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On the journey to college, more low-income high schoolers are taking the digital path through Stanford

Stanford Digital Education’s Title I high school outreach program, partnering with a national nonprofit, has more than doubled the total of teens the university reaches nationwide.
William Lopez, second from right, and Daniel Safa, right, 10th-graders at Birmingham High School in Lake Balboa, go over an assignment during a computer science class on Nov. 17 offered by Stanford University. Birmingham High School and other L.A. schools are partnering with the National Education Equity Lab to offer Ivy League courses to underserved high school students.  (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Students at a Los Angeles high school work together on an assignment in a Stanford computer science course. © 2022 Los Angeles Times. Photo by Mel Melcon. Reprinted with permission.
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A new group of students have enrolled at Stanford this quarter, and you won’t find them on campus. Scores of students from high schools serving low-income communities registered in January for university courses as part of Stanford Digital Education’s work with the nonprofit National Education Equity Lab. It’s an approach called "dual enrollment" in which students from Title I historically underserved high schools take college courses and simultaneously earn credit from both Stanford and their local schools.

Now in its second year, the Stanford program is blossoming: Stanford Digital Education is currently providing four dual-enrollment courses, spanning 21 high schools in nine states with some 350 students — more than double the number of students  from a year ago. There’s a college writing course, an ethics course, an introduction to bioengineering, and a course about the lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Those classes come on the heels of the course offered in fall 2022, CS 105: Introduction to Computers, which was first given in fall 2021.

The launch of these Stanford–Ed Equity Lab courses was made possible through an innovation by Stanford’s Student & Academic Services (SAS) division, in which staff pioneered a new system for registering high school students to receive Stanford credits in the fall, winter and spring quarters for online courses. Although Stanford has routinely offered credits to high school students visiting campus for summer quarter courses, the Ed Equity Lab program represents the first time the University has done so during the academic year, and the first time it has done so with an equity-driven purpose. "This was a big step toward enabling credit-bearing learning opportunities from Stanford to be available to high schools that serve low-income families nationwide," said Associate Vice Provost for Digital Education Priscilla Fiden.

Nkeiruka Okoro is a junior at KIPP East End High School in Houston

Nkeiruka Okoro, a junior at a high school in Houston, aced the Stanford course, Computer Science 105: Introduction to Computers, in fall 2022.

At the course graduation ceremony for the CS 105 course in December, Nkeiruka Okoro, a junior at KIPP East End High School in Houston, spoke and explained how much it meant to her to get credits from a course that was the same as the one offered to Stanford undergraduates. A student with a 4.0 GPA who will be one of the first in her family to transition from high school to college, she said that was proud to have learned to code in CSS, HTML and Python and called the course "revolutionary."

 CS 105 was hard, and Okoro described what it was like: "There were many times when I seriously doubted my ability to take this course, to succeed in it and even succeed when the time comes for me to attend college. Sometimes I question, do I really have what it takes? Can I keep the same momentum when I get to university? This semester at Stanford has not only shown me that I can, but it has also given me the confidence to believe in myself, who I am and what I want to achieve." 

The experience, Okoro added, boosted her "courage and determination" to aim high. Those sentiments were echoed by students enrolled in CS 105 from Birmingham Community Charter High School in the San Fernando Valley, who were featured in a Los Angeles Times story: These high school students were afraid to dream bigger. A Stanford class is changing that

Peer mentors at Birmingham Community Charter High School in Los Angeles help younger classmates in the Stanford Introduction to Computers course in November 2022.  © Los Angeles Times. Photo by Mel Melcon

Peer mentors help younger students in the Stanford course CS 105 at a Los Angeles high school. © 2022 Los Angeles Times. Republished with permission.

The current courses include two that were offered last spring —"Searching Together for the Common Good" and "Raise Your Voice: Learn to Write Successfully for College and Beyond" — and two others making their debut. 

"Introduction to Bioengineering" is being offered to high school students for the first time. Associate Professor of Bioengineering Drew Endy, Martin Family Fellow in Undergraduate Education, who has taught the course to Stanford undergraduates since 2016, is teaching the course with Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Jenn Brophy, who joined the teaching team in 2022.

