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The Magic Moment: College Signing Days Make Rock Stars out of College-Bound Seniors, Inspiring Those Waiting in the Wings

By Richard Whitmire | July 8, 2019

KIPP Gaston College Prep co-founder Tammi Sutton at Senior Signing Day 2018 (Richard Whitmire)

This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America. See more excerpts, profiles, commentaries, videos and additional data behind the book at The74Million.org/Breakthrough.

A jazz band played as 72 graduating seniors from KIPP Gaston College Prep paired off to promenade through the gym before several hundred students, family, and teachers gathered here. No, this is not graduation; graduation is a far lesser event. This is Senior Signing Day for KIPP Gaston’s 10th graduating class. Similar to almost all the big charter networks, senior signing days are “IT” events, proof to everyone that the schools followed through with the promises made to families when they signed up for the admission lotteries: We will get your child accepted into a four-year university.

If you want to know how these charters grew the percentage of their graduates who go on to earn college degrees by a factor ranging from two to five, understanding senior signing day is crucial. Signing days are events that some urban school districts have started copying, which is a good thing. But what gets copied elsewhere, at least from my observations, is a simple mimic that looks more like a party — nothing compared to what happens at places such as KIPP Gaston. What takes place at these charter signing days is more akin to a wedding than a party: It’s a reminder of vows made to get here, and a recommitment of vows to be fulfilled in the future. Signing days are a big reason why the major charter networks post superior college success numbers.


 

“I am not exaggerating. When the middle school kids watched the seniors, it was like they were watching superstars.”
—Caleb Dolan, co-founder of KIPP Gaston College Prep


The school’s very first signing day, for the Class of 2009, is remembered by co-founder Caleb Dolan as a magical moment. Watching the eyes of the middle school students as the seniors revealed their college choices, Dolan knew that for the first time all students became believers: They truly were part of a college-going culture. “I am not exaggerating. When the middle school kids watched the seniors, it was like they were watching superstars.”

After the event, the middle school students were asked to write how they envisioned their own signing day. It was clear that every student had thought about how that would play out. “It absolutely transformed the way every other student in that campus thought about this process,” Dolan remembers. “It shifted from imaginary to like, ‘Ooh, I can be you know like Adryen. I can be like Katrese.’ And I just can’t overweight that feeling. And its impact.”

What if making it to college was as big as making it to the pros?

Today, senior signing days have become commonplace in many traditional high schools, with former first lady Michelle Obama leading the way with her own go-to-college campaign, which can be followed at #bettermakeroom. But the movement started at Texas-based YES Prep charter schools. In the opening of the book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, authors and brothers Chip and Dan Heath relate an anecdote that best summarizes what their entire book will be about. It starts with YES Prep founder Chris Barbic and YES Prep’s college counselor Donald Kamentz sitting in a now-defunct Houston bar, Ernie’s on Banks — a name chosen by a Chicago guy who loved Cubs star Ernie Banks and opened a bar on Houston’s Banks Street. Here’s what happened next, based on a mix of the book and my interviews with Barbic and Kamentz:

It is a chilly October night in 2000 when Barbic and Kamentz stop by Ernie’s on the way home. They are drinking Shiner Bocks, munching on Tombstone pizza, and watching ESPN. It’s signing day for college athletes, and there’s much shouting, applause, and general backslapping from friends and relatives congratulating these athletes on making it to the big time. “Why shouldn’t our families experience the same acclaim?” they reasoned. Most are the first in their families to go to college, many of them headed to name-brand universities. This needs celebrating, maybe even more than the athletes needed celebrating. “Our kids were going to declare their own colleges, and nobody was going to make a big deal of it,” Kamentz said. “What if we made a big deal of it?”

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Thus was born the senior signing day, in June 2001, just three years after Barbic founded the school in Houston, with YES Prep’s first 17 graduating seniors and their families cheered on by about 300 younger YES Preppers and the staff. They all fit into a small theater at an adjoining community center. Maybe this wasn’t national sports on ESPN, but there was plenty of drama. One by one, they stepped forward to announce where they were headed next year. “My name is Jessica, and I’m going to Rice University!” At that point they would unveil a college T-shirt or wave a college pennant.

There were plenty of tears among the seniors and their families, but the real impact was on the younger students, who carefully watched the emotion and knew their day would come soon. It was a powerful reminder: Study hard and win acceptance to the best college that’s affordable. The book’s authors cite Mayra Valle, a sixth-grader attending YES Prep’s third signing day and her first. “She remembers thinking, ‘That could be me. No one in my family has ever gone to college. I want to be on that stage.’”

In 2010, six years later, when Valle graduated, the senior class had grown to 126 and signing day was moved to the basketball arena at Rice University. The keynote speaker was U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who noted the surroundings. “No basketball game, no football game begins to compare to the magnitude and importance of what happened here today,” Duncan told them. “Thank you for inspiring not just your brothers and sisters, not just the underclassmen here, but the entire country.”

