Holistic Approaches to Building a College-Going Culture

Dr. Melissa A. Martinez is an Associate Professor in Education and Community Leadership at Texas State University. Her research focuses on equity and access issues along the P-16 education pipeline, particularly in relation to: 1) improving college readiness, college access, and fostering a college-going culture for underserved communities, 2) the preparation of equity-oriented school leaders who understand and can meet the needs of underserved communities, and 3) the preparation and retention of faculty of color. Dr. Martinez is a former bilingual elementary school teacher and school counselor. 

            One of my areas of research focuses on investigating college-going culture, specifically in Latino communities in Texas. To me, building a college-going culture means ensuring that every student has the support, access, and knowledge necessary to make their own decisions regarding their postsecondary pursuits, rather than forcing them to attend college in general or a specific kind of college (i.e., 4-year instead of 2-year). I ground my work in a socio-cultural framework and context, looking at what outside of school influences impact how students learn within schools. This holistic approach takes into consideration the role of families on issues related to college access, as well as cultural and economic contexts. 

I began looking more specifically at this holistic approach to building a college-going culture after a field visit to a community in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. During this visit, I learned about the “promotora” health model that exists within that community, and became interested in how this model was being applied to issues related to college-going. With the health promotora model, individuals, often women who are trusted leaders from within a predominantly Spanish-speaking community, are trained by local, state, and/or federal health and human service agencies to be conduits of critical health information; they engage with families in community centers and neighborhoods focusing on ways to bring issues related to diabetes, high cholesterol, and zika, for instance, to the fore. At least one education non-profit working with school districts in the area was using a similar model to impart information about college to their communities; they went door-to-door to work with families to discuss postsecondary options for students and the college and financial aid application processes.

            That visit greatly informed my understanding of how schools and districts could build a college-going culture in schools, specifically in terms of how teachers and school leaders can ensure they are collaborative and inclusive in their approach. Some examples of success include addressing deficit thinking and working with families in culturally relevant ways. I explored this idea further through a multi-site, three-year case study of three traditional, public high schools in different geographic regions of Texas. The study, funded through the Greater Texas Foundation, allowed me to examine college readiness and college-going efforts at campuses serving a high proportion of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. These campuses were able to maintain high college-ready graduate rates when compared to other schools in their regions who served students from similar demographic backgrounds. 

Findings from the case study reiterated that we cannot build a strong, holistic college-going culture without first understanding our student population and by extension their families; understanding cultural values and the economic needs students face is crucial. This commitment was evident from all of the school leaders at the three schools and reiterated by many of the teachers interviewed. At one school, for instance, many students worked full-time while attending high school. This was recognized by school faculty and staff, as a part of their students’ responsibilities, as many contributed to their family’s income. In turn, teachers and school leadership acknowledged these cultural and lived realities and discussed appropriate and realistic goals for their students, where college-going might include working simultaneously while pursuing a degree. 

            At the school level, some of the challenges I have seen are related to lack of resources and a limited number of staff who focus exclusively on supporting students’ postsecondary pursuits and building a college-going culture. One of the schools I studied created an “Adopt a Senior” program to take advantage of the assets already within the school. The program was established by the school counselors, who with school leadership helped to lead college-going efforts. In this model, every senior was ‘adopted’ by a teacher on campus, which provided the seniors an opportunity to forge a relationship with an additional adult on campus outside of their regular teachers. The focus of the program is to ensure that students have another source of support as they embark on their postsecondary plans, beyond school guidance counselors. Most of the staff at this school were people of color and from the area, so they understood the students’ needs and context. Teachers often adopted more than one student at a time each year, with teachers deciding the best means to connect with students to impart advice or support for college-going; at times teachers would take students to lunch, engage in a joint activity, review college application materials, and write letters of recommendation. Though assessing the success of the program quantitatively was beyond the scope of my research, conversations I had with students revealed that the program was instrumental to their college aspirations and plans and made them feel like someone cared about them and was available for support. This program provides a positive psychosocial impact without requiring additional funding or staff, instead only needing a commitment on the part of the teachers and school leadership. The program’s versatile format was also appealing to teachers, who could help provide additional, high-value opportunities to students at a low-cost. 

            In my own practice as a mentor to doctoral candidates and as a professor, I similarly use a holistic approach and recognize the multiple roles and obligations of my students, such as the fact that many of them are also principals at their schools, parents, and leaders in their communities. As such, I work to make my materials and the pathways to graduation as transparent as possible. Especially in the current pandemic, it is important to never give up on our students and to continue searching for different ways to check-in with them. We need to make sure students see themselves as worthy and understand that they come to the classroom with a variety of assets and a wealth of knowledge. 

To learn more about Dr. Martinez’ work, including her new book, Latinas Leading Schools, please visit https://www.txstate.edu/clas/Educational-Leadership/Program-Faculty/Melissa-Martinez.html

Or follow her on twitter at @MAMartinezPhD, or contact her via email at mm224@txstate.edu

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