Our nation’s capital is full of countless tales of humble servants who began their terms on an improbable journey to impactful American leadership.
The confirmation hearings of Betsy DeVos for U.S. education secretary and the emotional responses of participants and observers demonstrate that education is a cornerstone issue of American leadership. The constant mention of education tax dollars in the hearings also revealed how implementing sound education policies across the country requires sound economic policies on this journey to impactful American leadership.
Similarly, four years ago, a young girl from Gary, Indiana launched an improbable journey to become the first student in Indiana’s history—and perhaps in the nation’s history—to graduate from college before even earning her high school diploma. Raven Osborne will graduate in May 2017 having done just that. On top of it all, she will have done it free of college debt.
Influential leaders in all industries have something in common with this ground-breaking teenager: They think beyond traditional expectations. Here in Indiana, we’ve been fortunate to have leaders with nontraditional visions that have paid off for our state, including Vice President Mike Pence and former U.S. senator and now Intelligence Chief Dan Coats, who will be able to share their Indiana-born ideas with the country. They, like Raven, expect more and get more by being willing to gain more.
But gaining more does not mean having to spend more. Raven is not the first 18-year-old to earn her baccalaureate degree, however, she is almost certainly the first to do it free of charge, without a single academic scholarship, while enrolled in high school. By attending a public high school that pays for the college tuition and textbooks of its students, she is debt free at 18 with a B.A. from Purdue University. How?
Raven’s public high school, 21st Century Charter School in Gary, believes the public money it receives to teach Raven actually belongs to Raven and her fellow students—not the school. That’s the approach the school took toward being a national leader in successful economic policy for education.
We partner with local colleges, and buy Raven and her classmates the classes they want in the academic and elective subjects they need, and they are taught in college classrooms, earning college and high school credit at the same time. This is offered at a fraction of what it would cost to hire additional teachers and offer additional classes.
High school students are completely capable of excelling at college courses. All it takes is for us, as adults, to raise our own expectations of ourselves, to provide them that opportunity to do the same. This approach is needed across the country. Putting students who don’t come from college-degreed homes into college, while they attend high school, breaks cycles of poverty. The conversation is no longer about making students “college prepared,” but “college experienced.”
In Gary, Indiana, where little more than 10 percent of all households have any college education, 21st Century Charter School is experiencing near 100 percent high school graduation rates and zero dropouts. Our students are going off to college with multiple semesters of college credits, all armed with a serious degree of confidence about completing college.
Why? Because they’ve already been there, academically and physically.
Raven may be unusual, but she is not alone. While nearly all of the 2017 graduating class is free-lunch qualified, they will be walking the stage with college experience, college credits attached to their high school diplomas and eight of her classmates will be graduating with associate degrees.
Nyesha, one of our 2014 associate degree graduates, just turned 19. Last month, she graduated from Ball State University with her B.S. degree and only $1,500 of college debt. Her ability to aggressively earn relevant college credits while still in high school transformed her future.
The students’ cycle of poverty has been broken through education, and it has not cost the state one single extra dollar. Less demand on public housing, less crime, better housing, better paying jobs, more taxes paid, and greater productivity in life are among the potential positive social outcomes for these young people, their communities and their political leaders.
Our model of education is ready and available to be used in any state, for any interested school or congressional leader seeking meaningful change in they way they use taxpayer education dollars. Two schools in Colorado and Louisiana are now successfully operating on our education model. Schools that put students first, and have a laser beam focus on producing college and career-ready citizens should be rewarded.
It’s time for Congress, the president, and the new secretary of education to think boldly about the future and set new expectations for all of our nation’s schools using sound economic policy.
Kevin Teasley is president of the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation.