Right before I left for vacation in March 2018, my supervisor called me into his office and said, “Mia, Dr. Lathan wants to create a comprehensive college and career readiness program for middle school students.” My heart leaped with joy. That’s right. News of a brand-new program I’d be charged with developing the day before vacation made me joyous. Here’s why.
For three years, I was the only professional in the Houston Independent School District dedicated to college and career readiness (CCR) for middle school students. We have 53 middle schools. For two years, I drove around the district delivering presentations to students and parents, and I reached over 20,000 students during that time.
I knew that in order to leave an impact, we needed a program that had higher touch points so that college and career readiness was something at the forefront of students’ minds, daily. Given our district’s low college matriculation rate, Houston, we had a problem. Our newest district leader shared the same sentiment and realized we needed to reach our population earlier.
So yes, I was very excited to be tasked with developing the new college and career readiness program. Of course, I had lots of ideas because I had been thinking about it for the last couple of years. I remember frantically typing away on the proposal from my hotel room as the ideas overflowed onto the paper.
After much deliberation with the proposal, it was finally ready to be presented to our superintendent, Dr. Lathan. She loved it and said that it was more than she asked for. I was elated to get started. My next charge was to build the program and hire staff for 10 campuses within a three-month period!
My biggest concern was preparing my staff, who came from various backgrounds (elementary teachers to higher ed professionals), with the knowledge and expertise they needed to be the most effective and excellent middle school advisors in the country. For me, serving our students is a privilege, and we must equip our students with accurate information so that their dreams and goals can become their reality.
The very first time I met with my team, we attended a special middle school training facilitated by Texas OnCourse in July 2018. As we got to know one another, we learned about all the amazing CCR resources the state had to offer. This training helped me equip my staff to meet my high standards and expectations. We came back to Houston ready to debrief and implement these newfound resources into the curriculum and strategy that we had to build.
With just three months to plan, I created the guideline for the program design and looked to my new team to fill in the gaps. This included designing our branding, cohort curriculum, programming, and more. We named the program Project Explore. We provide students instruction and opportunities to explore during the school day through after-school expeditions, weekend excursions, and summer experiences, as well as through one-on-one advising.
We decided to use the Texas OnCourse Middle School Curriculum Guide to support our seventh graders across the district, including the use of MapMyGrad. We use Texas Reality Check as an introduction to college and career readiness to help students begin thinking about their futures. We use the Texas OnCourse Family Guide at our parent universities across the district. And lately, the high school college readiness team uses the Texas OnCourse Academy as a required training when new advisers start. This is only a fraction of all the resources that we use from Texas OnCourse and other state providers – and they’re all free.
Project Explore had an impressive impact on Houston middle schoolers its first year, providing field trips, assistance with summer programs, advising sessions, and college and career readiness instruction. Its influence only continues to grow.
So far, in the 2019–20 school year, Project Explore has had the following impact:
- Over 10,000 eighth graders received CCR curriculum – Fall 2019
- 12,104 eighth graders completed their personal graduation plans due to advisor intervention
- Over 8,000 seventh graders received CCR curriculum from their advisor pre-COVID-19
- 169 individual campus industry visits took place with professionals from various industries and with 3,269 students in attendance
- 34 students were selected for enrichment opportunities through Discover U
Project Explore is a true example of how starting college and career readiness education early can energize students and give them a clearer idea of how dreams turn into realities. And as we prepare for a new academic year following a period of unprecedented interruption, let’s hope our education leaders continue to regard college and career instruction as critical as other academic subjects for our students’ future success. One thing Texas has going for us is the rich variety of free college and career readiness resources for our students. If you’re considering ways to improve your own middle school programming next year, I hope you find some helpful resources in this story!