope to eventually take it to all schools in the Joplin School District.
“Really our goal here is to plant that seed in each of our kids that college is a possibility, making sure that each student, no matter what background they come from, knows that it’s possible to go to college,” said Sarah Mwangi, Columbia’s principal.
Superintendent C.J. Huff said the program ties directly into the district’s focus on improving the graduation rate, which was 79.1 percent in 2011, 81.6 percent in 2010, 75.1 percent in 2009 and 73.5 percent in 2008, according to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The state average hovered between 86 percent and 87 percent during those four years, according to the department.
“This is just an opportunity to pilot a program that will hopefully take us to that next level,” Huff said.
Huff said he hopes that by launching a conversation about college, the program will increase the chance that students will graduate from high school “if they can envision beyond where they are now.”
The program focuses on the importance of a college education because of research that has demonstrated the positive outcomes of possessing a college degree, Mwangi said. Median earnings for young adults with a bachelor’s degree were $45,000 in 2010, compared with $37,000 for those with an associate degree, $29,900 for those with a high school diploma or its equivalent, and $21,000 for those without a high school diploma, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education.
The program is founded on three questions that kindergarten teacher Jennifer Statler hopes every student will be able to answer in some form: What do you want to be? How are you going to get there? Where are you going to go?
Statler, one of the creators of the program, said she doesn’t expect students to have a detailed plan about how they want to spend the rest of their lives; rather, the questions are meant to get them thinking about what interests them and how they might accomplish their goals.
“Ideally, even at the end of kindergarten, they’re putting that thought to their mind,” she said.
The program’s major initiative is a class trip each spring to colleges and universities in the Four-State Area. Students will tour the campus, classrooms, residence halls and athletic facilities, and meet students and staff members. According to the schedule, kindergarten classes will visit Crowder College in Neosho each year; first-graders will visit Missouri Southern State University in Joplin; second-graders will visit Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami; third-graders will visit Pittsburg (Kan.) State University; fourth-graders will visit Missouri State University in Springfield; and fifth-graders will visit the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Throughout the rest of the year, teachers will focus on the college experience to prevent those visits from becoming “just a field trip,” Statler said.
In Statler’s kindergarten class, students have made college pennants. She asked her students what they want to be when they grow up, and she took their picture holding a sign that gives their answer. She plans to arrange the photos on a bulletin board. She has asked her students’ parents to bring in their own high school or college graduation photos to share with the class. And she’s considering having her students assemble care packages to send to college students during final-exam week in December.
“We’re just trying to keep it (the college discussion) in their minds so it’s always there,” she said.
Mwangi said the older students at Columbia have requested information from universities to get an idea of what courses and academic options are available.
Katelyn, the fifth-grader, said she is working on a class presentation about the University of Arkansas and is learning in general about what college is.
“I got to learn that it wasn’t just like a regular elementary school,” she said. “The school was a lot bigger, and sometimes your class is in a different building.”
Her classmate Annaliese Vorhees has been browsing universities’ websites for her research. She eyes a career in publishing or writing; going to college is “definitely” part of the plan, she said.
“I’d like to get into as good a college as possible,” she said. “I’ve always been taught that a good education is extremely important.”
Aiden Weeks, a first-grader, has taken a few virtual college tours online with his classmates. When asked what he knows about college so far, he thought for a moment before responding: “I know that you get to graduate.”
Mwangi said teachers also have begun imbedding college vocabulary into their daily lessons and curriculum.
“If a fourth-grade student is doing fourth-grade math work and they succeed at that — ‘Great job, you’ve completed bachelor’s level work. Let me see if I can give you some master’s level work,’” she said as an example of the vocabulary being used. “They start to understand, ‘Not only am I going to college, but how far am I going to go and what am I going to do with it?’”
Operation College Bound has its roots at South Heights Elementary School in Henderson, Ky. Last year, several Joplin district administrators and faculty members, including Statler, toured the school, which was selected as one of six model elementary schools in the nation in 2011 by the International Center for Leadership in Education. It boasts its own college-promotion program, which Statler said was what impressed her most about the school.
The program at Columbia was launched last month with an assembly that featured visits from alumni of all six colleges and universities on the tour schedule and appearances by the MSSU and Pitt State mascots.
“The assembly was a huge hit,” Mwangi said. “The kids were excited. It’s something that’s new to them because it’s not something that’s usually talked about at the elementary level. Just that mindset change has been fun and interesting to watch.”
Statler said she already has noticed a change in that mindset in some students.
“I had some fifth-graders come today (to the kindergarten class) to do a little play for us, and before they left, I was asking why is it important to know how to read,” she said. “One of the little girls said, ‘It’s important to know how to read so we can go to a good college.’”
OPERATION COLLEGE BOUND has teamed up with the school district’s Bright Futures program for its pilot year at Columbia Elementary School.