Succeeding in the PK-12 Space Requires Focus, Investment and CommunicationCarol Fleming | Senior Director for Outreach & Engagement, James Madison University
The search for new markets is leading many institutions to seek out adults in search of postsecondary programming, but few are looking the other way. This, despite the fact that many university leaders regularly decry the level of postsecondary preparedness of today’s traditional-age students and the lack of college-going culture signaled by declining numbers of high school graduates. In this interview, Carol Fleming discusses the opportunities presented to universities by the pre-collegiate, PK-12 market and shares her thoughts on some of the considerations and approaches colleges need to take to adequately serve this unique student population.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is offering PK-12 programming gaining interest from higher education providers?
Carol Fleming (CF): I believe there are several reasons why institutes of higher education have gained interest in PK-12 programming. Working with PK-12 helps to promote and market the institution and raise its public profile with the all-important student recruits. Engaging in partnerships with PK-12 is also an effective avenue in which to increase diversity on campus, particularly with first-generation college students. This type of programming—and branding—is a strategy that is starting to be used to create a pipeline from elementary to middle to high school and then to college as a way to recruit students.
When universities engage with PK-12, they are practicing community outreach that provides needed and economically important support to surrounding communities, often resulting in the funding of work that would otherwise go unfunded.
There are also a number of mutually beneficial reasons for both the university and the community. For example, partnerships between universities and school divisions provide great opportunities for faculty research; grants and programming can help schools meet their academic goals and universities reach their academic research goals. Engaging in PK-12 education also helps better prepare students for higher education demands and provides exposure for those students who do not normally, usually for socio-economic reasons, have access to higher education. One of my favorite sayings when it comes to PK-12 programming is, “kids cannot want what they cannot see.” Exposing PK-12 students to a college campus is crucial in helping a student see that college is a possibility for them.
Evo: How should universities organize their PK-12 programs? Should each division manage its own PK-12 programming, or should the offerings be centralized through a single division?
CF: That certainly depends on the culture of the university and whether the university organization is generally centralized or decentralized. While a centralized setting may be easier to manage, monitor and promote, it could also limit some of the more spontaneous or independent ideas that emerge from more decentralized settings. In a decentralized setting, universities need to do a careful analysis and reflection of their inter-departmental communication systems and determine whether they have strong communication to support dispersed program coordination. Something I would recommend is a regular periodic meeting between every unit working within the PK-12 setting. This type of collaboration will help catch duplication of programs and resources as well as streamline paperwork and policies, creating less confusion among both university staff and partners.
Personally, I think there should be a single unit that acts as the first point of contact and then forwards requests to the appropriate college/department. This would make it much easier for school divisions and parents to gain quick and easy access to the university.
Evo: What federal and state regulations do university leaders need to become familiar with when they begin working in the PK-12 space?
CF: It is important for universities to have a clear understanding of the tight constraints some school divisions are working under, particularly those divisions subject to any type of state/federal review due to test scores or other issues. While these school divisions are often in the most need and desire for collaborative partnerships, they also have the least flexibility.
Two issues to pay attention to, depending on your state: be aware of regulations surrounding dual enrollment, and be sure to have a “minors policy” in place before offering programming. Before offering dual enrollment courses, check to see if there is a state mandate that says dual enrollment courses can only be offered through a community college. Also, be sure to facilitate a training session for anyone working with minors.
This goes without saying, but be aware of securing institutional review board (IRB) approval before performing any type of research with minors.
Evo: What are the most significant challenges university leaders face when they begin serving the PK 12 market?
CF: The greatest challenge is securing the funds necessary to offer programs in the PK-12 field. If the division can help supplement some of the expenses, that will help defray cost to students. If not, registration fees will have to be set at the lowest rate possible to allow children from all socio-economic areas to participate. In addition to securing funds, university leaders should also establish scholarships for those children who cannot afford to attend university programs.
In offering these programs, we found that the audience we were trying to reach did not feel comfortable coming to a college campus. They felt the setting would be very foreign to them, and didn’t know if it was a place they were truly welcome. University leaders need to figure out how to introduce these students to campus life, and how to make their campus more welcoming to PK-12 students and their families.
It can also be a challenge to identify instructors for these programs. Instructor fees can often be lower for PK-12 programs than what instructors are used to receiving for their expertise and time.
Evo: What was the most unexpected challenge you faced when you started working with this demographic?
CF: As with any new program, there are always unexpected challenges and issues. When starting these programs one of the first challenges we faced was identifying the point of contact within the surrounding divisions, creating a database of contacts and programs and, especially, keeping it updated. Do not underestimate the time needed and value of keeping updated contact systems. Once that was completed, we needed to find and establish trust with a champion who could deliver and make sure buy-in was genuine and tangible. It was also difficult when leadership within the school division changed; this is particularly true in divisions facing local and state pressures and the all too frequent “turn-stile” leadership. Whenever a principal or superintendent retired or left, or a school board had significant turnover, we never knew if our programs would continue to be supported by those who followed.
We also struggled with securing the funding necessary to support the programs, and, in turn, struggled finding instructors who were willing to teach at a rate that fit our budget.
We learned pretty quickly that marketing would also be a problem. We wrote letters, created flyers, did direct mailings to the schools, posted flyers around the area and dropped off flyers at each of the schools. This was also a struggle, because we learned that any flyer we wanted to bring into a school often had to be approved by some central authority. So getting information into the hands of students and/or parents was not easy. All of this led to the initial lower enrollments when we started working with PK-12 partners.
Communicating with parents was also difficult. How do we make sure parents truly understand the content of the program or camp, and how do we get children to communicate with their parents about what they accomplished and participated in each day? Both of these steps are challenging but necessary.
Evo: What is the most important piece of advice you could share with a university leader considering entering the PK-12 space?
CF: Identifying my most important advice for individual situations is tough, but I would start with the critical importance of identifying your champion within the school division, creating a trusting relationship, and making sure buy-in is genuine and that schools can clearly identify their benefits. Convening all stakeholders before any planning takes place is also vital to starting a successful program. Making this a productive and collaborative meeting can make or break the partnership.
Once the program begins, certainly make sure to capture the stories (with pictures) from each program—personalize and animate the stories through video and/or writing.
Some obvious advice is to make sure you have secured the resources needed, staff, accessible space, funding and instructors. Nothing can be more discouraging for future partnerships than not being able to complete a project due to the failure to secure resources.
And finally, be sure to identify your specific, tangible measures and how you will collect the data in order to evaluate and show your success.
A successful PK-12 program can be one of the most rewarding and uniting programs you offer, so have fun with it!
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- PK-12 programming can help create a college-going culture in a region, preparing students for higher education while showing them it’s a real possibility.
- It’s critical for PK-12 providers to establish strong connections with internal contacts across the institution and external stakeholders at regional school divisions to ensure new programs get off the ground successfully.
- Leaders need to make sure they have access to the resources necessary to minimize the chance that students from lower income brackets are priced out of programs.
Author Perspective: Administrator