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A Zoom screen shows Spelman College teaching fellow Tangela Mitchell, a brown-skinned woman with a nose ring and her hair styled on top of her head, in the center and six high school students taking part in a discussion section.

Spelman College teaching fellow Tangela Mitchell meets with high school students over Zoom for a weekly discussion section.

Ed Equity Lab

Three historically Black colleges and universities—Howard University, Spelman College and Morehouse College—have joined a national initiative that brings free courses for college credit to high schools that serve large numbers of low-income students.

Leaders at the National Education Equity Lab, the organization that facilitates these courses from a network of institutions, say the HBCUs bring unique expertise to the program because of their focus on increasing the social mobility of Black and first-generation college students. The courses are intended to help low-income high school students build confidence in taking on college-level work and prepare them for the higher level of academic rigor the courses require. HBCU leaders say teaming up with the Ed Equity Lab is an opportunity to further their mission and scout prospective students who might not have initially considered college at all.

HBCU participation in the program is gaining momentum—Howard joined the initiative in 2020, and enrollment in its courses has rapidly grown. Spelman and Morehouse are new to the effort.

Laura Moore, managing director of strategy and policy at the Ed Equity Lab, said the organization partners with institutions that are “mobility engines, those that do a good job of moving low-income students up the income ladder.” Including the HBCUs felt like a natural expansion. The majority of HBCU students are eligible for the Pell Grant, federal financial aid for low-income students, and nearly 40 percent are first-generation college students, according to a 2021 report by the United Negro College Fund, which represents private HBCUs.

Ed Equity Lab launched in 2019 by bringing a Harvard course, Poetry in America: The City From Whitman to Hip Hop, to 25 low-income high schools in 11 cities. The network of colleges and universities has since expanded to more than a dozen institutions, including Princeton, Brown, Columbia and Arizona State Universities. Moore said the organization is on track to serve 15,000 high school students by the end of the year.

The program model brings college courses, asynchronously taught by professors via video, to Title I high schools, where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Students who attend these schools are disproportionately students of color, according to 2018–19 data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national organization focused on the education and socioeconomic well-being of children and youth. Faculty members can hold Zoom office hours with the students. Teaching fellows—students at the colleges offering the courses—host live weekly discussions and grade assignments remotely. Designated teachers at the high schools help facilitate the courses. Preliminary data from an ongoing longitudinal study by Johns Hopkins University show students in these courses are more likely to go on to four-year universities and out-of-state colleges than peers in the same geographic areas and of a similar socioeconomic status.

Howard University professors are now teaching courses on the Principles of Criminal Justice, College Algebra and Environmental Studies and Justice. So far, Howard’s courses have reached 1,915 students at 110 different high schools in 16 states and Washington, D.C., according to Ed Equity Lab data. The number of students taking Howard classes has also significantly grown over time, from 107 students in fall 2020 to 573 this spring semester.

Spelman College started offering its first course, The Education of Black Girls, to 50 students at four high schools in three states. Howard and Spelman collectively served 13 percent of total students enrolled in Ed Equity Lab courses since 2019. The newest HBCU to join the effort is Morehouse, which is now preparing to offer its first classes next academic year, a sociology course called Social Problems in the fall and a professional communication course in the spring.

It’s still too early to determine the academic outcomes of the Spelman course, but about 80 percent of students in the Howard courses passed and earned college credits, the same percentage as for the program over all, Moore said.

These institutions “uniquely understand historically how students have not been well served by higher education and society more broadly, and they bring that ethos to the work,” Moore said. “The courses they’re offering, the way they think about those courses, the way the courses are approached—there’s just special alignment there.”

For example, the Education of Black Girls course through Spelman, a women’s college, dives into “how history, politics, economics, social class, colorism, racism … through the generations have affected Black girls who become Black women,” said Andrea Lewis, director of student success and associate professor of education at Spelman, who taught the course.

Lewis wanted to offer students a course that would go beyond typical high school coursework, such as English or math, and instead offer “something that would require them to think critically on a subject maybe they had not considered,” she said. She noted that some of the participants are international students learning parts of American history for the first time through her class.

She also hoped the class would motivate Black female high school students enrolled to think about “how they can experience and use their agency and the power of voice to make a change,” she added. “That can’t happen until you really understand … what your ancestors have been through in the past and what makes Black girls unique.”

Lewis was heartened to see students grappling with how concepts they’d learned in the classroom, such as colorism, play a role in their own lives in video reflections they submitted as a course assignment.

Kendrick Brown, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Morehouse, said participating in the Ed Equity Lab initiative is a win-win for the college and the high school students that will participate.

“Selfishly speaking, we hope we identify some future students who will join us, who are talented and who will be a part of our community here,” Brown said. Offering these courses is also a way to honor the college’s “commitment to leadership and service” and “to the education of Black men and men of color and communities of color” and “taking that out into the world and really living what it is that we say we do.”

Moseka Medlock, programs director at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents public HBCUs, said HBCUs have a long history of working with K-12 schools, particularly by supplying them with educators. TMCF has run a five-year Teacher Quality and Retention Program since 2009 to train and support new and aspiring K-12 teachers from HBCUs through their first few years in the classroom.

“Many of the HBCUs began as teacher colleges, so I think HBCUs have very deep roots in terms of preparing educators and that is reflective of the educators that come from HBCUs,” she said.

Sekou Biddle, vice president of advocacy and student professional development programs at UNCF, said HBCUs are engaging in various efforts to collaborate with and offer their services in K-12 schools. For example, Tougaloo College in Mississippi has a high school on its campus where students can earn an associate degree or two years of college credit toward a bachelor’s degree.

Biddle said those efforts attract enrollment to HBCUs, but equally importantly, they help prospective students “get to college ready to be successful when they arrive on campus.”

He expects these initiatives to grow. He noted that HBCUs have best practices they can impart to K-12 schools on how to go about “academic and social-emotional preparation for African American students,” detailed in a 2020 UNCF report.

“In the search for how do we as a nation increase academic outcomes for African American students, I think we’re going to see more HBCUs and more institutions of higher learning attempt to apply things they know or have mastered to students who are and could or should be on the path to college, if not for gaps in what’s currently being provided in their community,” Biddle said.

Brown, of Morehouse, noted that administrators at the institution are having conversations with high school leaders about the possibility of offering dual-enrollment courses to expand the college’s reach to more secondary students. He believes HBCUs should be performing “outreach beyond the borders of their own campus to meet high school students where they are.”

“From our inception, we’ve been about access,” he said. “We’ve been about bringing education to people who are talented but who may not have opportunities. When I think about this partnership and what we have to offer in our sector of education, I think we have a sensitivity to the circumstances that our students are in. I think we have a knowledge and skill base that enables us to be effective instructors with them.”

Moore said the Ed Equity Lab plans to expand its collaboration with HBCUs over time.

“We think not only about bringing on new partners but deepening and strengthening existing relationships,” she said.

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