Education / 2013

The Connections Program

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Bright Star Schools

Bright Star Schools (BSS), a charter management organization operating three charter schools in the Mid-City communities of Los Angeles and in the heart of Koreatown, has designed and introduced the Connections Program, an innovative and inclusive guidance program aimed at preparing our students for high school graduation and college success. Bright Star Schools’ primary goal is to have all of our students college-ready by high school graduation, with several opportunities for university and college attendance available to them. We currently serve 1,111 5-12th grade students between three school sites and will grow our network to include a fourth school in the 2013-2014 school year. The ethnic mix of our student body is 81% Latino and 11% African-American and 5% Korean-American. Less than 15% of our students have parents who went to college and less than 24% have parents who speak English as a first language. 87% of our students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Most students arrive at Bright Star Schools more than two years behind academically. Two years ago, based solely on academic performance, nearly 50% of our students were not ready to be promoted to the next grade. Faced with this alarming statistic, we designed the Connections Program to provide a comprehensive and individualized approach to our students’ education to ensure that they graduated high school on-time with a clear post-secondary plan. The Connections Program is an original approach to serving at-risk youth by providing personalized wrap-around supports and resources for every student and their family. Our students face many unique challenges – neighborhood violence, poverty, learning disabilities, immigration issues, etc. – which, unresolved, can make the difference between dropping out of school and becoming a college-bound graduate. To address these challenges, each student is assigned a “Connector”, a staff person who is available at all times to listen, set academic and personal goals, give advice, and identify community resources that will ensure that their students are passing their classes, feeling safe and secure at home, and preparing for their future beyond high school. The Connections Program meets the academic, social and emotional needs of our low-income and minority student body by providing comprehensive supports and resources reaching all facets of a student’s life. Connectors meet with their student’s teachers, counselors, service providers and family members to coordinate efforts, keep lines of communication open, and provide insight and support when needed. In this way, every student has an ally on staff whose sole purpose is to help them graduate from high school prepared to enter and succeed in a four-year college or university. The Connections Program takes the concept of traditional guidance counselor several steps beyond what would be seen in a classic public school. In a typical middle or high school, there is normally one guidance counselor for hundreds of students. Most students never meet their school’s guidance counselor, or only meet the counselor if they are referred for some wrong-doing. Our Connectors are guidance counselors in the truest sense of the word – they provide personalized and around-the-clock support to help students become successful high school graduates prepared for college and career. What makes the Connections Program so innovative and unique is the time our staff devotes to each student and the comprehensive support each Connector provides to our students and their families to ensure that there are no roadblocks in their path toward high school and college graduation. Jaylan Alexander plans to be the first person in his family to attend college. Although highly motivated, he comes from a poverty stricken family and had no resources to help get him through high school, let alone navigate the high costs of applying and attending college. Through the Connections Program, Bright Star provided Jaylan with school uniforms, bus passes, and school supplies. His Connector made sure that the school covered the cost of his college applications and his Connector provided him with ongoing academic guidance and emotional and social support. Jaylan’s hard work and commitment to his education, coupled with the financial, academic and emotional support he received through the Connections Program, has put him on the path to college success. There are many others like Jaylan who have been able to succeed because of their involvement in the Connections Program. We have seen the Connections Program have a significant impact on the academic and social success of our students, enabling them to graduate high school prepared for the rigor and social challenges of college life. As Bright Star Schools grows, we will increase our impact on the students in Los Angeles that need us most.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Since opening, Bright Star’s schools have earned some of the highest API scores in Los Angeles, making our organization one of the preeminent schools for any child in Los Angeles. It is the daily attention to our core values that has helped Bright Star Schools gain remarkable distinction as an academic leader among Los Angeles schools. California gives each public school a score on an Academic Performance Index (API); 800 being the state proficiency goal on a scale of 1000. Our continuing success is illustrated by our 2011-12 API scores:

• Stella Middle Charter Academy (5th and 6th grades) earned an API score of 802. • Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy (7th- 12th grades) earned an API score of 812.

