The Educational Path to College

College readiness doesn't start in the teen years. See what knowledge your child picks up at each stage in life that prepares them for higher education.

Your child’s educational path to college doesn’t start in high school. Kids learn useful life and academic skills at school and at home from the time they’re little that put them on the road to higher education. Know what your child learns at each stage of school, why it matters and what you can do to help them stay on track.

Birth and preschool

Ages: 0-4 years old

Believe it or not, getting your child on the route to college begins at a very early age. As early as birth, there are things you can do to prepare them for their future education.

The first? Start saving. The cost of college might not even come to mind while you’re holding your precious newborn, but the simple step of starting a savings account for them can make a huge difference down the road for your child. You can do this by setting up a savings plan at Michigan Education Savings Plan (MESP) or Michigan Education Trust (MET), says Gabriela Garfield, interim senior director of student financial aid at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The next major step: preschool. Early childhood experts agree the earlier a toddler starts preschool, the better. Andrea Krause, lead teacher at Detroit Edison Public School Academy’s preschool program, says the kids she sees come through her program are often better prepared for kindergarten.

“There (are) many aspects that we do that, really, it all links up to their future education,” Krause says. “The biggest thing” they work on in preschool are social skills, which she says prime kids for the school years ahead and their future careers.

In preschool, kids are learning how to communicate with their peers and also to problem solve, Krause says, so even learning to help another student zip her coat or open a container is a way they’re “becoming a caring and compassionate person in the world.”

Preschool is also a child’s introduction to school and its many subjects, such as reading, writing and math. In her classroom, Krause says this includes “letter recognition, then the sounds that correlate with the letter,” as well as number identification, counting, recognizing patterns and grouping items, writing their names and basic reading skills.

At Jill’s Creative Learning, a home-based program, lead teacher Lakeysha Frierson says much of the learning is done through play. Krause says with activities like dramatic play, the kids are having fun, but they’re also mimicking what they see at home and using their own creativity, too.

Parents, take note: During the preschool years, there are things you can do at home with your child to help them learn, too.

“I think one of the biggest things that I would say to parents and do say to parents is just sitting with their kids and actually spending time and talking to their children,” Krause says, suggesting parents ask questions like, “How was your day?” and “What did you do today?”

Parents also can turn everyday situations into learning opportunities. While at the grocery store, have kids count the number of oranges in the cart; have them help you write a shopping list and talk about prices, she recommends.

“I think it all just comes down to spending time with your kids and actually communicating with them,” Krause says.

Elementary school

Grades: K-6

The elementary years are when kids are establishing a foundation in core curriculum – reading, math, science and other subjects that are so key for college readiness.

But Thirkell Elementary School teacher Julia Pitts – who teaches fifth grade language arts and social studies and has taught younger students over the years, as well – says there are other less-tangible skills they are developing too.

During the elementary years, the kids are learning “how to work with each other, with groups,” Pitts says. Both skills aid them in society and future jobs, where they’ll work with others. “We begin building the characteristics in children,” she adds, such as how to respect others and handling responsibilities.

In addition, “We’re teaching them to think critically,” she says. Plus, Pitts says she teaches students how to read and comprehend instructions and follow directions. “Tiny steps that build big milestones to their learning,” Pitts explains.

Pitts says that by the time kids reach the fifth grade, she likes to see students able to put together and organize a sentence. As far as at what point students should be meeting certain milestones, she says, “We all have high expectations but the reality is … every child is different.”

So, for a child who is struggling with any aspect of school, Pitts notes, “We’re going to have a find out another pathway” when it comes to learning.

“The very first thing, I would think, is that parental involvement in the school is very crucial,” she says. Parents should monitor their child’s academic progress regularly, know what they’re doing for homework and contact the teacher to discuss any difficulties they run into, she says.

And if parents don’t understand the homework or how to help their child, teachers can help them, too. Or you can even consider sending your child to a tutoring center right here in southeast Michigan. In the past, Pitts says she’s come in early to assist parents, and has even recorded her lessons to send home, so parents can follow along.

Reading readiness in elementary school is a major takeaway, so Pitts recommends parents go over sounds and letters. Even if you don’t have a book at home, make index cards or write words on paper to make your own book so kids can practice word recognition – or have them read ingredients on a can of food.

