Students’ ‘magic school bus’ increases college acceptance rates

Most educators are familiar with the adventures of Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus and the incredible journeys students take while riding it to explore the solar system, inside the earth, and even inside the human body.

The students at Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C. have a “magic school bus” of their own, but this one is tasked with a different kind of journey—one that will make attending college a reality.

Every Wednesday, the Verizon Wireless Mobile Learning Lab—dubbed the magic school by students—rolls into the school parking lot. Instead of being adorned with that distinctive school-bus yellow, however, it’s wrapped in bold graphics showing enthusiastic students using wireless devices to reflect what actually goes on inside this unique vehicle.

The retrofitted school bus is equipped with its own generator, air-conditioner and wireless 4G internet connectivity. And it also comes with tutors from nearby Howard University who pair up with students at individual workstations to use the latest tablets to work through the arduous college essay process.

(Next page: How the bus works; video)

April marks the height of college admissions, and this year’s application process was more competitive than ever, making it increasingly challenging for students to “stand out” during the admissions process. Many are putting additional emphasis on the college essay as a way to differentiate themselves beyond GPA and SAT scores.

But those here at Calvin Coolidge are not doing it through the traditional essay consultants that more affluent schools and students hire. Through a unique partnership with Howard University, Verizon Wireless, and Samsung, they benefit from free instruction in college-essay writing–part of a demonstration project to show how wireless technology can increase student engagement and help students in under-served communities prepare for college and careers.

When onboard the bus, students eagerly snatch up wireless tablets and go to work with the volunteer tutors on lessons in college-essay writing that can include reviewing samples and elements of strong writing, brainstorming ideas for their personal statements, and practicing drafting responses to different essay prompts. Working with the tutors has really instilled a culture that encourages all of our students to believe that college is attainable.

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Crafting the perfect essay can be challenging though and takes a substantial amount of work. Ugonna Onyeukwu, now a senior at Calvin Coolidge, said “before I went on the Mobile Learning Lab, I was lost and had no focus on my personal statement. It is hard to put yourself in a box of 500 words or so. The tutor on the bus helped me focus my story and set it up. The technology allowed me to type it up right there on the spot. So, I came on the bus with nothing and left with quality rough draft.”

(Next page: Success stories and acceptance rates)

In the fall, Onyeukwu heads to the college of his dreams–Penn State. It also happens to be my alma mater, and a place that offers a culture of academic excellence where I feel confident he will thrive as he pursues a degree in engineering.

Onyeukwu on the bus.

After some trouble at school in D.C., Onyeukwu’s parents sent him to his native country, Nigeria, to experience the hardships of life in the developing world and to be thankful for the opportunities given to him here in the U.S.

When he returned, he began his junior year at Calvin Coolidge and also began weekly sessions on the Mobile Learning Lab. Getting into college was a priority, and in addition to studying for the SATs, drafting a compelling personal statement that would resonate with admissions officers was essential.

Working one-on-one with the tutors and having a tablet at his fingertips, he was able to shape his story and efficiently edit several drafts until he came up with his final version–a genuine account of his life altering experience in Nigeria and his revelation that he had an “opportunity in life that could be taken away at any time.”

Because of this mobile learning initiative, made possible through our partnership with Verizon Wireless, students also receive individualized help with writing scholarship applications, and they use the tablets to navigate the challenging college application process. Rather than having a stack of paper documents which can be easily misplaced, drafts and the information used to create them are stored digitally, accessed remotely and quickly, and easily emailed for review by the tutors for immediate feedback, eliminating the burden of a traditional and, at times, outdated paper method.

Teacher Regina McClure, who works closely with the students who partake in the program, says that “as an educator, it is so important to see results, and we’ve seen them with the Mobile Learning Lab.”

In 2012, all of the students that participated in the program were accepted to college, and we’re on track to reach that goal again in 2013.

McClure said, “Going into it, I knew it was going to be a successful program, but I was not expecting 100 percent acceptance rates. I was very impressed and excited by that.”

Mobile technology has had a tremendous impact on increasing student engagement, enthusiasm, and increasing overall college acceptance rates here at Calvin Coolidge. If asked, Ms. Frizzle might put it this way, in her well-known shout-out during each episode, “Come on bus, do your stuff!”

Melanie Agnew is the acting vice principal and educational coach at Calvin Coolidge High School, Washington D.C.

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