The students in grades 3 to 7 at Chestnut Ridge Middle School in Bedford County are getting an early start to thinking about what they can do after graduating high school.
Janelle Lowe is in her 39th and final year of teaching. Last spring, she saw on TV a story on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts in the Chicago Public Schools to get students thinking about college. They were hanging college pennants in the halls of kindergartens for students to look at and get the thought of college in their heads. Lowe believed this was something that could be done at Chestnut Ridge.
Lowe began asking colleges, universities, and technical schools across the country to send in pennants that she could hang but very few responded. She turned to the Chestnut Ridge Education Foundation for grant to purchase all of the pennants and received $1,000.
Lowe surveyed the students in the middle school to find out what they knew and were thinking about when it came to college. After 377 responses, she began purchasing pennants.
She explained that this project is designed to,”shift the mindsets of our students at an early age to get them from thinking that I don’t want to go to college to college is a must and not just an option.”
But are these grades to early to start thinking about college? Lowe explained that her research shows that 3rd grade reading levels can act as indicators of 8th grade reading levels and then finally graduation rates and post-secondary enrollement.
7th Grader Noah Leonardis says that just seeing the pennants in the cafeteria opens his eyes to all of the possible opportunities. He said, “Now I see that there are a lot more options than just the couple of colleges I thought I could go to. Not it seems like I have a lot more chance and opportunity.”
Located in a rural area, the school believes that students may not be exposed to all of the opportunities available to them. Superintendent Mark Kudlawiec explained, “So often when you’re in a rural school, students aren’t exposed to things of this nature and this is one way of doing that.”
With the college program, Guidance Counselor Cindy Clark teaches a class that helps the students discover their goals and shows them the way to accomplish them. This includes the financial side of post-secondary education as well as how to make yourself more marketable to the different institutions. She agrees with Superintendent Kudlawiec in the challenges of a rural district. She said, “There are a lot of colleges within driving distance or maybe two hours away that they aren’t aware are out there. So those pennants mean a lot because they are only looking at the three county area and they don’t know what’s beyond there. “
Principal George Knisely explained the benefits of being able to show students what they can work towards. He said, “If the kids see this as being meaningful for their future, they’ll work a little harder and try to think about what they want to do. That’s where I think we see if education pays off. If the kids when they leave here know where they want to go and what they want to do.”
The program isn’t just focused on four year colleges and universities. The school says they want to encourage students to pursue what they want and feel whats best for them.
6th Grader Camryn Ickes says this is helping her prepare for when she’s a senior in high school. She said, “They’re all so supportive in whatever you decide to do and the fact that they are doing this I think it’s going to prepare us better and make us better people.”
The displays around the school don’t stop at the pennants. Bulletin boards are also on display showing where all of these colleges are. Students have also been given magnets that read “College Bound” that they have been attaching to their lockers out of excitement. There is also a board that has pictures of their teachers and where they’ve gone to school.
7th Grader Desirae Heider explained, “If you think about if your teachers went to college and they are an inspiration to you then it helps motivate you to be just like them when you grow up. “
Lowe says that she has applied for a grant from the National Education Association to further expand the initiative. They won’t find out if they are awarded the money until December 1st, 2017.