When Valle’s turn came, she stepped onto the stage. “Good afternoon, everybody, my name is Mayra Valle, and this fall I will be attending Connecticut College.” As they did with every graduate, the crowd roared its approval.

Today, YES Prep holds its signing ceremony in Houston’s massive Toyota Center, where the Houston Rockets play basketball. Write the authors: “Senior Signing Day didn’t just happen. Chris Barbic and Donald Kamentz set out to create a defining moment for their students. When Mayra Valle and hundreds of other YES Prep graduates walked onto that stage, they stepped into a carefully crafted defining moment that was no less special for having been planned.”

The cover to their book is a bottle capturing lightning, which is exactly what Barbic and Kamentz did. Today, every major charter network carries out some variation of college signing day.

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Gaston Senior Signing Day: 72 seniors, $3.5 million, 60 seconds of joy

Watching the event here in Gaston offers an insight into how the charter networks use these days not to party, not to celebrate, but to reinforce, to create powerful images and memories. Soon after the 72 seniors took their places along the podium, KIPP Gaston co-founder Tammi Sutton stepped up to the microphone. Her first words weren’t directed at the graduating seniors. The students she cared most about were the eighth-graders sitting near the front. Those were middle schoolers who would be arriving at the high school next year. They were the graduating senior class of 2022, just as the graduating seniors at this signing day were the college class of 2022.


 

The 72 seniors here drew about $3.5 million in financial aid collectively.


In breakthrough schools, all classes are referred to by their expected graduation year: the middle schoolers, when they will graduate from high school; the seniors, when they will graduate from college in four years. And in these schools, doing it all in four years is key. These students, who rely almost completely on a long list of scholarships and grants to pay their way through college, can’t afford to fall behind the four-year pace. The 72 seniors here drew about $3.5 million in financial aid collectively.

Tammi gave the younger students a long, direct look: “As eighth-graders, just like our seniors, you’re making decisions right now that will affect your future choices. Your final grades in eighth grade will determine the courses that you can take in high school. And the hard work and habits that you are forming now are going to be key factors when you’re sitting on this stage in just four short years. As you complete those high school enrollment forms and plow through these final weeks of school, think very carefully about the choices you are making. Because they matter. They matter now. And they matter in the future.”

Listen carefully, she advised them, to the 60-second college signing speeches, videos, and skits prepared by each of the 72 seniors. “Those 60 seconds are symbolic of hours, days, and years of hard work and commitment … Our seniors and the nine Prides [each class is known as a Pride] that came before them represent what is possible in public education across the country. While we currently live in a nation where less than 10 percent of students from low-income communities will earn a college degree, we know that that statistic does not have to define your reality. We know that because our alumni have already graduated college at rates five times greater than the national average.”

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The Pride of 2009 From Rural North Carolina Reflect on How Their Lives Were Changed by the Chance to Go to College

She was right about that. About 60 percent of KIPP Gaston’s founding class, the Pride of 2009, earned four-year degrees within six years of leaving Gaston, an extraordinary outcome. That influx of returning college graduates — plus the teachers arriving here to work in an expanding KIPP network that now includes 140 staffers and 1,900 students in Gaston, Halifax, and Durham — appears to be the sole reason for the sharp rise in the number of college degree-holders in Northampton County. Those degree-holders aren’t coming from the paper mills, nor are they wealthy retirees living in Lake Gaston out earning extra degrees.

After Tammi finished her short speech, the 60-second announcements began rolling, clearly what everyone was waiting to see and hear. But at the end, the time when one might expect to hear a party-on message, school leader Kevika Amar stepped up to the podium for a final message. An outsider might think it was a bit rough. Yes, she congratulated everyone, but within her second sentence she moved on to the business at hand. “I can’t wait to attend those [college] graduations in 2022. But in a week, all of you will be taking AP exams. You will be continuing to experience what it takes to study for and ace a college final exam. In the next month, you’ll be finishing your 10-page research papers and senior projects.” Then she paused, smiled, and said, “I don’t hear all the excitement in the room about this.” Many of the seniors quietly groaned or smiled knowingly.

Most of Amar’s talk was about the task ahead, both the immediate exams and papers they face and the longer-term challenge. “While you’ve put a lot of hard work into earning your college acceptances, getting in is going to feel easy compared to the journey you have ahead. The choices you make in the next two months and the next four years will have a tremendous impact on your ability to be sitting on your college graduation stages four years from now.”

As always, the focus was narrow and highly targeted: Never take your eye off the ball of graduating in four years. That’s not a message you’d hear from school leaders in middle-class districts, where the students’ fates aren’t as fragile, aren’t as tied to maintaining a minimum grade point average, aren’t as dependent on an array of grants and scholarships, each with unique renewal requirements.

