The Question of College Prep

Dear IS Families,

You’d think that maybe the hardest thing for me to make sense of this year would be some local reference to an unfamiliar (but awesome) food or an important (but little known beyond Kaua’i) recent event. But you’d be wrong. The puzzler to me is actually the frequently mentioned idea of the school being college prep— whatever that means. As we finish the first quarter of this academic year that’s flying by already, let me try for a brief set of comments on that elusive piece of terminology:

Full disclosure— I haven’t really heard anyone use that term in many years. I think historically it served a purpose distinguishing the basic purpose of a school or a segment of a school. Come to think of it, I went to one of those places up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom (look it up and learn about all the maple syrup we produced up there). There was a vocational track, a business track, and the one I landed in— college prep. The same was true in comprehensive high schools nationwide, in a kind of sorting hat system.

Fast forward forty years. Those barriers became much more porous— students can take classes that cross boundaries, with technology playing a large role and separate tracks being far less common. Sure, schools still offer welding or auto mechanics options that lead straight to jobs, but more rarely. And what does this have to do with Island School?

If I had to guess, the college prep language is a way of affirming our commitment to serious academics, something that should not be up for debate. Whatever we do in the classroom should be the very best that our resources and imagination can make possible. Maybe the real question is what we expect of our graduates— in both the shorter and longer term.  And our mission statement references “living lives of significance.” While I’ve never been a giant mission statement fan, there may be an answer for us in that phrase.

The real question is what college has to do with lives of significance. There are equally fundamental questions being asked about the purpose of college.  With each passing year, the higher educational landscape changes in ways that offer more questions than answers. Young people take longer to get to college, take longer to finish college, take detours during college, and if not careful may take decades paying for college— all in ways that we didn’t see coming a generation ago. So what’s Island School to do?

To me it seems simple, just not easy, as is true of so much for us as we look ahead. Our efforts would be far better directed to being an excellent school, a relevant school, a creative school,  a leading school, than simply a college prep school, part of a pack. We do best when we are readying our students for an unpredictable landscape— for the world of the future and not of the past. 

Into those students’ toolkits should go capacities to communicate, in writing and in speech, to solve problems, solo and as part of a team, to make sense of numbers, in large data sets and in conceptual models, and to walk in a variety of worlds with a variety of people, with an understanding of how the world got to be where it is. If we did that,  as a set of core commitments, and we helped them understand their potential and their responsibility as educated citizens, we’d surely have prepped them for whatever college or its equivalent turns out to be. Don’t underestimate for a minute our unique capacity to do all that given our setting.

Yes, standardized tests and graded transcripts still matter. But even those familiar elements don’t loom as large as they once did— schools like ours have programs that are increasingly indistinguishable from one another and our students’ individual stories are increasingly important beyond their numbers and scores, and their paths from here may be just as individualized, to and through higher education.

So I’d see college prep as a given, not a point worth arguing over. The question is what will college mean by the time our students get there. The current high-priced, high pressure, high anxiety culture of the top 100 or so competitive application environments, next to the deep-discounting swath of other settings, with the tension of public and private institutions’ different dynamics, is bound to change— it’s changing as I type. We’ll be best served to focus on making the best pre-K-12 education we know how, and the college part will follow.

My two cents. Enjoy the break, appreciate each other, and get ready for some busy weeks ahead—

Sorry this wasn’t shorter. Will take a week off now.

Ever thankful that you’re reading,