• April 2011

Are Your Kids Prepared to Rock the Future?

What does college readiness mean from the point of view of Fairfax County Public Schools—one of the largest school districts in the country? To find out, Ann Monday, superintendent of schools in the City of Fairfax, VA, recently sat down with Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent of the Fairfax County Public Schools Instructional Services Department.

Ann Monday: What does “college readiness” mean for FCPS?

Peter Noonan: In FCPS, college readiness is defined as the level of preparation a student needs in order to enroll in, succeed at, and graduate from a regionally accredited post-secondary institution. Of course, a post-secondary career pathway is based on a student’s academic and career interests. While we always focus on this during the high-school years, recently FCPS began exploring students’ academic and career plans in middle school. We believe that will encourage students and their parents to start thinking about college earlier, which should help them be more focused and knowledgeable about what they can achieve after high school.

Ann Monday: I think that’s wonderful, especially because it is important that students are not only prepared academically for the rigors of college, but that they learn to navigate the process of how to apply to apply for college, and how to find financial aid if they need it.

Peter Noonan: Most definitely. In addition to having good academic skills, students need to be able to navigate the college application process. Knowledge about finances, how to properly fill out forms, and how to get scholarships is also critical to their success. In fact, millions of dollars in scholarship funding goes unused each year, and that’s often because students don’t know how to access it. It’s true that your skills, background, and goals need to meet the scholarship criteria, but many scholarships are available. School guidance counselors are very good at helping students understand the process, but it still takes initiative and know-how to properly follow the process. This is where the “life skills” portion of the quotient comes into play. Students, and their parents, need to be skilled in more than just academics when it comes to being “college ready.”

Ann Monday: I understand that FCPS has strong bonds with local colleges—including Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University—to help students make a swift transition from high school to college. Can you tell us more about that?

Peter Noonan: Through the last few decades, we’ve developed wonderful relationships with local colleges in an attempt to help more of our students successfully make the transition from 12th grade to being a college freshman. Current data show that 54 percent of all students enrolling at NOVA require remediation, and a significant portion of FCPS graduates who declare their intent to enroll in NOVA in their Senior Survey do not enroll in any postsecondary institution. What’s more, only 12 percent of NOVA students graduate within three years of enrollment.

Ann Monday: The question, of course, is why?

Peter Noonan: Exactly. What we know right now is that while 94 percent of FCPS high-school graduates go on to colleges and universities around the country, some students struggle with the placement test they take to enroll at NOVA. After many discussions with the administrators, as well as our students who are struggling with the problem, we are discovering that the problem seems to be that students don’t realize they have to take a standardized test on the day they enroll. In some cases, the problem is that the recent graduates are being tested in academic areas—such as algebra—that they haven’t reviewed since 10th grade. We need to remedy this situation, and this year we are spending a considerable amount of time collecting and analyzing the data, reviewing the alignment of curriculum and placement tests, and expanding our outreach program.

Ann Monday: To that end, I also understand that the Instructional Services Department is diving even deeper into the FCPS College Readiness PreK-16 Initiative.

Peter Noonan: That’s right. It’s clear that we need to evaluate our dual enrollment options for students, and expand the Academic Bridge Programs offered at NOVA. We also are exploring our tutoring and mentoring program models for implementation in 2011-12. This goes for George Mason University as well. In fact, we have several staff members who are working to identify students who can start their college education at NOVA, and if they do well will automatically have a slot waiting for them at George Mason in their sophomore college year. It’s actually the first program of its kind in the country, and we do hope it becomes a national trend. The bottom line is that we find ways to provide every FCPS student with an education that will prepare him or her to go on to a post-secondary institution.

Ann Monday: In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of college readiness that parents need to better understand?

Peter Noonan: A growing percentage of parents know that it is important for kids not just to get in, but to complete four years of college. They also need to realize that there is a college for every student. It may not be the college they attended, or the one they dreamed their child would attend. But if they honestly assess the child’s personality, goals, and academic and social capabilities, they’ll find it easier to match that student with the right school. I encourage parents to build a list of the seven to 10 colleges their child might fit into. Pick a few “stretch” schools, a few colleges that they will likely get into, and a few that they’ll easily get into. It’s just like any important decision you make in life. Give your child options, hedge their bets, and spread around the risk.

Ann Monday: I know that Fairfax High and other FCPS high schools have a new technology called NAVIANCE, which allows students and parents to look at typical profiles of students at every school in the country to see how their academic and extra curricular records dovetail with them. That seems like a wonderful development.

Peter Noonan: Yes, this program comes in handy because it gives students the opportunity to take a closer look at what kids are like at every college in America. It’s an incredible tool, and I encourage all parents of high school student to give it a test drive.

Ann Monday: What else do you recommend students do to take responsibility for their own futures and be sure they are “college ready”?

Peter Noonan: Students, of course, need to make sure that they are academically competitive. And any student who has finished our curriculum should be. What’s more, any student who graduates from FCPS with an advanced diploma will be ready to tackle an even more challenging college curriculum. The key to being successful — and happy — in college is to know yourself. Are you a good fit for a small college, or large college? Each has different set of social structures, and students need to know where they fit. Every kid is different, and parents know their kids better than everyone else. If they have honest, open conversations, they’ll be able to decide as a family which college is best for their child.

Ann Monday: Not all students go to one college for all four years, right?

Peter Noonan: Exactly, and that’s the beauty of the discussion about college readiness versus life readiness. The bottom line is that going to college is an adventure. So long as students are prepared to handle the academic rigors of the college-level classes, and have the savvy to find financial aid to go to the schools they want, the world is their oyster. They can start at one school, take a year abroad, and transfer to another school. Each experience makes them a richer, more interesting, and well-rounded person, and isn’t that what we want for all of our students?

Ann Monday: Thank you so much for your time, Peter. We appreciate your insights, and all that you are doing in the Instructional Services Department. We’ll look forward to talking with you again soon.

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