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Miami high school students, especially first-gen, say they need more help getting into and staying in college

But magnet schools, nonprofits are helping

By: Sarahi Lovo, Melanie Cabrera, Veronica Martinez, D’arin Floyd-Baldwin and D’Avora Williams

Youthcast Media Group®

Ash Hernandez is a first-generation college student in their junior year at Barry University in Miami studying psychology. Hernandez, 20, who attended Young Women’s Preparatory Academy in Miami for high school, knew the transition from high school to college might be tough. 

Courtesy of Ash Hernandez

As the child of two immigrant parents who only speak Spanish and without any older siblings to provide a roadmap, Hernandez needed — and expected — help from their school.  

“My high school provided brochures, but when it came to actually helping me apply, get accepted and securing financial aid to pay for it, they offered me no guidance,” Hernandez says. Even after scheduling a meeting to get solid direction, they say, “the counselors left my parents …  and I to figure it out by ourselves.”

The lack of help left Hernandez, who graduated in the midst of the COVID pandemic, feeling unsure and anxious. “It was just sort of me figuring it out by myself.” 

 Hernandez is far from alone. According to a national student survey published by the educational consulting company YouScience, 75% of high school students do not feel prepared to make the big college and career decisions, often due to a lack of resources and support. In Miami-Dade County and across the country, school districts, nonprofits and foundations are stepping in with creative solutions that look to level the playing field for students who don’t have that help.

Magnet schools provide unique, specialized programs

Magnet schools — public schools offering special programs designed to attract students from across districts —  are one of these efforts. The U.S. Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program awarded a $15 million grant to fund three new K-8 STEAM magnet programs to Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) in 2022, and there are more than 600 magnet schools in the state. The goal is to create equitable opportunities for all students to achieve academic success. 

At Miami Lakes Educational Center (MLEC) students can earn an Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) diploma (similar to an International Baccalaureate diploma), take Advanced Placement (AP) or dual-enrollment classes to earn college credits and can choose a focus area for hands-on training and career development. 

Courtesy of Visari Martinez

Visari Martinez and other teens in the school’s Dental Assistant program can be seen wearing blue scrubs, face masks, and latex gloves as they dart around dental units fully equipped with cleaning stations, trays of extraction tools, and X-ray machines in preparation for entering a career soon after graduation.

“Compared to what I've seen in other schools, we get a crazy amount of resources for what we're doing,” says Visari, who is graduating this year. MLEC’s other programs include culinary, TV production, nursing, and information technology, known as IT.

 Students like Visari can continue their education in the health program at the technical college, where they are able to earn their Dental Assistant Certification, before transferring to a four-year college or university. These programs save students money, as well as time. For many, it’s their ticket into higher education.

“Instead of just going to school thinking I'm going to drop out or be working some menial job because I am first-generation,” says Visari, “I can look forward — I'm going to college. It's not an ‘if’ question.” 

Extra help from nonprofits, government programs can make a ‘huge difference’ 

There are other resources for students to help them prepare for life after graduation, at both magnet and other high schools in Miami-Dade, as long as students know where to look. 

Courtesy of Mazhabeen Choudhury

Mahzabeen Choudhury, a senior at MAST@FIU Academy magnet school, heard about one of these programs — Upward Bound — through a friend. Upward Bound is a government-funded program designed to give low-income and educationally disadvantaged students a broad base of opportunities and experiences in the college transition process. 

She credits Upward Bound with about 95% of her success in preparing for college.

”Because of them I've been able to do SAT preparation, dorm [at Florida International University] for six weeks, and get dual enrollment classes,” Choudhury says. “I've been to Washington, Boston, Tallahassee, Gainesville with them. Upward Bound helped me mentally and physically throughout the college application process and just getting my life together.”

According to data from Upward Bound, students like Choudhury who participate in the program’s Talent Search and Student Support Service (TRIO) are four times more likely to earn an undergraduate degree than students from similar backgrounds who did not have that kind of support.

“The amount of love and energy you’re surrounded by, and the fact that you’re around people that really want to strive for collegiate greatness and not only that, but that… we’re all low-income first-generation products of immigrants, that really resonated with me a lot,” Choudhury says. “I don’t even think I have anxiety or anything bad for the college transition — like, I’ll be okay!” 

Earlier college prep builds a pipeline and expectation, students and experts say

Ella Gokmen,  a 16-year-old junior at Coral Reef Senior High magnet school, is in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and feels pretty well-prepared for college because of the rigor of the classes she takes. Most of Ella’s peers in the IB program there, like Ella herself, came up through magnet or private elementary schools in the area. 

Courtesy of Ella Gokmen

“So there's kind of like a pipeline to getting into [Coral] Reef from the higher-rated middle schools and maybe elementary schools,” Ella says.

Even with all that focus and support, though, Ella wishes her school started the college prep process earlier. 

“I feel like college preparation only becomes a [focus] or topic of discussion when it's actually right there,” she says. “We should be preparing kids maybe a little bit earlier so they know what they need to do.”

Starting early is at the heart of BreakThrough Miami,  an academic enrichment program that serves 1,300 students who are at risk of not entering or completing college from the fourth grade through their senior year. About 95% of Breakthrough participants, known as scholars, come from area magnet schools, said Webber Charles, BreakThrough’s director of student achievement. 

“A lot of the work that we are doing is informed by the general research that is available that says students have higher college persistence rates when they’re exposed to academic rigor,” Charles says. The organization says that all its scholars graduate and go to college, and 93% attend four-year universities.     

Bradshyr Mortimer, who is finishing his freshman year at University of Central Florida studying computer science, started as a BreakThrough scholar in fourth grade. At that age he didn’t yet make the connection about how important college was, he said.

“I do remember thinking negatively at first because they're like you have to do homework there,” at the BreakThrough sessions, he said. “But as time went on, I started to look forward to going there mostly because of the atmosphere.”   

The program helped Mortimer see college more clearly, he said. “It helped me clarify what things I should or shouldn't look for in college, and also helped to make things less abstract…  a lot of college policies and whatnot that I would not have known until it was too late and I was in college and like ‘oh, how do I do all this?’”

Melanie Cabrera graduated in May from Miami Lakes Educational Center (MLEC), Sarahi Lovo is a junior at Terra Environmental Research Institute, Veronica Martinez is a junior at Coral Reef Senior High School and D’arin Floyd-Baldwin and D’Avora Williams are juniors at MLEC. They were participants in Youthcast Media Group’s spring 2024 reporting workshop and worked with YMG Mentor-Editor and Lansing, Michigan journalist Andrea King Collier. 


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