In-Depth

Houston Middle School Students Get Ahead On College, Careers Early On

“If we really want to change the trajectory of our students in a very systemic and broad and meaningful way, we need to invest in our students earlier on.”

Adviser Christal Smaw says she’s seen how Ariana has grown in confidence this past year in Project Explore at Pilgrim Academy.

When Ariana Castañeda was in sixth grade, she already knew she wanted to go to college. But Ariana, 13, remembers feeling confused and overwhelmed by the process. She’s the middle child of five kids and no one in her immediate family has gone to college.

“I didn’t really know how to get there,” Ariana says. “I didn’t know much about it, and it was me feeling pressured at the same time because you know college is so far away, but at the same time everything is moving so fast.”

Like Ariana, many first generation students in Texas find the path to higher education difficult and confusing. Just how hard is it? In the Houston Independent School District, barely half of seniors are enrolled in college the fall after their graduation, according to research by Rice University.

Then this year in seventh grade, Ariana got more help from something called Project Explore. It’s a new program from HISD that targets kids as early as middle school to help guide them toward college and a career they’ll enjoy — sometimes with simple games.

“And the goal of the game is to realize whatever life you choose – we all have choices in life — depending on your education level, that affects jobs you can get,” says adviser Christal Smaw, as she sets out a board game for Ariana and other seventh graders at Pilgrim Academy in Houston’s Gulfton neighborhood.

It’s called Time is Money, and it’s kind of like the Game of Life. Players have to make decisions about housing, vacations and credit cards. It’s before 8 a.m. during one of the last weeks of schools, so Ariana sleepily rolls the dice. She lands and has to make a choice.

“Where will you get your haircut?” she reads.

Ariana goes with her gut — the cheaper choice: “I’m single with one child so I feel like making everything just like fit in is really important; I think I’m barely starting my career as a mechanical engineer, so every penny counts.”

The board game gets these preteens thinking about real life, including what they want to be when they grow up after college.

Ariana and other students at Pilgrim Academy play “Time is Money” and learn about how their education, careers and other choices affect what kind of lifestyle they can afford.

Ariana’s adviser says it’s a huge shift to coach middle school students. Before, Smaw spent 16 years counseling high school students, and she says sometimes she felt they got key information almost too late.

“It was heartbreaking literally for me every day to be knowing that students are about to be 18, graduate and really not prepared for the next phase in life. So when I heard that HISD was starting a program to work with middle school students, I said sign me up because I knew I could make it impact earlier,” Smaw says.

Now, Smaw works with 75 students at Pilgrim Academy, one of 10 middle schools in Project Explore.

Smaw and her students don’t just play games. They’ve explored careers, visited college campuses and done extracurricular activities like Saturday science camps.

While it’s hard to track college advising in middle schools, some research indicates positive results. In Arkansas, researchers found that spending time on college campuses slightly improved the chances of those students talking with school staff about college. It also seemed to increase how many middle school students enrolled in honors or advanced courses later when they went on to ninth grade, according to Chalkbeat.

Other programs in the region, such as Breakthrough Houston, also try to reach students early in junior high, but for the Houston school district this marks a bigger, long-term investment. The first year of Project Explore cost $1.3 million. 

“If we really want to change the trajectory of our students in a very systemic and broad and meaningful way, we need to invest in our students earlier on. We need to help shape their trajectory earlier on,” says Rick Cruz, the chief strategy and innovation officer for HISD.

Cruz says he’s seen how the path for Houston students can falter. For example, Texas requires teenagers to choose a major in high school — something called an “endorsement” that the Texas Legislature mandated in 2013, but Cruz says many high school students don’t know what’s offered or haven’t had a chance to explore their interests. 

“We were just seeing a huge disconnect because students were going into high school not really knowing what path they wanted to take,” Cruz says. “I think we underestimate sometimes even our students and the fact that they make decisions early on that really shape their lives.

A lot of Project Explore is modeled after another advising program that Cruz started as a teacher: EMERGE, which aims to connect high-achieving, low-income students with top tier colleges that nationally often overlook their potential. One major similarity is the personal mentoring between advisers and students.

Cruz says while it’s still early to tell how successful Project Explore is, there are some positive results, in that more students at middle schools with Project Explore are applying to selective public high schools. Take Henry Middle School. The number of applications to magnet high schools went from eight in 2017-18 to almost 90 within one year. 

Those early results — plus the intense enthusiasm from families and principals — has convinced Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to expand the program. Project Explore will work with students at 25 middle schools and start even earlier with children at four elementary schools. Lathan says she sees it as way to help stem enrollment decline in HISD and retain families in the district.

“It’s about exposure. And I want to make sure our message is clear  — We’re exposing students to careers, we’re exposing them to college visits,” Lathan says.

That exposure has already changed the path for Ariana. For her career, she’s moved from medicine to something more creative, like journalism or music. Her adviser has seen her grown less shy and more confident.

“I would say quite honestly Ariana knows more in seventh grade now than a lot of my seniors did — as far as the college process and what it takes to get there, knowing about herself — than a lot of my seniors did last year,” Smaw says.

Ariana Castañeda says before Project Explore, she wanted to go into medicine to help people. Now she realizes that’s not her passions — creative writing and music are.

As for her interests, Ariana plays the cello and plans to apply to Houston’s selective fine arts high school, a place she had barely heard of before. And she feels like she’s part of something bigger.

“It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my journey, that there are people that have that or are helping me throughout this whole entire year and that are going to continue to,” she says.

Ariana says her two older siblings never got that support. But it’s something she’ll pass down to her two younger sisters.

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Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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