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Ashoka Fellow since 2012   |   United States

Alexandra Bernadotte

Beyond 12
Alex Bernadotte is improving college graduation rates for students from low-income communities by bridging the data gap between K-12 education and U.S. colleges and universities.
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This description of Alexandra Bernadotte's work was prepared when Alexandra Bernadotte was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Alex Bernadotte is improving college graduation rates for students from low-income communities by bridging the data gap between K-12 education and U.S. colleges and universities.

The New Idea

Alex is creating a powerful feedback loop between K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions, so that high schools can better match their priorities and teaching practices to the skills students need to succeed in college and beyond.

At the heart of the model is a technology platform that high schools, charter management organizations, college access organizations, and colleges can use to track at-risk students starting in May of their senior year of high school, during their first two years of college—the years students are most likely to drop out—and through their college graduation and beyond. For the first time, high school administrators, guidance counselors, and teaching staff will be able to see where individual students are struggling beyond their doors, and identify areas for improvement in their own practices—whether by improving their teaching in math and science, revamping their college preparation programming, turning their attention to building students’ resilience and self-sufficiency, or otherwise responding to graduates most persistent trouble spots. Similarly, by looking at the factors that distinguish successful students from their peers who are struggling, colleges will be able to improve retention and intervention strategies, and to identify at-risk students before it’s too late.

Alex is building a powerful community of practice among participating education institutions to enable them to share strategies and learn from one another. By helping secondary and postsecondary schools take shared ownership of the problem, she aims to create a seamless set of performance standards whereby success in K-12 paves the way for success in college and in the long-term.

The Problem

In the last decade, much attention has been paid to closing the achievement gap by getting more students into two- and four-year colleges and universities. High schools proudly celebrate their graduation rates, and the percentage of their students who are admitted to college; in small cities and towns, it is not uncommon to see local newspapers publish the college destinations of their graduating seniors. This emphasis on college acceptance, however, belies an important—and troubling—fact: 30 percent of college and university students drop out after their first year, and up to half never graduate. Among these, low-income students, students from ethnic minority groups that have not traditionally gone to college, and first generation college students are particularly subject to low college graduation rates: By age 24, only 9 percent of students in the bottom income quartile have earned a bachelor’s degree as compared to 75 percent of students in the top income quartile. African American students earn bachelor’s degrees at one-half and Latino students at one-third the rate of white students. Those from homes where neither parent has earned a bachelor’s degree are twice as likely as those with a college-educated parent to leave before their second year.

The primary causes of the dropout challenge for historically underserved students are well documented: alarming college tuition increases which lead to heavy financial and employment demands; poor academic preparation; a lack of supportive social networks and self-advocacy skills; and little knowledge of the resources available on their college campuses. The sense of isolation that comes from being the first in their family to go to college is compounded by the fact that students have few ways to connect with others like themselves. For example, two students from two different high schools in a charter network who are now facing similar challenges at the same college have no means of identifying one another, and the same goes for districts and multi-site college preparation programs across the country.

At the root of this challenge is a fundamental mismatch between the standards required for high school graduation and those necessary for a successful college career. High schools base their success on test scores, and consider their job done on high school graduation day. Even forward-thinking high school administrators who actively seek out longitudinal student data and measures to improve performance soon find that such data is impossible to track comprehensively on their own: stored in scattershot excel files, the already limited data trail ends abruptly at graduation. Already pressed for time and resources, may schools lack the ability to build and sustain alumni networks that would help them assess their long-term success.

In the absence of an effective feedback loop, these patterns are insufficient to effect meaningful change. Institutions lack the ability to track student progress across educational levels, and thus have little ability to pinpoint the precise areas in need of improvement. A secondary school whose standardized math scores are relatively high has no way of knowing if students go on to fail math or require remediation at the college level. Similarly, guidance counselors operate in a vacuum: providing students with advice to get into college, but no way of knowing whether that advice translates into student success.

Colleges similarly struggle to assess and improve their retention strategies. The high dropout rates have placed a significant financial burden on colleges, at a time in which budgetary pressures are extremely high. Most postsecondary education institutions are unable to process data quickly enough to identify and support at-risk students, with the result that many intervene when it is too late.

It is thus impossible to distinguish between schools that produce students who are college ready and those that produce students who are merely college eligible. The result is that students are unable to navigate the difficult transition between high school and college and, although college eligible, do not have the knowledge, skills or support to cope with the rigors of a postsecondary education.

The Strategy

Through a combination of personal experience and years spent advising students and working with schools and independent college-access organizations, Alex realized that to better equip students for success in college, schools needed first to understand where they were failing.

Alex began by building a powerful data tracking system, capable of collecting everything from graduates’ college GPAs, to the fields they pursue and remedial coursework they require, their social and study habits and personal assessments, and other factors related to retention and long-term success. Targeting schools and organizations in large urban areas, she works with key high school stakeholders, including superintendents, principals, and guidance counselors to track students beginning their senior year of high school. Using districts, charter management organizations and college access organizations as the point of entry, Alex then builds relationships with local public and private colleges and universities, starting with those that serve a critical mass of students from the same region: typically 25 to 30 “less selective” schools in a particular area with six-year graduation rates of less than 60 percent.

Alex works closely with partners to carefully customize their reporting needs so that schools receive the precise data they are looking for, thus complementing existing improvement efforts. For the first time, schools can see which subjects most often require remedial classes, and through student survey responses, focus groups, and the help of Beyond 12 coaches, they can identify specific areas for improvement. Administrators and guidance counselors can ask graduates whether their college preparatory programs are actually working, and they can improve them accordingly.

At the college level, Alex is working to design an early detection system to provide colleges with real-time information regarding student progress, allowing them to detect and resolve student challenges early. Through sophisticated analysis of multiple data points and trends, Beyond 12 will flag students who are struggling, feeding that information directly into the hands of advisors and program administrators responsible for student success. Postsecondary schools can thus identify which students need immediate intervention, and unpack bigger trends around the types of students who persist through graduation, compared to those who struggle academically, financially, or socially.

The data thus allows schools to identify what is and is not working and to improve efficiencies accordingly, saving valuable time and money in the process. Yet Alex understood that data alone is not always enough to change behaviors. As a result, she and her team work closely with each school to analyze and interpret the data, helping to identify areas for improvement and working together to implement solutions. Beyond 12 plans to distill key patterns that distinguish schools that excel in particular areas from those that do not, collecting both large-scale trends and principles, and innovative practices unique to particular institutions. Most importantly, Beyond 12 plans to connect schools to one another through both one-to-one matchmaking and communitywide convenings, enabling schools to share information and findings themselves. The value of the network and its services are thus designed to improve with time, as more and more data is gathered, and more schools and institutions participate.

In addition to connecting schools to one another, Alex is working to deepen students’ social support network through a combination of online and face-to-face interactions. In order to meet students where they are, Beyond 12 provides students with a Facebook application that enables them to connect with peers, mentors and advisors, and to establish and track their goals and milestones, in collaboration with a coach or independently.

To supplement institutions’ capacity and help particularly at-risk students navigate the transition between high school and college, Alex developed a personalized coaching model to support students through their first two years of college. Roughly 1 in 10 of all students tracked are thus paired with a college coach beginning in their senior year of high school, and continuing through the end of their second year of college. Coaches—themselves recent college graduates and the majority of whom were the first in their families to attend college—work with students to improve their time management skills, set personal and professional goals and shape their career paths, and navigate the financial, social, and academic challenges that inevitably arise. The coaching acts as an interim measure while schools work to translate insights into action, allowing Alex and her team to assess the key risk factors that lead to dropout, and to identify key interventions and best practices that then feed back into the system.