“Use all the materials that you have at home,” she says, and “make a game out of it.”

Ultimately, Pitts sums it up this way: “Parents (are) the first teacher – the first educator.” Being involved with homework and showing overall support in school enhances kids’ education.


Middle school

Grades: 7-8

The middle school years introduce tweens to a structure similar to what they’ll be experiencing in high school, which will help prepare them for independent accountability in their academic pursuits. Still, this is a time when parents need to be involved and help guide their children through these crucial learning years.

Angela Walker-Tolbert, a former teacher and now school counselor at Clippert Academy, a fifth- through eighth-grade school, says if students came from an elementary school and “it was a little shaky,” here is where they “solidify your foundation.”

At Clippert, Walker-Tolbert stresses students have to get used to standardized testing and get past the fear. The students take a lot of tests during the school year, including the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP, and Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP.

“We try to instill in them that if you don’t like standardized testing,” then “just learn to master it,” she says.

While this structured environment at school is great, kids need a similar environment outside the classroom, too.

“Provide structure at home and create an environment where learning is cherished,” Walker-Tolbert says. Let your child read to you while you’re cooking or doing chores or explain their math homework to you – even if you don’t totally understand it, she says.

Parental involvement is “crucial” Walker-Tolbert adds, “because they should be the most influential person in their child’s life.”

Parents should “have a good, established relationship with the school.

Communication, communication, communication. Communication is key,” she says.

To get in the college mindset, the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website‘s middle school checklist suggests this stage “is a great time for students to take control of their college preparation.” Encourage your child to talk to you about what she’s thinking about college and have her ask adults about their careers, the site suggests. Middle school also is a good time to get serious about studying, it notes, and you can help by giving kids the space and time to do this at home. Students are encouraged to join school and community organizations – something Federal Student Aid stresses even throughout the high school years.

It’s also a good time to introduce your tweens to money management, Gabriela Garfield of Wayne State University‘s financial aid office notes. Beginning in eighth grade, she proposes parents start talking about money and “teaching your middle school to high school students how to plan and budget.” This type of planning will benefit kids in preparing for financial responsibility as they grow up.

High school

Grades: 9-12

College is on the horizon! In high school, every year counts. From exploring careers and taking tests to applying for colleges and planning financially, this is where it happens.

Freshman and sophomore years

“Ninth grade is when you really need to be watering that seed that hopefully was planted earlier on,” says Pamela Linton, a college counselor at college prep school Detroit Cristo Rey High School.

The folks at Cass Technical High School agree. “We need them in ninth grade prepared to be in high school. So, when they come in, we want to hit the ground running as far as the core subjects are concerned,” says Enid Johnson, guidance counselor at Cass.

Jamil Abdun-Noor, a mathematics teacher at Cass, says students need to have a “solid foundation” of the subject coming in to high school. At Cass, it’s typically ninth grade when students’ talent in math is identified and reported to the counselors, who then place the students in a certain classes to help foster that talent, Johnson notes.

Johnson makes sure ninth graders start thinking about careers, too. Cass uses a program called Career Cruising through which students fill out an interest inventory and are given 40 careers that fit their interests, she notes.

During this time of discovery, it’s definitely OK to change and explore other careers, too. In fact, it’s expected.

“You talk to the kids about career choices with the understanding that they will be refined, and it’s OK to change. So we don’t want them to come in and say ‘I’m going to be this,’ and then that’s just that,” she says. “Now you can come in and be this, but you know, you need to be open to … what’s out there and what’s available.”

According to the Federal Student Aid website, ninth graders should ask their school counselors about Advanced Placement, or AP, courses to see when they are eligible. Through these classes, students can take an AP exam for a chance to earn college credits.

Preparation for the ACT, a college admissions exam, starts in ninth grade at Detroit Cristo Rey and Detroit Public Schools. Ninth grade students take EXPLORE, a test that preps students for the ACT and helps them plan ahead based on the outcome. PLAN, a test with a similar goal, is also given to 10th grade DPS and Cristo Rey students. Tenth and 11th graders both take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT, at DPS, which prepares students for the SAT – another type of college admissions exam.

While students become more independent during these teen years, parent support and involvement is still significant.

“I think (parents) need to be even more involved,” Johnson says. “There shouldn’t be a decline when you get to the high school years.”

Students might not intentionally withhold information, yet “they may not understand the importance of their parents knowing certain things.”

The buzzword “communication” is still key here, meaning parents should come to parent-teacher conferences and, at the beginning of each year, Johnson suggests parents introduce themselves to their child’s teachers – or even volunteer.

Shar Willis, an English teacher at Cass, says parents should focus on having a conversation with their child – “not a consultation.”

“‘What did you do today?’ and ‘What did you do in this class?’ and all that kind of stuff –that’s like an interview; that’s a consultation,” Willis says. “If it’s a conversation, ‘OK so, I know that you guys had a speech to do today. Who did their speech today and how did that go?’ And those kind of things. Then it opens. Because what you hear in that conversation is what the assignment was, what other people did – was this good? Was this bad? That means that your child is interpreting what is good and what is not good.”

Abdun-Noor says parents should not only be asking students how their classes are going, but “actually take a look at the work, take a look at the papers they get back” and check their grades.

Communication with a teacher can be as simple as writing a quick email or picking up the phone. Willis even suggests writing a letter to your child’s teacher and delivering the correspondences through the child.

“While you can do those electronic modes of communication, I like it better when parents send a letter through their kid, because then the kid knows that mom is interested and the kid knows that there’s a connection between mommy and my teacher, and the kid is responsible for making that communication,” she says.


Junior and senior years

Eleventh grade is a major year, mainly because students start taking college admissions exams, such as the ACT and SAT. At Detroit Cristo Rey High School, 11th grade students are enrolled in an ACT prep class, which runs throughout the year, and they take the ACT in March.

“It’s imperative that the kids are well prepared,” Linton says. She says she encourages students to do more than just make the date and take the test – it takes preparation and studying, too.

“Make sure that your child is taking some type of prep course or has some type of prep materials and takes it seriously,” Abdun-Noor advises.

Families should be talking about finances with their teens at this point. Parents not only need to be “modeling good behavior” with their spending and budgeting habits, Gabriela Garfield of Wayne State University financial aid notes, but they also need to plan for four or five years of college and start talking about what it will cost.

Junior year, students should be researching colleges and visiting campuses. “They should really be getting their feet wet,” says Micaela Flores, a college advisor at Detroit Cristo Rey and member of the Michigan State University College Advising Corps.

Before your students enters the 12th grade, start applying for scholarships – since, the Federal Student Aid website notes, some deadlines for applications are “as early as the summer between 11th and 12th grades.” Students can search for scholarships through the U.S. Department of Labor.

In the senior year, students need to jump on applying for college. Cristo Rey teaches a college readiness course to get seniors set up for this big step. Not only do college representatives visit the class, but the students fill out three college applications by Oct. 31 – an early application submittal, which Linton says allows the students to weigh their options. Flores suggest students fill out their applications in early fall to meet all the school’s possible scholarship deadlines.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which determines the amount of financial aid your child can receive for college, needs to be completed early in the year to comply with all deadlines, too. It is available to fill out for the 2014-15 school year in January.

Throughout high school, and especially while kids are filling out applications and taking tests for college, parents need to provide a supportive environment at home. While figuring out if they want to go away to college or stay home, “The family comes into play in those decisions a lot,” Flores notes, recognizing it’s a hard time for parents, as well.

The backing at home is huge, because “this is a huge decision for seniors, and this is a life-changing decision,” she says.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a multiple choice-style, national college admissions exam. Students who take the exam are tested in English, math, reading, science – and writing depending on the exam needed, according to the official ACT website. The results are given as a score up to 36.

In the United States, all four-year institutions accept the ACT results. According to the site, students should “pick a test date that is at least two months ahead of the application deadlines of the colleges and scholarship agencies you might want to apply to,” because the scores are “normally reported within three to eight weeks after the test date,” while the test that includes writing takes about five to eight weeks.

The ACT website notes there are advantages to taking the test your junior year – and if you’d like to test again, you can retest and have those results sent to the institutions of your choice.

Jamil Abdun-Noor, a mathematics teacher at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, says the ACT is something test takers can anticipate – if you prep.

“There (are) a lot of strategies that you can apply that you should be familiar with that may … get past you if you don’t take the time to prep,” Abdun-Noor says.

To sign up for the test, discover the test dates and testing locations, and find out about fees for testing on the ACT website.

This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated for 2016.


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