In our changing economy, it’s increasingly clear that the young people of New Orleans today must have an education that goes past high school if they are to have a place in the workforce of the future.

New Orleans students are pursuing college at higher rates, with over 60 percent of high school graduates enrolling in higher education in 2015, up from just 37 percent in 2004.

While enrolling in college is an important step, many students may not persist due to financial constraints, lack of academic preparation, or other challenges.  All reasons that contribute to Louisiana ranking 49th in the nation in college attainment. And without a college degree, our students face a challenging economic future.  That’s because people with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average than people without a degree (up from 64% in the 1960s).

So what are New Orleans high schools doing to help their students not only get to college, but finish with a degree?

We asked Lauren Katz, Director of College Completion for Collegiate Academies (CA), to explain how the “CA Next” program supports over 500 alumni beyond high school graduation. CA currently operates three high schools that together serve over 1,400 students: Sci Academy, Carver Collegiate and Livingston Collegiate.

Here’s Lauren:

“At Collegiate Academies, schools knit a ‘web’ of support around our students from the moment they enroll in ninth grade.  This continues after graduation and through the college years with Collegiate Academies’ college persistence program, CA Next. In high school, our college counseling program provides our CA students with 1:1 counseling and financial aid advice when they are applying to college. Then once they enroll, CA Next helps them navigate the transition to college, gain community from other first generation students and persevere to graduation.

Collegiate Academies students are hard-working, motivated, and have dreams about their future that they want to fulfill. But there are some very real barriers for them. Over 90% of CA students are economically disadvantaged and the vast majority are from families where no one has ever graduated from college. Yet 80% of our graduating seniors were accepted to college last year, and 50% are currently enrolled and on track to graduate. While these rates are well above national averages for low-income students and they represent so many students who are on the path to accomplishing their goals, this is also nowhere near where we want to be for our program, what our students want for themselves, and what we know our students deserve. And these numbers are not due selecting the ‘best’ students- about one fifth of our students receive special education services.

Even though CA alumni are enrolled in 34 colleges and universities in Louisiana and across the country, they are all connected to CA Next alumni advisors who make sure students have the information and support they need to stay on track. For many of these New Orleans students, leaving home for college is difficult and the outreach from CA Next is critical to making this transition as smooth as possible.

Deja Smith, a Sci Academy alumna currently enrolled at Delgado Community College, explained, “I’m glad my Sci Academy teachers pushed me to get prepared. But even though I can handle the work, I still had a hard time when I first started at Delgado. Ms. Scott, my CA Next alumni advisor, helped me get back on track and I still talk to her regularly when I feel like giving up. It’s so hard to keep up with financial aid and tuition but I’m determined to keep going so I can graduate with a degree in sociology.”

Richard Kisack, a sophomore at Brandeis University in Boston, chose college outside of Louisiana in part from the influence of the teachers at Sci Academy, and has relied on a network of CA alums nearby to ensure a sense of familiarity and connection.

“I never thought about moving far from home for college, but many of my teachers at Sci Academy came to New Orleans through Teach For America so they helped open my mind to the idea of going across the country to study. Being at Brandeis has given me a new love for my hometown, and I miss the food and the people of New Orleans a lot. Fortunately, through my CA Next alumni advisor, I have a network of CA alums who also attend college in New England and we visit and talk to each other frequently.”

As educators, we all care about what happens to our students after they leave our classrooms or schools and move on to the next level.  And when it comes to finishing high school, that transition is particularly fraught with challenges. We still have lots of work to do. That’s why our team at CA engages in so much proactive outreach to make sure our alumni have every opportunity to reach their dream of graduating from college.”

At NSNO, we are excited to see that more New Orleans’ students are graduating from high school than ever before, and that so many are also enrolling in college. But without a system of intentional support, many of these high potential local kids will drop out before they’ve reached their goal of earning a college degree.

By listening to Deja and Richard, we can learn what it takes to help first generation students succeed in college. Now let’s give more New Orleans young people every chance possible to cross the stage with a college diploma in hand.

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