The coaching thus serves three concurrent roles: (i) it does what numbers alone cannot, supplying the anecdotal, more qualitative feedback schools need to make informed decisions (ii) it fills a critical capacity gap for both high schools and colleges, particularly in the short-term, as institutions work to improve their practices. Current research suggests that coaches play an invaluable role for first-generation students, regardless of background or academic history, acting as part-friend, teacher, and parent to help them successfully navigate the transition into the unknown. Finally, coaching services work to subsidize the costs of program delivery, enabling Beyond 12 to serve an ever increasing number of schools. Although it will take Beyond 12 several years to demonstrate the effectiveness of their coaching services, early indications point to the success of their model. In a partnership with San Francisco State University, for example, 97 percent of the traditionally underserved students Beyond 12 is coaching have enrolled in their second semester, avoiding what is for many a particularly critical dropout period.

The last several years have seen a spike in attention surrounding the importance of data and college graduation rates from stakeholders ranging from high school principals and college presidents, to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. With the conditions right to usher in a broader policy shift, Alex hopes to systematically influence the national education dialogue. Because policy change in the education arena follows proven successes, any change to secondary education standards will depend first and foremost on having a significant dataset and a powerful set of proof points at work within individual schools. Rather than go everywhere there is demand, Alex has chosen to expand in key strategic regions, beginning with the state of California, and moving over the next few years into Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and others committed to improving college success.

In addition, Alex is working with a number of key funders to help them identify a common set of metrics to assess the effectiveness of their grantees and to assess key outcomes with regard to their philanthropic investments. In one such pilot with College Access Foundation of California (CAFC), Alex works with approximately thirty foundation grantees who work with low-income students, helping them track postsecondary outcomes for their students, such as financial aid awards, and persistence and graduation rates. In another pilot, Alex has partnered with NewSchools Venture Fund to offer college coaching services to three of their portfolio organizations, Aspire Public Schools, Envision Schools and Leadership Public Schools. The goal of the partnership is to help NewSchools explore strategies to help their ventures access comprehensive postsecondary student data and to assist those organizations with the difficult task of providing their students with additional support to ensure that they graduate from college. With a commitment to sharing practices across their networks, both CAFC and NewSchools are well positioned to help their grantees learn from one another, with the result that Beyond 12 need not reinvent the wheel through its own high-cost convenings and cross-fertilization strategies.

In less than two years, Beyond 12 has gone from a pilot serving nine high schools and 450 college freshmen, to tracking the progress of 12,500 students from across nearly 90 high schools, college access organizations, and colleges, including San Francisco Unified School District, City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and a wide array of charter management and college access organizations.

Beyond 12 is a nonprofit organization that currently operates a blended revenue model that consists of technology subscription fees, coaching fees, consulting fees, and philanthropic investments. As the cost of delivery per school/organization declines, Alex is working to increase the percentage of her budget covered by earned revenue from partners, and is on track to reach sustainability by 2016. Having proved and refined the concept over the last two years, Alex is preparing to expand to school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, with plans already in motion for a nationwide expansion over the coming three to five years.

The Person

Born in Port-au-Prince, Alex spent her early childhood in Haiti in the care of her grandmother, after her parents immigrated to the U.S. in hopes of making a better life for her and her younger sister. From as early an age as she can remember, her grandmother engrained in her the notion that the path to paying back her parents’ sacrifice lay in education. Once she was reunited with her parents and younger sister in inner city Boston, getting into college became her singular focus.

Alex’s mom worked in a hospital, and one day, heard a group of doctors talking about where they were sending their kids to college. She came home exclaiming, “you have to go to the Ivy League and you have to go to Dartmouth.” From that point forward, Dartmouth was Alex’s first choice. She achieved a perfect score on her AP English exam and received many college acceptance letters, thinking the hard work was done.

It was once the 10-car caravan that accompanied her to Dartmouth pulled away, however, that Alex realized the battle was far from over. In her first year, Alex stumbled at every turn: Financially, academically, socially, and emotionally. She drew away from her family and refused to ask for help, fearing that she might fail them and merely confirm that she was not the college material that she—and those who cared for her—had thought.

Alex eventually turned things around and managed to graduate with her class. But the experience left her with an indelible conviction that something in the system was wrong: that unless high schools and colleges alike took responsibility for student success, other students like her would continue to slip through the cracks.

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