The Secret to Preventing Community College Dropouts? Start With Middle...

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The Secret to Preventing Community College Dropouts? Start With Middle School

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Feb 15, 2017

The Secret to Preventing Community College Dropouts? Start With Middle School

This article is part of the guide: Community Colleges Point Toward New Directions in Digital Innovation.

In Tennessee, the education system made headlines a few years back when the state announced the “ Tennessee Promise”—an initiative granting thousands of high school students the opportunity to attend two years of free community college. After Governor Bill Haslam announced the scholarship program amongst a flurry of news, students immediately began applying to receive funds to put towards tuition at one of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or other eligible institutions offering an associate’s degree program. (And now, adults can get in on the action, too.)

But in order for the program to succeed, it wasn’t just about the community and technical colleges agreeing to be a part of the plan. School districts across the state began to see themselves as an integral piece of the equation. And one district in particular, the Putnam County School System in Cookeville, decided to push student ownership over higher education learning even further—with an extensive, dual-enrollment college credit program for high schoolers.

Sam Brooks, Personal Learning Coordinator for the district, sat down with EdSurge this week to discuss the program, how his team has translated it into even lower levels (think middle school), and what he recommends other schools and districts do to make their students more college and career-ready.

The conversation has below been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a more complete version here, or on your favorite podcast app.

EdSurge: I am here with Sam Brooks, who is the personal learning coordinator for Putnam County Schools in Cookeville, TN. Why don't you tell everyone a little bit about yourself? What's your background?

Sam Brooks: My background in Putnam County started out really as a football coach and a biology teacher in a classroom years ago. I taught and coached for about 16 years, and then some opportunities for credit recovery lab work came along at a time in my coaching career when I was really getting burnt out, ready for a transition into something else.

Luckily, I was blessed to find out that I was needed and wanted for a role that put me in a lab, working with students on visual learning and credit recovery. We started trying to analyze and give opportunities for those students who were behind, and needed to get caught up.

It was a lab setting at that time because technology was still very expensive. And so, the labs were really the only opportunity that we had to get students some chance at using some visual means to get what they need. But all of a sudden, in the last couple of years, we start hearing more about personalized learning. That gave us the opportunity to... put students on individualized learning plans, possibly using technology in the classroom. Now, Chromebook is the device of choice. We're well on our way to one-to-one integration. Our goal is structured around 2018. We have 11,000 students in Putnam County, and we have about 8,500 Chromebooks today.

You certainly have a lot of digital initiatives going on, but I want to go back to one that you mentioned at the beginning, which is this concept of credit recovery. So, you are from Tennessee, which is known for, amongst other things, being the location of the Tennessee Promise. At Putnam County, you have put in a lot of effort into helping students prepare for that transition from K-12 to higher education. How do you think you prepare students to be successful in community college and beyond?

Well, you just said it. For someone to say that [K-12 and higher education] are not linked, I think that's way off. I think “college and career-ready” means bridging that gap between high school and college to get those kids truly ready for what they're going to get into, whether it be offerings at technical school, a community college situation or dual-enrollment in actual college classes while they're in high school, which we have a lot of. We want to make sure that we give that to our kids, from the bottom to the top of the ladder of K-12, when they enter kindergarten and all the way through 12th grade. We want to give them options along the way to do whatever they want to do.

What we find out is that a lot of our kids don't think they want to college, but when they have success somewhere along the way climbing up the ladder, they all of a sudden get confidence and say, 'Hey, maybe I can go to community college.’ Maybe I can go to a TCAT (Tennessee College of Applied Technology) technical school and get some more certifications to do a trade.

And how does it work, putting together a dual-enrollment college credit program? How has Putnam County created partnerships with universities and institutions in Tennessee to essentially allow students to dual-enroll in these courses?

We felt like giving students options all the way from 6th grade through 12th grade. If we’ve got middle school students (identified through our data points) ready to take on a high school class while they're in middle school, our VITAL program (Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning) enables that principal and gives them the ability to be able to do that. And so that what we've done in Putnam County has really grown very quickly. It's setting those kids up with high school credits that's going to allow them to take more advantage of actual college courses in high school.

And you’ve even gotten middle school students involved?

Now, we have students that are leaving our middle school and going to high school with 7 and 8 credits of high school work under their belt. That is going to create a lot of gaps later on in their sophomore, junior, and senior year to take more college credits while they're there. Some of them want to get their 43 hours of General Education credit out of the way, so that when they leave Putnam County Schools, they'll walk in and be achievers on the first day of college. We even have highly motivated kids who get that associate’s degree a week or two before they graduate from high school.

Goodness gracious.

We wanted to build a pathway for those kids. We don't expect a student to be able to tell us that they want to major in engineering while they're in 6th grade. But the basis for all the General Education curriculum in college is pretty much the same.

In order to support something like this, I assume technology must play a pretty key role, perhaps in distance learning for the middle school student taking high school courses, or a high school student taking college courses. How does tech fit into this?

In Putnam County, we’ve been talking about identifying where a student is by the data when they come to the classroom. Then, we can try to develop an individualized learning plan for each student, which can include technology if they have it. That being said, we’re lucky to have Chromebooks in the classroom, but we make sure everybody understands that personalized learning is just not dealing with technology.

We do have some distance learning. We have an integrated math teacher who is actually in the VITAL program, Lance Key is his name, and he brings tests out live every morning from 8 to 9:30 to all of the other middle schools in our district in a live video setting situation. Hee also travels to those different schools and makes sure he has that face-to-face contact with all the students along the way. And, man, believe it or not, on top of all that, he is a completely flipped classroom teacher.

You've got middle school programs, you've got high school programs, you've got kids with teachers on Chromebooks that are doing these different programs—and in the meantime, regular instruction is happening. If I were a district administrator listening to this podcast, I would think to myself, "This is an incredible array of initiatives, but I don't even know where to start." My big last question for you, then, is this: What do you think is a first step that districts and schools can take in creating this bridge between K12 and higher ed?

Today, we had our 62nd district visit the VITAL program in 2 years to ask that very question. What we tell people is, you have to start slow.

We started back in 2008, and look where we are right now. And it's taken some time, so you have to pick out what your biggest need is, and then, you have to start with a small number of students, show success, and learn how to do it. That was, you don't have to worry about it growing. It's going to grow on its own. And so that's definitely happened with us. We're serving about 1,000 to 1,200 students per nine-week period in this program, and that's hitting about 3 to 4,000 classes a year. We never really ever thought we would get to that.

Well, Sam, thank you—if anybody want to get any more information about Putnam County Schools, where can they go?

Oh gosh, I guess the best place would be my email, That's probably the best place, and then we can hook up a video conference, just like what we're doing here!

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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