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How One School in Miami, Florida is Giving Low-Income Students The College Experience

Author: Helios Education Foundation

May 12, 2016

The 6th and 7th graders at the SEED School of Miami, a boarding school serving students from low-income homes and difficult circumstances, don’t have to imagine what it feels like to experience a college campus—they live on one. 

When the nonprofit SEED Foundation, based in Washington, was looking for space to open up its third school in the country, Florida Memorial University (FMU) offered an unused residence hall. Since then, a variety of opportunities have emerged in which the students get to see what it’s like to be in a higher education environment and pursue academic goals.

Some vocally talented SEED students had the opportunity to sing back up on a CD recorded by FMU music majors, a few students will attend a high-level dance camp at the college this summer, and FMU students trained by Big Brothers Big Sisters have even mentored SEED students. 

“It’s a direct connection to our mission,” SEED School of Miami headmaster Kara Locke says about the partnership. “It was quite a gift to us.”

But FMU isn’t the only higher education institution SEED students learn about as part of their college and career preparation. Their first campus visit takes place during a week-long orientation in June, and college field trips occur twice a year. With their student life counselors—who serve as guardians during the students’ Sunday night-through-Friday stay—the students also research universities in certain regions of the country, learn terms such as “undergraduate” and find out the difference between a major and a minor.

“We start that dialogue at the 6th grade level,” Locke says. 

Now completing its second year, the SEED School of Miami will add a grade level each year until it reaches 12th grade, and will continue to support graduates once they enter college, in keeping with SEED’s goal of helping students “not just to get to college, but through college,” Locke says.

Serving a Population in Need 

Leaders of Helios Education Foundation saw close alignment between the SEED Foundation’s mission and Helios’s goal of helping more low-income and first-generation students in Florida succeed in college. That’s why Helios invested $1 million to help cover the start-up operating costs for the SEED School of Miami and has been working with the state on future per-pupil funding for the school.

While Helios doesn’t directly give grants to schools, Barbara Ryan Thompson, the foundation’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, saw supporting a SEED school in Florida as a “unique opportunity to change the life trajectory” for some students.

“These kids are no different than any other kids,” she says. “They can go to Harvard and we just need to put those pieces in place for them to get there.”

The SEED Foundation is a national nonprofit that works in partnership with school districts and other partners in urban communities to establish charter schools offering a residential model. The SEED School of Washington, D.C., the first school, opened in 1998 and the SEED School of Maryland opened in Baltimore in 2008. 

The Florida SEED school’s charter with the Miami Dade Public Schools and the Florida Department of Education includes specific enrollment criteria to make sure that the school is serving students who are most in need of the academic program and wraparound support services the school provides. Students must come from families that are living at less than 200 percent of the poverty line and are facing other risk factors, such as being in foster care or being referred to the child welfare system. 

Before the school opened, Locke spent months traveling to elementary schools, churches and other community gatherings to explain the school’s mission and recruit students. Her presentation caught the attention of Tracy Joseph, who as a 5th grader decided on her own that she wanted to be a part of this unique school. Locke remembers even getting text messages from Tracy asking about school policies and what to expect in the fall. 

Now in 7th grade, Tracy is one of the school’s ambassadors. She gives tours of the school and is gaining confidence in speaking to visitors—even a group of 20 from Teach for America.  “It was hard for me. I’m a very shy person,” she says. “The school helped me. They said I did good.”

While being away from her family at first was difficult, Tracy says she learned to rely on peers for support. She enjoys her math and science classes and is thinking about studying medicine after she graduates. “I like science because you do experiments,” she says. And when the material is challenging “you have to push yourself to keep going.”

Building a college-going mentality

In addition to living on the FMU campus, SEED students are surrounded with influences and practices that help build a college-bound mindset. They reside in “houses” named for various universities. Teachers are referred to as Professor, not Mr. or Ms., and students use Google Drive and other tools to share documents, prepare presentations and complete their work.

“They don’t even realize some of the skill sets they’re gaining,” says Natalie Diaz, who teaches 7th grade life science. 

Locke, who served as principal of SEED D.C., had specific ideas for the school’s curriculum—starting with writing being taught separate from reading in order to better equip students with strong writing skills for college. 

The science program is another example. Florida middle school science courses typically cover a variety of topics, but SEED’s students are instead delving deeper into certain areas. That’s why Diaz only teaches life science, which is designed
  to get students on track for AP biology.

“This helps me to tie concepts together into curriculum units,” Diaz says. There’s also more time for the students to approach a topic—say the Everglades—from multiple approaches, including making a PowerPoint, building a physical model, reading some materials and taking a test.

As with many universities, any grade below a C is considered failing at the SEED School of Miami. Students also receive grades in multiple subcategories in their classes in order to provide them and their parents with more feedback on how they are progressing.

Even more support will be available to the students once they reach high school. The model at the SEED schools in Washington and Baltimore includes a college transition support team that will begin working with students in the 11th grade to cover topics such as financial aid, the college admissions process and test-taking. They will also work with them during their freshman year in college to provide ongoing guidance.

Because many of the SEED School of Miami’s students come from difficult home lives, the school has a strong social-emotional support system as well. Three full-time mental health counselors work with students individually if needed and provide parent workshops. The staff members also organize family nights so parents and siblings can visit. 

It’s that combination of academic preparation and attention to students’ social-emotional needs that convinced Diaz to leave a tenure-track position in a traditional school. As an educator and a licensed mental health counselor, Diaz says the SEED model “fit perfectly with my beliefs about helping students academically and socially for college and beyond.”

Category: College and Career Readiness

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