It’s a dreary winter day as Ms. Denton packs up her car and heads up I-24 West toward Clarksville.
Ms. Denton is driving to Austin Peay State University to check in on three KIPP Nashville alumni. Once she hits the highway, Ms. Denton touches base with each student to confirm their meeting times and starts to get excited about seeing them in person.
“Today we’re talking about where they are in their classes and what their next few weeks look like before finals,” she says. “We’ll also be talking about class registration and the upcoming FAFSA application.”
These regular face-to-face touchpoints are just one small part of Ms. Denton’s work as a college persistence counselor.
“My goal is always to get a full picture of our students’ financial, socioemotional and academic progress, plus give them good next steps. They should always be striving to move forward.”
This persistence work is part of the KIPP Through College team at KIPP Nashville – making sure our students are supported in their journey to and through college. It’s relational work that is based around building trust with our alumni, with the ultimate goal grounded in helping our students persist from semester to semester through graduation.
“You can’t force a relationship,” says Ms. Denton. “Every time I interact with one of our current high school students, I’m thinking about creating that bond that will help me better serve them when they’re on my case load after high school graduation.”
Right now, Ms. Denton has 90 KIPP alumni on her case load in college, both in Nashville and around the country. Those within driving distance get personal visits – those too far away get monthly calls.
Chineerah, Ms. Denton’s first student, sits down in a booth and launches right into how she’s doing and what’s been happening in her classes. Chineerah is a freshman at Austin Peay, adjusting to the expectations of college professors and the challenges of time management in a less structured environment.
Chineerah feels like she’s got a leg up on college compared to some of her classmates.
“I really feel like KIPP prepared me for college. After all the hard work in high school, I’m able to tackle bigger projects and understand how to outline my coursework. If I didn’t know how to do that, I would be lost. And even though it sounds simple, if we hadn’t been introduced to the idea of keeping an agenda in high school, I wouldn’t know how to structure my day or my time.”
There’s the regular conversation about class work and next steps for preparing for finals and registering for next semester’s classes. But Ms. Denton also asks about how Chineerah is settling in socially, whether she’s signed up for any clubs or activities. It’s these kinds of personal moments, coupled with the technical aspects of being in college, that Chineerah says makes this time so important.
“It’s nice to have somebody to talk to about my day other than my Mom,” she laughs. “It means a lot to get a call from Ms. Denton and I really look forward to seeing her in person.”
Ms. Denton’s ability to connect with her students comes from a place of personal experience.
“I remember being in their shoes,” she says. “I didn’t have this type of person or opportunity in college. I had to figure it out on my own. Sometimes I imagine how much easier things would’ve been for me if I’d had access to something like this.”
As a freshman at the University of Arkansas, Ms. Denton remembers she had to get used to living in a community triple the size of her small home town. To put it plainly, she describes the experience as culture shock and says at times, she didn’t know where to go or who to turn to with questions. It was overwhelming – a sensation she’s keenly aware of as she thinks of how her students are settling into their new environments.
“A common theme I’m hearing from a lot of our students is figuring out how to advocate for themselves and getting over a fear they might have that asking for that help makes them sound silly. I can absolutely relate to that.”
While it may seem difficult to measure the persistence work, Ms. Denton keeps careful track of every interaction she has, noting everything from academic progress and social emotional wellbeing to financial situations. Each month, she’s building a holistic picture of how each student is doing, which in turn shapes next steps and guides her daily action items.
“It’s long-term work that can change minute to minute,” she explains. “You might leave a meeting feeling great and thinking this student is on the right track, but then something can change in the blink of an eye that could jeopardize their ability to stay in college. You always have to be prepared to have tough conversations.”
KIPP Nashville’s goal is for 79 percent of our alumni to graduate from college – that is the graduation percentage from the highest income quartile in the United States. For students from educationally underserved communities, that number goes down to 12 percent. Ms. Denton’s persistence work is part of what it takes to help our students reach that 79 percent goal.
Ms. Denton’s last appointment of the day is with Sabreonna, a sophomore at Austin Peay who’s studying pre-med biology and sociology.
“She keeps me on track,” says Sabreonna.
“Sometimes I’m in my own world, but Ms. Denton makes sure I’m getting everything done for my financial aid and checks on my grades. Ms. Denton never judges me and gives great advice.”
Even though there is rarely any instant gratification in persistence work, Ms. Denton seizes the joy in the little “aha” moments when she sees her students figure something out they didn’t know before or take responsibility for the next step and plan for it without her help.
“I feel like I can start to breathe a little easier once I know my students have actually made their new campuses their home. For me, that looks like them getting involved outside of the academics, because college isn’t just about the classroom. Recently, one of my theatrical kids participated in a play on campus and won an award. When I visited another student, we kept getting stopped by all these people saying ‘hi’ to her as she toured me around. She was clearly so proud of the community she was building. These are the stories that keep me going.”