 At an introductory meeting via Zoom earlier this month, more than 100 enrolled high-school students were dubbed “bionauts” by Profs. Endy and Brophy, suggesting they would be exploring the frontiers of biotechnology much as astronauts explore space. The field of bioengineering is becoming to the 21st century what computer science has been in previous decades, Endy and Brophy explained, letting students know they will begin learning a general purpose approach to engineering biology, motivated by innumerable applications spanning human health and planet health and an open-ended design assignment in which students imagine and specify a bioengineering application of personal relevance. 

Later in an email, Endy discussed why he and Brophy chose to teach the subject to high school students. "Are we engineering futures in which people will be citizens of our bioeconomy? Or merely consumers, subjects, or objects? To me it feels like literacy (i.e., reading and writing) is as important in biology as in computers and human languages," he said. "This line of thinking leads us to the idea of bioengineering for all. Everyone should have the option of learning to read and write DNA." He described the course as a step toward creating a "world-readable curriculum."

The second new course, "Between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Freedom," consists of material seldom covered in depth in high schools. It is taught by Associate Professor of Religious Studies  Lerone A. Martin, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Centennial Professor and Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. 

“The Mission of the MLK Institute is ‘To preserve and promote the work and legacy of MLK,’” Prof. Martin said.  “Working with the National Education Equity Lab and Stanford Digital Education provides a unique opportunity to promote MLK’s work and legacy to the next generation.” 

On the first day of class in January, students at Camden Prep High School in New Jersey watched a video in which Prof. Martin welcomed them to the class and praised them for taking on the challenge of taking a college course. While acknowledging that they may be nervous, Prof. Martin shared that he too was nervous when he took his first college course in high school. "We're going to  walk you through this," he said, telling them that they would gain an understanding of the two leaders that goes beyond their popular status as American "icons."

"I promise you, as long as you give us your effort, we will do everything that we can to make sure at the end of this class, you not only understand Malcolm X in a new way, you not only understand Martin Luther King, Jr., in a new way, but  that Malcolm and Martin become your new conversation partners, that you are able to converse with them and wrestle with their thoughts and ideas as you confront the problems of everyday life," he said.

All of Stanford’s classes use a hybrid approach to instruction, which relies heavily on teaching fellows and classroom teachers. Professors oversee the courses and record lectures that students listen to at their own convenience. The students also meet regularly in a classroom with a teacher from their high school. At least once a week a teaching fellow, usually a Stanford graduate student or alumni, will teach the class over Zoom and review lessons with the students and classroom teachers. In addition, the teaching fellows hold office hours online a couple of evenings a week so that students can receive more individualized help.

Stanford’s program with the Ed Equity Lab has grown substantially. This year Stanford Digital Education has offered five Stanford courses, up from three the previous year,  with roughly twice as many students enrolled. Stanford courses have been offered in a total of 49 schools in at least 20 cities and 15 states or more with about 900 students enrolled over the last two years.

Stanford is one of more than a dozen top colleges and universities that are offering courses through the Ed Equity Lab and its network of Title I high schools. "Stanford has been one of our most active partners," said Alexandra Slack, Ed Equity Lab’s chief operating officer, noting that no other university has developed and offered as many courses for Ed Equity Lab students. "We look forward to growing this powerful relationship in the coming years."

Since starting in 2019, Ed Equity Lab has served more than 11,000 high school scholars, and estimates it will reach 25 percent of the nation’s Title I high schools by 2026. It aims to offer this opportunity to all Title 1 schools, and serve 1 million scholars, over the next 10 years. The nonprofit’s mission is economic mobility, using college access and success  as the driver of opportunity. It targets scholars in historically marginalized, low-income communities, with the goal of helping them advance and demonstrate their ability to succeed at selective colleges and universities — and shift their mindsets about what they are capable of achieving. Research has shown that too many talented students from such areas are qualified to attend such competitive schools but never apply.

"We hope that the experience of taking a Stanford college course helps students to advance and demonstrate their college readiness, to admissions offices, future employers — and most important, themselves," said Sasha Bentley-Rohret who leads the Stanford courses for the Ed Equity Lab. 

Published Feb. 21, 2023

Jonathan Rabinovitz is communications director for Stanford Digital Education.

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