Mounted on the wall in a narrow hallway that connects classrooms to a basement cafeteria is a simply crafted blue bulletin board. Packs of school children pass it several times a day, by now recognizing the words written in blocky yellow letters: “Coppin State University.”
It’s quite plausible that the majority of Rosemont Elementary/Middle School students have made fewer than one or two trips to the historically black college that’s situated a few hundred yards away in the West Baltimore neighborhood. But they are familiar with Coppin State, whose presence at the school goes well beyond wall art.
When most colleges trumpet their K-12 involvement, it’s usually a campus open house or a tutoring program. Coppin State does those – along with everything else – because the university operates Rosemont and a new high school called Coppin Academy . Together, the schools make up what Coppin officials call the "urban education corridor."
The oldest academy students are still more than two years away from starting college, but already they are adept at navigating a university campus. The high school is located within Coppin's borders, and in some buildings it's difficult to tell where the high school's space ends and the college's begins. That's exactly the point.
"The goal here is to prepare our students to go to college," said William Howard, the principal of Coppin Academy, whose offices are adjacent to a Coppin State computer lab. “Once we get them on a campus and interacting with students, it’s demystifying.”
While Rosemont is technically off campus, a bridge that is under construction will nearly connect the university to the school. Coppin State officials are already known commodities there. When Caron Brace, an assistant director of communications, visited a Rosemont classroom on a recent weekday, a student interjected, "Hey, I saw you at Coppin."
Ahmed El-Haggan, vice president for information systems, said Coppin State has an obligation to help raise the level of K-12 education in West Baltimore, given that one of the university's founding missions was to train teachers to serve the community. El-Haggan is also cognizant of Coppin State's inherent self-interest in the project.
“We have this potential group of students who are nearby and want to be prepared for the next level of education,” he said.
These are just the type of students who Coppin State is trying to attract. They are local. They are largely low-income. And their decision likely comes down to Coppin State or no college at all.
Motivated students from around the block might be just what Coppin State needs to help its sagging graduation and retention rates. Fewer than 5 percent of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen graduate there in four years, according to the most recent data available. Fifteen percent graduate in five years and 20 percent in six. The university has the lowest graduation rate among Maryland's state-support HBCU's, according to John Hudgins, an associate professor and chair of the department of social sciences at Coppin State.
Roughly six in 10 students return to the university for their second year, and the retention rates continue to drop as students get further into their educations. Both graduation and retention rates are down from where they were in the late 1990s -- but they are hardly surprising, considering the core socioeconomic base of students.
Graduation and retention numbers tend to be higher at Coppin State for women than men, who, in fall 2005, made up less than one-third of the study body (761 males, 2,660 female undergraduates; 174 males/681 female graduate students).
That's why the university has started an initiative, championed by Hudgins, that is intended to nurture the male students on campus. ( Listen to the latest Inside Higher Ed podcast for more on the initiative.) That program is about Coppin State keeping the students it already has, which Hudgins said should be the university's priority. "If we serve our own, we'll bring the community with us," he said. "That's not to say we can’t [help K-12 students] as well.”
Many on the Coppin State campus are concerned with outreach to future students, which starts before kindergarten.
The Pre-K to 16 Model
If any school was a candidate for an outside takeover, it was Rosemont. Located in a high-poverty neighborhood, the school, less than 10 years ago, tested third-lowest in the state in math and reading.
Coppin State assumed operational duties of the public school in 1998, and Rosemont was taken off the state's "takeover" list of struggling schools in 2002. The university worked to modernize the computer lab and found grant money that has helped the school fund projects having to do with the science, technology, engineering and math fields -- plus geography, a popular field at Coppin State. STEM faculty at the college help with the science curriculum at Rosemont and conduct workshops there.
Enrollment is up at Rosement, as are test scores, and the school was approved as a charter school this summer. The university still runs day-to-day operations and oversees budget matters, but officials say Rosemont administrators have taken on increasing responsibility in recent years.
There continues to be cooperation between Coppin State and Rosement. College students working toward their teaching degrees get classroom time at the school, and current Rosemont staff can take free master's-level courses at the university.
This fall, Rosemont added seventh grade, and the final stage will be next year, when the first eighth grade class begins. Coppin Academy is on a similar timetable, with the 11th and 12th grades being added over the next two years as current students rise toward graduation.
After Coppin State faculty and staff helped paint and renovate a warehouse-turned-class building, Coppin Academy opened more than a year ago with the first cohort of 100 students, all of whom were selected through a lottery system. (The high school is part of the Baltimore City Public School System and is not yet chartered. Enrollment is 185 students this year.) The school is supported by a $650,000 Gates Foundation/Thurgood Marshall Scholarship grant.
"This is an opportunity to put a different face on public education," said Ian Roberts, a Coppin Academy instructor. "It's a small school housed on a college campus -- a different way to get at a solution."
The problem? Getting students to think about college. Howard, the Coppin Academy principal, said the goal is 100 percent college attendance. The concept behind the "urban education corridor" is to develop a pipeline so that Rosemont students can attend Coppin Academy and then move on to...?
Coppin State, Howard said, would be a bonus -- although he is primarily concerned with developing relationships with any college at first.
The first test will come in spring 2009, when the first Coppin Academy class graduates. Coppin State officials said they plan to work closely with that group on college preparation.
El-Haggan, the Coppin State vice president, said he hopes other Baltimore institutions take notice of the program. “Urban city problems are the same more or less,” he said. “This is our way to make a difference, so that Morgan [State University] and [Johns] Hopkins [University] will address what is happening in their communities.”