Almost all KIPP Gaston College Prep graduates chose to stay in North Carolina, with several headed to selective or highly selective schools, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel or Duke University (KIPP Gaston College Prep)

Compelling tales from the Pride of 2018

Watching the Pride of 2018 announce their college choices, two things came immediately to mind. First, that every single graduate from this impoverished pocket of North Carolina was headed to a four-year college. And if the past is any indicator, well over half will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The second observation: Almost all the graduates chose to stay in North Carolina, most likely a reflection of Gaston’s rural character, with many of them attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities in their home state. Several students were headed to selective or highly selective universities — several to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, two to Duke University — but the most common universities announced appeared to be Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina A&T, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Those choices align with KIPP’s national survey of its alumni, which revealed that its students are more likely to find a “sense of belonging” at historically black colleges.

Modest in numbers, many members of the graduating class chose to use their 60 celebratory seconds to show their homemade videos on a big screen. Others drew on classmates to act out short skits. One of the most popular, based on deafening applause, were the three seniors in the school drumline, who performed a crisp routine and then announced their college choices.

Adonnia Francis has one of the more interesting, and compelling, personal stories at KIPP Gaston. She moved to the U.S. from Jamaica only five years ago, following her mother, who got a job teaching here. Until recently, Francis did not have permanent resident status, which greatly complicated her college search. In the beginning, she lived in Henderson, about a two-hour drive away. And she made that commute for three years — each way. “My mom wanted the best education for me. The public school where I was from, to be honest, was not good at all. Originally, I didn’t want to come here, but I got used to it and I love it now.” Not only did Francis endure those long drives, she also played center on KIPP Gaston’s girls basketball team for four years, meaning late departures. Her mother had to drive two hours to pick her up after basketball, and then return home. “She made a lot of sacrifices, just for me.” Only recently did they move to Rocky Mount, a mere 45-minute commute.

When I visited Gaston a month before Signing Day, Adonnia was vacillating between North Carolina’s Elon University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At that point, Elon had offered her an impressive scholarship and she had yet to hear from other universities. “I want to double major in physics and computer science with a minor in journalism, because I want to write.” Her favorite writing is poetry, but she also looks forward to writing school essays — not a sentiment shared by many students. “I absolutely love it.”

On Signing Day, Francis announced her final choice: the University of North Carolina. Why not Elon? “I went to visit UNC and realized they had a much better physics program, because it’s much bigger. It gives me more opportunities.”

Bernard Lee would not describe himself as one of the academic superstars at KIPP Gaston. “When I came here in the ninth grade, it was very bad. I didn’t take my school life, and my life in general, seriously.” It led him to fail ninth grade, which he had to repeat. KIPP’s intense focus on college, an emphasis that was lacking in his previous experience in local district schools, slowly had an impact. “I realized that my decisions in the present affect how life will be in the future.” At the end of his senior year, Lee pulled his GPA up to an unweighted 3.1. When I talked to him a month before Signing Day, he was debating between Winston-Salem State University and Guilford College, both in North Carolina, or Regent University in Virginia. What mattered most were the scholarship offers: Lee, one of three siblings, has been raised by a single mother who packs meat into boxes at a Boar’s Head facility. On Signing Day, he revealed his choice: Winston-Salem.

Amaya Pearson, who graduated with a weighted 4.1 grade point average, is going to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hoping to major in biomedical engineering. Why that major? It’s what she experienced there during a prospective student visit. “I saw that and told myself, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’” On Signing Day, her extended family was there to assist in her big announcement. She is the oldest of five children, the remainder brothers, and she is the first in her family to go to college. “It’s a really big deal, and I’m really nervous. Although I faced a lot of challenges — grades, sports, babysitting to make money — I got a lot of encouragement from my teachers. I was able to persevere.”

Zadaiah Roye is adopted; her biological family lives in the Washington, D.C., area. “For the majority of my life it was just my guardians taking care of me.” Only in the past two years has she established contact with her mother. Her adoptive mother lives in nearby Weldon, where she sells appliances at a Lowe’s. One of her older cousins went to KIPP Gaston, so her mother was eager to send her there. “She was just ready to get me out of the Weldon public system.” Roye found KIPP Gaston “very, very much” harder than the schools she had known. But there are no regrets. Her GPA is a 3.9, she loves the sciences, and she plans on a pre-med major, hoping to become an OB/GYN. When I talked with her a month before Signing Day, she had been accepted to both Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but was leaning heavily toward Duke. During one of her campus visits there, she stayed with Duke students who were KIPP graduates. “We were talking to actual students you could relate to.” The student she stayed with convinced her that coming to Duke was a good idea despite all the wealthy students who would surround her, a student coming on full scholarship. “What she told me was that at some point you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” The announcement on Signing Day: Duke.

This is an excerpt from the new Richard Whitmire book The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America. See more excerpts, profiles, commentaries, videos and additional data behind the book at The74Million.org/Breakthrough

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