Tight Budget Ends DISD's Successful Program to Keep College-Bound Kids Motivated by Texts

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Between the excitement surrounding high school graduation and the ensuing laziness of the summer months, it's not uncommon for many college-bound students to flame out. In particular, first generation college students have trouble following through with their fall university plans in the summer months after high school graduation.

It's a phenomenon educators and sociologists call "summer melt". A Harvard study recently noted that as many as 20 percent of Dallas, and other urban area, college-bound graduates lose momentum and do not attend college in the fall.

Two years ago, Johns Hopkins University selected Dallas ISD as a guinea pig in its experiment to motivate college-bound graduates. The university kickstarted a district-wide text messaging program, in which guidance counselors sent periodic personal, inspirational messages to recent graduates through the summer months.

Dallas ISD was one of four districts across the country selected for the pilot program. As a whole, the initiative was a success, and recently, school districts have been reviving the program to help bridge the gap between high school graduation and college enrollment.

Despite its success, Dallas ISD is not one of the districts to be resuscitating the program.

Dr. Linda Johnson, executive director of Dallas ISD's college and career readiness program, said it's not because of lack of interest. "Dallas ended up having the highest success rate," she said, detailing how Dallas ISD saw a gain in 4 percentage points for college enrollment with kids who received the text messages.

It sounds like a marginal number, but Johnson said programs like this have a huge effect on helping motivate students to attend college in the fall. "Someone's going to have to help these kids navigate that system," she said, "and there has to be a shared environment between the high school and college."

But the program, financed by Johns Hopkins University, only allotted funding for one summer. Between the costs of additional counselor services and texting charges, DISD was unable to continue the program past that first summer. Meanwhile, St. Louis and other cities are implementing their own text messaging programs for the first time this summer.

Richardson ISD is considering creating a summer text messaging program in the future. Sarah Jensen, deputy director for the college access and success program with Commit!, said Richardson also send e-mail updates over the summer and lets students know that school counselors will be available for them over the break.

But since only about 6 percent of students read e-mails every day, and no kid in his right mind is going back to school during the summer, text messages are the most useful method -- about 63 percent of teens send text messages daily, and we suspect that number has only gotten higher since this 2012 Pew Center study.

"These programs to help at least some number of student who don't have anyone to connect them from high school to college," says Johnson. Unfortunately, DISD has all but washed its hands of the program, says Johnson, as it's just not in the district budget. It's up to individual universities to fund another program if they want to keep momentum strong for incoming students, which could only benefit a select few Dallas students.

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