Rising high school senior Jaron King of Greencastle, Pa., spent a July morning with a dozen other seniors in a Franklin & Marshall College laboratory, learning about the workings of electricity using a battery, wires and light bulbs.
Under Physics Professor Linda Fritz's direction, King and 11 other students sat on stools at lab tables, trying different configurations of connecting the wires to the battery and bulbs and observing the intensity of the bulbs' lights.
"I'm loving the challenges of the classes," King said. "I'm getting a little stressed out about it, but that's all part of the day. What's life without challenges?"
King and 70 other rising high school seniors spent three weeks embracing such challenges and experiences in F&M College Prep, a pre-college immersion program that aims to inspire high-achieving students from underrepresented groups to apply to the nation's top colleges and universities.
In the three years since F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield launched the initiative, its influence and the participation by rising high school seniors has grown. Students this year traveled from 13 states across the country. The number of leading charter school networks and public schools partnering to send students has grown from one in the first year to eight. And representatives from some of these networks as well as other liberal arts colleges traveled to campus to observe F&M College Prep and participate in meetings to discuss efforts to confront the national achievement gap and the challenges facing students who are the first in their families to attend college -- issues that the program seeks to address.
F&M College Prep alumni returned this year to work as facilitators in the program, and others are spreading the word about the program when they return to their schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and other areas across the country.
"My sister was in F&M College Prep in its first year, and she came back talking about it," said Luis Martinez, who attended the program after applying at his high school in Austin, Texas. "Then, when she told people in my neighborhood and my family she was going to college, it was like she won the lottery. I knew I had to do College Prep."
Between July 5 and July 26, F&M College Prep students attended two classes, having picked from a selection of 10 courses that ranged from "What is Energy?" and "POWER: A Sociological View" to "Costume Design" and "Writing the Coming of Age Experience."
The rising high school seniors also attended workshops on such topics as navigating the college-admission process. During their stay, they received a taste of college life, living in residence halls and participating in campus activities, all at no cost to the students.
"We're providing a cross-section of what the College has to offer," said Shawn Jenkins '10, special assistant to the dean of the college for strategic projects and the program's director. "We use the expert resources of our faculty and staff to provide these students with the tools and the mindset to prepare for and succeed in college."
Building the program
F&M College Prep makes the transition to college easier by having students interact with each other and with faculty while also showing students how much is available to them academically to pursue their professional passions.
"The program is planting the seed so the students have an expansive understanding of how they can learn," Porterfield said. He quoted the great American education reformer, John Dewey: "As John Dewey once wrote, 'Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."
Since the program's first year in 2011, when the program first recruited 23 students from schools in the KIPP public charter network (formerly known as the Knowledge is Power Program), the cohort has tripled to 71 this year.
All of the 85 seniors who attended College Prep the last two years have been accepted to colleges across the country, with many enrolling in schools that match their academic and financial needs. This ensures a far greater chance of success at realizing their potential, Jenkins said. This includes such schools as St. John's University, Harvard University, Lafayette University, York College and Franklin & Marshall, which will have 19 students from the program's first two years enrolled this fall.
This success has F&M and its collaborators seeking more ways to reach underserved rising seniors of high academic achievement. They convened at F&M's campus on July 19 to discuss how to advance the efforts of such programs as F&M College Prep.
"How can we work together to improve access to college for all the students we care about?" said Donnell Butler '95, senior associate dean for planning and analysis of student outcomes. "At the end of the day, it's about academic excellence."
Among the charter management organizations (CMOs) and public school administrators in attendance were representatives from Explore Schools, KIPP, Uncommon Schools' North Star Academy, Uncommon Schools, Mastery Charter Schools, and Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, along with administrators from Gettysburg, Dickinson and Lycoming colleges.
"We don't have opportunities to get together exclusively to talk about partnerships with higher education," said Megan Aghazadian, director of college partnerships at KIPP. "It's really unique to have the opportunity to convene with CMOs and access providers and higher-education partners to talk about how we can all work together on a common challenge in all of our work … the challenge of college completion for students of first-generation backgrounds."
Many representatives of the organizations who came to campus to observe F&M College Prep shared a goal of addressing the national issue of "undermatching," the large number of highly talented students from underrepresented groups who do not apply to the highly selective institutions they are qualified to attend because they are unaware, or do not believe, that access is available to them.
"Sometimes our students might miss out on great opportunities and great institutions because the high schools don't know enough about the institutions and the institutions don't know enough about the high schools, and conversations like this allow us to bridge that gap of knowledge," said Charles Allen, director of alumni support at North Star Academy College Preparatory High School in Newark, NJ.
"Convenings like this are important because it allows us in the charter management network to connect with high-performing liberal arts institutions and really just open a dialog," Allen added.
The College Prep Experience
Cooling down on a hot evening at an ice cream social hosted by Porterfield, some of the students gave their impressions of the program while sitting on the patio at Zebi, one of the campus' coffee shops.
"It's definitely given me a preview of what classes are going to be like," said Isaiah Gordon of Philadelphia, who intends to study music in college. "It's helped me with my time management skills."
Romario Quijano of Austin, Texas, who has been listing colleges he wants to attend for film studies, said he was initially skeptical of College Prep but has found it to be helpful.
"It's changed my perspective on college itself," Quijano said. "I came with doubts; I thought coming here wasn't going to change my opinion of the school."
Quijano doesn't know where he will enroll, but he has altered his view on school size. "I'm learning now that I don't want to be at a large school," he said.
College Prep showed Karolina Heleno of New York City how comfortable she would be among students and faculty. Now she wants to attend college to study English with a goal to teach.
"I know it sounds cliché, but I want to change someone's life," Heleno said.
In addition to seniors seeing the path to realizing their college aspirations, Jenkins said three years of College Prep is creating a critical mass of program missionaries, or ambassadors, whose experiences will encourage future high school seniors.
Two College Prep alumni have returned to work for the program as facilitators, mentoring small groups of students daily throughout the program, as well as remaining a resource for them through their final year in high school.
"We are developing a community," Jenkins said.
The Finish is Just the Start
At the F&M College Prep Project Fair in the Ann & Richard Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building, the seniors -- all dressed for a formal occasion -- exhibited the projects they worked on for three weeks.
In the building's atrium, students exhibited posters (three students displayed their "green power" poster on a laptop to avoid using paper from cut down trees); others displayed their cardboard architecture models; and still others conducted a fashion show of their custom-made costume designs.
In yet another part of the building, students showed film shorts they wrote and directed in the "Understanding Movies" class, read from essays they wrote in the "Writing the Coming of Age" class, and performed an exercise on acquiring and wielding power, based on role playing in the "POWER: A Sociological View" class.
While the project fair and a celebratory banquet on July 25 signaled the end to College Prep, for the students, now fortified with knowledge about college and what it offers, it's just the start of their academic careers.
Ani Akpan of New York City said College Prep convinced him not to seek a small college in which to pursue film studies. This was one of the purposes of the program -- to help students determine the right academic setting for them.
"I wouldn't be as comfortable as I would be at a mid-sized school," Akpan said. "I like to have a huge variety to choose from and I like meeting new people every day."
Flora Reyes of Brooklyn, N.Y., is considering psychology as a major. She came away from the program with her own perspective on the size and type of college that she wants to attend.
"I never in my life have been around a [diverse] group like this," Reyes said of her College Prep peers. "Because of College Prep I've narrowed it down to small colleges and liberal art colleges."