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How a College Prep Mission Creates an Aspirational Culture: An Interview with Benjamin Marcovitz

The mission of Collegiate Academies is to create and support schools that prepare all scholars for college success. We decided to sit down with Benjamin Marcovitz, Collegiate Academies’ Chief Executive Officer and founder of Sci Academy, to learn more about how the mission of our network was first developed, how it drives our work, and how it informs the rigorous goals we have for every student we serve—including those with special needs.

When you began to write the mission statement for our network and schools, what was your process?

I thought a lot about what it meant to have complete freedom in the world today. A couple of decades prior, a high school diploma may have opened up those doors, but it was becoming very clear in this economy that a college degree was becoming the bar for folks in the world who wanted the freedom to take on anything. Anything short of that and the modicum of choice you were given over your life was more limited. I realized that college was the bar, and it was a pretty decent bar for K-12 educators to prepare kids for. So I decided that, as a school, we should strive not only for college, but for extraordinary success within it, and that this would guide the development of our school.

Some people hear that we have a college prep mission and think that means we serve a specific subset of kids: kids who are already thinking about college and who enter as ninth graders on grade level. Actually, about 20% of our scholars have special needs, and our students come to us very far behind grade level. Why do you think this mission is important for our school, and how does it push our programming and outcomes for all scholars?

The mission of our school is primarily there to build the culture and the processes that make the organization successful. We’ve always tried to build our schools to have numerous plans for kids if college is not the right path. Growing up, I went to a school with a more affluent population and, while it was college prep, not every kid went to college. But what was clear was that, because of this ambition, the school aimed for the stars with all kids. That’s how it is with Collegiate Academies: across the board, we work to develop the most ambitious plans for every kid. So, the reason there is a college prep mission is that we want a college prep ambition to guide the culture of the school, to signal to everyone that this is a place where dreams come true, even for kids who are not on a college path.

We use the term “most rigorous post-secondary outcome” a lot. What does this mean to you?

I’m genuinely disappointed that there are many colleges out there that won’t work with kids who have many of the special needs our kids do. I don’t think that’s the way society has constructed the idea of college right now, and society has a long way to go, though I think there are hopeful signs. Until that time, though, we want to ensure the maximal number of opportunities to every kid in our school. We serve a number of kids for whom college will not meet their needs. We want to understand fully the array of options for these students. For a given kid whose needs a college can’t currently serve, we want to be able to maximize that kid’s ambition while they are here. Finding what we call “the most rigorous post-secondary outcome” does that.

Can you give an example of a scholar who has been supported by our focus on developing ambitious and individualized plans for every student?

A student like Darnisha is a good example. Darnisha had been held back numerous years at school, and she read around or below a kindergarten level when she came to us as a ninth grader. She stepped onto our campus and saw what we were doing, and—this isn’t true with every kid—she immediately liked it. She saw that we created a kind of pep rally in the hallway and the classrooms to excite kids about their futures, and that happened to be centered around college. She was among the first kids to really embrace a lot of the vocabulary and inspirational tags that we used, like “without struggle there is no progress” and “go above and beyond.” She became something of a guardrail for her peers. When they were disenchanted, she would talk to them about how important their futures were, using the language of the school.

She was a model student, but she struggled because of her learning disabilities quite a bit. She was at a point as a senior where we determined that colleges were not equipped to serve her needs. We brainstormed with her about what she would do next. And we really sat down and made our first individualized plan for a post secondary outcome with her. She wanted to work with animals, so she interned at the Louisiana SPCA. She wanted to have opportunities to work with kids as a teacher, so we gave her opportunities to be a paraprofessional here, then she started working for camps that served kids with disabilities, as well. And she has since become the first alum to teach at one of our schools! She continues to work on and off with us, in between trips where she travels all around the country to work with kids and adults with special needs. She just got back from many months in Iowa and came to visit us.

None of this would have happened had she not been driven by a culture that was itself driven by the college mission. And since then, and in part because of that time, we have gotten much better at describing to a kid how this culture will take you to your future, even if it’s not college. We had to figure that out with Darnisha, but it’s also taught us how we embrace the culture we do have to help move everybody much faster towards the destination.

Since we opened Sci Academy, Collegiate Academies’ population of students with special needs has grown. Has your interpretation of the mission evolved at all?

I think at some point we may say that college is too limiting a word to have in our mission. However, it does still denote more than any other singular focus that bar, regarding absolute limitless opportunities in the world. And I worry that dropping it or replacing it with something that is less certain or less measurable would diminish our ambition.

I think, however, it is really important that we interpret or reinterpret what that word means for everybody here. And what it means is that we’re all going to work as hard as humanly possible to create the kinds of opportunities that college creates for everyone. And I get how that can be difficult to reconcile with kids who don’t go to college. We must take every opportunity here to work our hardest and to achieve the most that we can. So, if there are proposals out there for how we can still capture that in our mission, I am open to hearing them at any time. But I do really believe that having our bar set where it is now creates a culture of hard work and ambition that I have not seen in many places.

What advice would you give to schools that may be grappling with this question of how to be committed to a college prep mission while serving students with a range of needs?

When someone says, “College prep schools have no plan B for kids.” If that were true, I could say, “Neither do non-college prep schools; they just also have no plan A.” Instead of getting confused by labels, we should be demanding that schools be both extremely ambitious and skilled at serving all kids.

I have a child with special needs myself, and it may very well be the case that colleges will not be able to serve her effectively, either. What is important to me as a parent is that, in between now and then, I send her to places that will think the most ambitiously and be the most strategic about how to push her as far as possible. And places will come to that culture probably through many different pathways, but I think a college prep mission denotes a truly aspirational school.

So as a parent, the first thing I will do is find a school that has that ambitious culture. The second thing I will do is ask, “Are you ready to serve my kid? And how will your culture serve my kid?” So I would say to any school that is grappling with this question: make sure you can answer both of those questions for parents. Are you an ambitious school? Are you willing to push my kid as far as she can go? And do you know how to work with my kid? Do you know how to serve my kid’s needs?

If all of our schools can answer those questions well, we will be in the place where I think all of American public education has always aspired to be, and I hope we can get there soon as an organization. That’s something that would make me very proud. –

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