Getting Kids College-Ready Early: Five Research-Based Strategies

College_flag_Clarke_ElementaryIt’s not often that an elementary school has college banners hanging from the dining hall rafters and college photos of prior students decorating the walls. But at George C. Clarke elementary, those are just two of the many ways the school reinforces its positive – and sometimes, life-changing – message: College isn’t just a possibility; it’s an expectation. The administrators at George C. Clarke, in connection with several key community partners, have taken college readiness to the next level by using research to drive innovative programs that will help boost student achievement and create a college-bound culture. Below are the five evidence-based initiatives that have helped its students excel and the school stand apart.

  1. College Savings Accounts

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Students who expect to graduate from a four-year college and who have a college savings account are six times more likely to attend college than those with no account. Teenagers who have designated a portion of their savings for college are three times more likely to attend college than those with no account (Elliott & Beverly, 2011).

ABOUT THE PROGRAM: George C. Clarke provides students with the opportunity to save for college through the school’s Comerica Bank Day College Savings Program. The Gary Patterson Foundation supports students who enroll in this program by sponsoring incentives such as posters, footballs, and Rangers tickets for the families of top savers. Clarke’s college savings account initiative aligns with the new Texas elementary school math standards for 2014-2015, which include financial literacy for K-5 students (Texas Administrative Code, 2012).

  1. Reading is Fundamental and RUFF

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Having access to books has an overwhelmingly positive effect on children’s early literacy skills, reading behavior, reading achievement, and attitudes toward reading (Lindsay, 2010). Especially in low-income households, every book added to a home library improves reading achievement (Evans, Kelley, & Sikora, 2014) and helps to prevent summer reading setback (Allington et. al., 2010). Reading to certified reading therapy dogs also has a documented effect on children’s reading, increasing fluency by 12-30% (Bailey, 2010).

ABOUT THE PROGRAM: Federal funding for free books for students through the Reading is Fundamental (RIF) Program was discontinued in 2010, so Clarke teamed with The Gary Patterson Foundation to fund RIF for the school, providing 7,500 books since 2010. As a part of RIF, the foundation sponsors “RUFF! I mean RIF!” which brings reading therapy dogs to Clarke as a part of RIF book distributions. Children choose their free books and then read aloud for 20 minutes to certified reading therapy dogs.

  1. College Field Trips

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: The most statistically significant predictor of college completion for low-income students is visiting a college with a parent (Bedsworth, Colby, & Doctor, 2006).

ABOUT THE PROGRAM: Clarke Elementary provides college field trips for fifth graders, and offers grocery gift cards as an incentive for parents who attend the school’s college field trips with their children. Clarke 5th graders visit Texas Christian University in September and University of Texas at Arlington in May.

  1. College Scholarship Program

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: Of the students that receive scholarships in elementary school, 85% go on to graduate college (Mexican American College Education Fund (MACE), 2014).

ABOUT THE PROGRAM: The George C. Clarke Scholarship program began 14 years ago in an effort to encourage promising, low-income students and their families to have college completion as a primary goal. The program awards a $500 college scholarship to selected fifth grade students, who receive funds upon enrollment in higher education. As of 2014, 85% of Clarke’s scholarship recipients have completed college or are currently enrolled. During the 2013-2014 school year, the Clarke program expanded to Daggett Elementary.

  1. Bookshelves for Clarke Students

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS: A strong correlation has been found between the number of books in the home and students’ academic performance; in this study, no single factor was a stronger predictor of academic achievement in school (Woessmann, 2003, 2008). Another predictor is whether or not families have bookshelves as furniture in the home. Stanford researchers found that British children whose parents owned two bookshelves had higher standardized test scores than those of other children (2010).

ABOUT THE PROGRAM: For the past five years, every Clarke third-grader has received a bookshelf to paint, decorate, and take home. The school’s goal is for every child to possess ten books for each year spent at the school. The program also provides an engaging project for the families to work on together.

Since Clarke Elementary has instituted these initiatives, the school’s passing rate on the state exams improved from 40% to 95%. Clarke was also recognized as one of four exemplary campuses out of 80 in Fort Worth ISD for the 2011-2012 school year – a huge success, especially considering the number of students that come from low-income families, many with parents who did not attend college. We are inspired by the school’s efforts to increase academic performance, and applaud its success in instilling a college-bound culture.

What other approaches can help students set their sights for college and beyond? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below, or email us at