Distinctions: Stella Middle Charter Academy • Title I Achieving School (California Department of Education, 2011) • EPIC Award for Stella Middle Charter Academy Faculty (New Leaders for New Schools, Spring 2008)

Distinctions: Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy • CA Distinguished School Award (California Department of Education, 2011) • WASC Accreditation (Western Association of Schools and Colleges, 2010)

Bright Star Schools was recently awarded a $1 million grant from the Broad Foundation to fuel our growth. In March 2013, we were awarded our fourth charter from LAUSD for our new high school in the San Fernando Valley which will open in 2013-2014. We have also received generous start-up funding from the Annenberg Foundation and the Kaplan Family Foundation for our Connections Program.

Since its inception, the Connections Program has had 100% participation. The Connections Program is currently serving 747 students in grades 7-12. During the 2011-2012 school year: • Connectors helped 18 seniors prepare 262 applications to 63 colleges. • 100% of 2012 seniors graduated from high school • All high school graduates were college-bound • Connectors increased communication between home and school (by meeting with family members and providing social service referrals)

Connectors have made great strides creating a college-going culture on our middle and high school campus. This year, Connectors established “College Clubs” for middle school students and our juniors and seniors to encourage college and career exploration. These after-school clubs provide fundamental information on the college admissions process and help students explore their career interests. Students learn how to research colleges online, navigate the admissions process, and receive the information and guidance when applying to colleges and universities.

Connectors also built a “College Center” on the high school campus where students and families can access college resources such as financial aid and scholarship information and applications, admissions exams and study guides, and participate in college-bound workshops led by Connectors.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Bright Star Schools cannot hope to make a sustainable impact on Los Angeles students without the ongoing support of our city’s businesses and social service providers. For example, DirectTV provides students with mentors through their employee volunteering program and collaborates with staff to lead vocational training to our high school students.

Didi Hirsch is a community mental health center that provides therapeutic services to students and families for issues of grieving and loss, substance abuse, domestic abuse, anger management, and more. Didi Hirsch also leads parenting workshops on our 7-12 grade campus. The West Los Angeles Family Source Center provides our school community with financial consulting, tutoring and counseling.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

In their initial meeting, Connectors and their students fill out intake forms to gather information on the student’s school and home life, interests, and goals and aspirations. Connectors identify gaps where additional supports are needed (tutoring, enrichment classes, social services referrals, etc.) and with their student, set short and long term goals that they revisit and revise on a regular basis.

Connectors communicate with their student’s teachers and support staff to ensure that their student is on target with their grades and graduation requirements. Connectors use a variety of sources to monitor students’ progress toward their goal of high school graduation and college preparedness: attendance, homework completion, grades, exam results, and number of college applications completed. Connectors meet weekly as a team to discuss their students, share resources, and make program improvements, as needed.

Success is measured on several fronts: (1) The number of students successfully advancing to the next grade by the end of the school year; (2) the number of high school seniors graduating with a viable postsecondary plan; (3) the number of high school seniors enrolled in a 4-year college or university; and (4) the number of Bright Star alumni who graduate college in 4 years or less.

Malay Toston is a current 9th grade student at Bright Star Secondary Academy who has benefited tremendously from the Connections Program. When Malay joined Bright Star Schools, she was experiencing a lot of loss in her life. Her mother passed away the previous year, and due to her poor academic performance, Malay had been held back in school. She was functioning three grades below her grade level. She was dealing with the loss of her mother and the social and emotional isolation and shame of not continuing on with her peers. She felt alone and incapable of achieving academic success.

Malay and her Connector met weekly after the death of her mother. Malay’s Connector provided her with a journal to capture her feelings. Malay would submit her journal to her Connector, and her Connector would respond with inspirational feedback. They would then meet and discuss her thoughts and emotions. In addition, Malay’s Connector sent her to self-esteem workshops and academic courses offered in the community to help boost her confidence.

