Shaping the Path to Higher Education

A student at her desk

University programs enhance academic excellence for young learners.

As a founder of two public charter schools back in her native Brooklyn, New York, Malene Lawrence knows firsthand that some students best learn from lessons tailored to suit their particular circumstances, not from a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction.

That understanding was utmost in her mind when she and her husband moved their family to Washington, D.C., in 2016. The youngest of her two boys—a whiz kid so smart he’d already been skipped a grade, but who previously had a speech-and-language impediment—especially needed the right setting. His parents wanted to ensure he stayed extra strong academically.

“It was imperative that he get what he needed in terms of instruction but also culturally and socially,” said Lawrence, president of the PTA at Howard University Public Charter Middle School of Mathematics and Science [(MS²)]. “We knew his academic needs would be met … Howard University’s middle school was perfect for him. It seems a little-known secret in D.C. public schools.”

Purposefully, Howard is putting middle schoolers in proximity to the grown folks—students and professional alike— who comprise the Howard community. Likewise, a separate, cost-free project enrolls some top high school seniors from District of Columbia Public Schools into Howard University courses where they sit and engage—earning an actual grade and college credits—alongside college students.

Both programs represent Howard’s multipronged effort to give tweens and teens early exposure to Howard and put the University on the roster of colleges to which they might eventually seek admission.

“Obviously, we would love for these students to come to Howard. But it’s less about them coming to Howard than them being prepared for college, whatever college that is,” said Chelsea Jones, a program coordinator in the Office of the Registrar, who oversees that dual enrollment program for high schoolers. “Of course, I’m going to praise Howard—getting them into Howard would be the icing on the cake. Mainly, we just want to see them be successful.”

Access and Success

A student and administrator in a hallway

Since its 2015–16 launch—initially partnering with D.C.’s Banneker and McKinley Technology High Schools— the dual-enrollment project’s tally of students managing a rigorous load of high school and college courses has risen from nine to 25, with eight public schools now joining as partners.

To qualify to take up to two fall or spring semester courses and one summer course at Howard, applicants must have at least a 3.4 GPA and submit their SAT or ACT scores, high school transcript, letters of recommendation and a personal essay.

Some students go above and beyond to specify their goals. “One girl, in particular, stands out for me. She wrote, ‘Here are the things I want to do and this is how the dual enrollment program will propel me.’ She had a timeline. You don’t really get that from a 16-year-old. You’d think she was already a college student,” Jones said.

“Then, there are other essays where students say, ‘I thought of college, but I never thought of Howard University, but I’m realizing it’s in my backyard and I want to take advantage. There is no way on God’s green earth I’m going to miss this opportunity.’ Every one of these students wants to be successful, even if the success looks different for each of them.”

The middle school—it also serves as a laboratory for Howard collegians researching the lives and education of young people—has its own way of educating a variety of kids whose aspirations and learning styles differ.

What 2019 middle school graduate Corey Lawrence, the PTA president’s son and an advanced learner, found most appealing was being in a student body that’s roughly 94 percent Black. Also, he loved being allowed to schedule his classroom work during blocks of time he felt worked best.

“What I really liked was being surrounded by African Americans ... [and] to be around Black excellence,” said Corey, who’d been part of a small minority of Black students back in San Antonio, where the Lawrences lived before returning to the East Coast.

“It’s a digital school, mostly, where you get an iPad and you get personalized learning, which means you can go at your own pace. You don’t have to wait for the teachers,” he added. “But if you don’t know something, you also can get extra help from the teachers. I was really good in algebra and history, but I needed help with quadratic stuff and content assessment. And the teachers really helped me understand that.”

The middle school instructors helped prepare him to attend George Washington University’s School Without Walls High School, where he’s now a freshman.

The Right Mix

A teacher points to something on her student's computer.

Principal Kathryn Procope began helming (MS2)—the 14-year-old middle school—in fall 2014.

“I really was not looking for another job,” said Procope, who was lured to Howard’s middle school from the prestigious Friendship Collegiate Academy. “But I learned that our school’s founders created this entity so that it would be a pipeline. Beginning in middle school, students are making up their minds about college, and they generally stay with the decision they make at that point. For the University to have that level of forethought? I knew I wanted to be a part of this.”

The school’s academic successes are largely driven by that online program, which allows students from all income and ability levels to work at their own pace. Another hallmark of the school’s programming is its African American studies, aligning with Howard’s foundational focus on the education and uplift of Black communities.

Of her students, Procope said, “Many of them are traveling two buses and a train to get here. We were at a point where more than 60 percent [of them] were considered at-risk: below at least one grade level in reading, in the free lunch program, and our homeless population is about 12 percent. I won’t say we don’t have any well-to-do kids. We do ... One Corey Lawrence, 2019 graduate of Howard University Public Charter Middle School of Mathematics and Science kid was coming to us and his mom was part of the diplomatic corps and they had been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ... Dr. Aprille Ericsson was the first Black woman to get [Howard University and National Aeronautics and Space Administration] doctorates in engineering, and her daughter is here ... We have such a mix. And they are all in this together.”

Making an Impact

As much as a middle schooler can, Procope added, her young charges recognize that learning on such a campus as Howard is an extraordinary opportunity. Former students are steadily dropping in on their middle school alma mater, a testament to its impression and imprint, she said.

Impacts also are made on the dual-enrollment students.

“First,” program coordinator Jones said, “not a lot of colleges and universities—across the country—have this kind of opportunity. Second, this opportunity is free.

“We tell them, ‘By doing this program, you’re saving time and thousands of dollars in college costs. When you get to college—with four or five of these classes completed at Howard—you could be declared a sophomore ... You are really ahead of the game, not just financially, but also by your immersion in the college life already, in the ups and downs of a college student’ ... In so many ways, they already are steps ahead of most of their peers.”

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