“I can’t believe they picked
me.” That’s what Keaton Hall, a senior at Uncommon Schools Rochester Prep High School, said to me on FaceTime when he called me over winter break to share the news that he won a full scholarship to Carleton College worth $280,000 over four years as a Questbridge Scholar. I’m Keaton’s college counselor. Keaton is a top student, having taken seven AP courses in high school and having had the highest SAT score of his class. So what struck me the most about Keaton’s reaction was the doubt. I have heard that doubt often, from many of my students. They have sat in my office and told me, “Ms. Cook, I’m not going to college” or “college isn’t for me.” They have said it’s too hard. They can’t imagine themselves there. It’s too scary. Most don’t know anyone who graduated from college. One student told me that he’s going to be a manager at a restaurant and will make $38,000 so he won’t need to go to college.
Too many young people—predominantly teenagers of color from low-income backgrounds like my students—are full of these doubts. And yet, at a school like Rochester Prep, we are showering them with the love and unwavering belief in their potential and then supporting them as they unleash it. Recently, Keaton joined his senior classmates in declaring where they are going to college in Rochester Prep’s first ever Decision Day, a raucous pep rally that we organized so that our students and families can celebrate a milestone just as many sports teams do. During the ceremony, students unfurled their college pennants as they yelled out to friends and family where they are headed to college. Sadly, nationally, only about 10 percent of low-income students ever graduate from college. The fact that 100 percent of the Rochester Prep Class of 2018 is headed there reflects the hard work of Rochester Prep—and not just in high school. We know that being ready for college starts much earlier. Because of the hard work and dedication of Rochester Prep teachers, our students start excelling in elementary school. In grades 3-7 for math, 57 percent of our students passed the state exam, compared with 43 percent statewide, and just shy of the 59 percent pass rate of non economically disadvantaged students in New York state. Our eighth-graders at Rochester Prep take the High School Regents Algebra 1 exam, and 93 percent of them passed last year. Like Keaton, many of our seniors have already taken multiple AP classes. We encourage as many of our students as possible to take AP classes because we know that taking and passing AP classes in high school is correlated with graduating from college on time. Rochester Prep offers 10 Advanced Placement classes; and 54 percent of seniors are taking three or more AP classes this year.
The bottom line is that our students—when given a chance—can knock it out of the park as well as any suburban group of kids. While our high school is new, and this is our first graduating class, we are following the footsteps of our other Uncommon Schools high schools. For graduates of Uncommon Schools, nearly 80 percent have either graduated college or are currently enrolled in college on track to graduate. As they walk across the stage and near the end of their high school experience, my hope and dreams for my students is that they continue to break down stereotypes in college—that they get to the finish line and that they change history for themselves and for those who will come after them.
Taylor Cook is a college counselor in Rochester, New York. She grew up in Rochester, New York, until the age of 8 before moving to Fairport—a suburb a few miles east of the city. After graduating high school, Taylor enrolled and graduated from Nazareth College with degrees in Spanish and international studies.