Soon, Malay’s attitude towards school began to change. She maintained a 3.0 grade point average, and was promoted to the 9th grade at the end of the school year. She is excited to be a freshman in high school, and is a positive leader at school. She encourages students to do their best, and uses her story as a motivation to others. She was selected as Student of the Month during the month of September, and was elated to have her school celebrating her success. This year she was invited to participate in the annual College Experience Lesson trip, which selects high-achieving students to tour east coast colleges.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Studies show that students tend to drop out of college because their expectations—academic, social, or both—don’t match up with the reality of college life. Ill-prepared students also suffer from lack of motivation, inadequate preparation, and poor study skills. The National Center for Education Statistics indicates that dropout rates are particularly high for African American and Hispanic students. Other student populations at greater risk of dropping out include those who are the first in their family to attend college, and those who have limited English proficiency. The Connections Program aims to reverse this trend among those at-risk students in our city, and remove any potential barriers they may face as they prepare themselves - academically, financially, and emotionally – for college life.

Students in Los Angeles could benefit greatly from the Connections Program. Although the high school dropout rate for LA Unified improved slightly last year, the graduation rate dipped. According to the California Department of Education, 61.6% of LAUSD’s Class of 2011 received their diplomas, compared with 62.4% who graduated in 2010. “…At the rate California is going, it will take us 13 years to close the graduation gap between Latino and African American students and their white peers,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Oakland-based Education Trust-West. “It’s time we stopped talking about this problem and invested in the strategies that top districts and schools are using to fix it.”

The Connections Program aims to fix the graduation gap between low-income and minority students and their more affluent peers by offering comprehensive support services to our students during their time at Bright Star Schools. Most Bright Star students enter our schools lagging behind their more affluent and white peers. Connectors meet with the same students for up to six years to provide consistent support and guidance, build trust and familiarity with their families, and work with those adults in their student’s life (teachers, counselors, parents, coaches, etc.) to coordinate services. Students establish strong bonds with their Connectors that help develop confidence and give them the encouragement needed to achieve their goals. Through this program, we are preventing any student from falling through the cracks of the educational system and ensuring that they fully prepared - academically, emotionally, and financially – to attend a four-year university and enter the 21st Century workplace.

Since its inception, the Connections Program has proven to be an effective strategy that increases academic success among students of color and removes those obstacles that prevent college enrollment and graduation.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

Studies have shown that students who are well prepared for college coursework are more likely to stay in school and earn their degree. Through the Connections Program, Bright Star Schools provides our students with individualized support and guidance in the form of a Connector and school-wide services such as the College Center and College Clubs that are aimed at preparing all students for high school graduation, a successful college experience and a fulfilling career. We see the Connections Program making an enormous impact on the at-risk youth of Los Angeles by leveling the playing field for those students traditionally prone to dropping out of high school and under-represented in colleges and universities. The Connections Program guarantees that every student receives exposure to college-bound services and opportunities tailored to meet their specific needs. Students are paired with an advocate who supports them throughout their middle and high school career – this continuity is critical for students who may experience upheaval in their lives that can disrupt their education.

All students, regardless of income or skin color, are born equally able to learn. The only difference is that an affluent student’s road to college is smoothly paved while the poor/minority/ immigrant student’s road to college is usually marked with potholes, bumps, and sharp turns. The job of our Connectors is to smooth out that road and fill in the potholes so that our students can reach their potential. There is no other public school we know of taking this kind of integrated, comprehensive approach to counseling. A Los Angeles that supports the Connections Program is a city that believes in creative, progressive and effective solutions to our city’s drop out problem. A Los Angeles that supports the Connections Program is a city that will see its high school graduation rate increase dramatically among minority and low-income populations while experiencing record numbers of college enrollment among these under-represented populations. Ultimately, the Connections Program will build a strong college-going culture among our school communities, making college the expectation not the exception among LA’s most at-risk youth.