Knowledge for Freedom — Toolkit

I. PREPARE LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

II. SET UP ACADEMIC YEAR COLLEGE SUPPORT

III. COMPLETE THE CIVIC PROJECT CURRICULUM

I. PREPARE LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

A good letter of recommendation will explain the program and show why it is a good indicator of a student’s ability to succeed in college. It will provide specific examples of how a student contributed to the classroom, grew intellectually over time, and/or challenged him/herself. You might have teaching assistants take notes for the letters in class over the summer, and transcribe key insights that students make in class. At Columbia, TAs are provided with the professor’s recommendation template, sample letters, and some guiding questions to draw up the first draft of the letter before classes start in September. Professors then edit and return the letters to program staff to submit in time for early decision (November 1) or regular decision (January 1) deadlines. High school students are even worse than college students about giving recommenders ample notification of their deadlines, so we recommend having them all ready before October 31st.

  • University of Arizona’s tips on avoiding gender bias in letters of recommendation
  • MIT’s thorough guide on writing good letters of recommendation

II. SET UP ACADEMIC YEAR COLLEGE SUPPORT
(Part II: Academic Year Module)

A robust Knowledge for Freedom program will continue to provide college application support after the summer program ends. At Columbia’s Freedom & Citizenship Program, eligible students are enrolled in community based organizations that provide intensive college support, such as Columbia’s Double Discovery Center and Goddard Riverside’s Options Center. All students receive confidential letters of recommendation from their professor that the program staff then send to the students’ high school counselors or submit directly as part of the students’ college applications. Finally, program staff recruit Columbia University undergraduates to participate as one-on-one college mentors for students who request such support. About half of the students sign up for this voluntary mentoring option. Mentors are background checked, provided Protection of Minors (POM) training, and a college application training session, and they communicate with program staff about student concerns or issues. Program staff pair mentors and mentees, and check-in regularly about the progress of the mentorship. Otherwise mentor pairs schedule their meetings on their own, and meet in public campus spaces at their own discretion.

Below are some steps you might take for providing college application support to your students. Whatever support your program offers, make sure to communicate these options early and often to students:

  • Help students request their professor’s letter of recommendation
  • Pair a student with a college mentor. Your students are likely to be working with a college counselor at their school who is supporting 250 other students (and probably more than 450 students). While a peer mentor will not have the advanced training and experience that a professional counselor has, they can help your students identify appropriate colleges, finish their applications, and manage the FAFSA process. Columbia’s Freedom & Citizenship program has some information for mentors on its website that you may reference while establishing your mentorship program.
    • Volunteers working with minors on your campus may need to clear background checks and take POM training. You’ll want to factor in the time, energy, and cost of recruiting, training, and starting mentorships into your plan.
    • You might want to have mentor meetings take place under your supervision in your department offices, perhaps with laptops provided by your program. Columbia allows mentors and mentees to schedule meetings at their convenience and asks them to work in public spaces around campus, some of which have computers accessible by students.
  • Enroll a student with a campus or community based organization (CBO). This is something you’ll want to plan well in advance of the program’s start. Organizations in your community or on your campus may receive Federal aid in the form of grants that stipulate which students they can enroll. Professionals who work specifically with low-income high schoolers will provide a great service to your students. You’ll want to make sure you’re on the same page about how to enroll your students in the organization, what kind of support they’ll get from you and from the organization, and how you’ll communicate with each other about student needs.

III. COMPLETE THE CIVIC PROJECT CURRICULUM
(Part II: Academic Year Module)

In an academic year module, students will continue to return to campus from September through May for civic work. Some programs currently invite students back for individual events, reunions, and college counseling. Yale has students return monthly during the academic year to work on a civic engagement project. The Columbia model, outlined below, is more robust than most programs can manage, but the ideas behind an action civics curriculum such as this may be adaptable to suit your needs.

In the Columbia Freedom & Citizenship program students commit to returning to campus twice monthly from September to May to work on an actions civic project of their choice. In the civic curriculum students practice skills for professional, college, and civic success while learning about a topic that interests them. Students cultivate leadership skills in developing their own “guide to civic action” that instructs their peers how they can make a difference on their chosen issue. This curriculum requires a substantial commitment from students, teaching assistants, and the program manager throughout the academic year. Columbia has found that meeting less than twice a month led to a steep reduction in attendance, and though the majority of meetings are well attended, sometimes only two out of eight students will attend. Students and teaching assistants find the work to be incredibly rewarding, and alumni/ae have indicated a strong connection between their preparations in Freedom & Citizenship and their subsequent engagement on their college campuses.

When students apply to Columbia’s program they indicate which civic topics interest them. Academic TAs then choose six topics based on their own interests and the students’ choices. During orientation each student gives a 5 minute presentation on why their topic is relevant and significant. Students are assigned projects based on their after-school availability during the academic year and their interest in the topics. Academic TAs work with the same group of students in their daily tutorial sessions and their civic projects throughout the academic year. The academic year schedule is then set around high school and college closures, with about 16 meetings set per year.

During the fall semester students spend much of the time researching their individual topics and understanding the nature of political engagement. During the spring semester students figure out what they and their peers could do to make a difference on their issue and develop a project that guides their peers in taking that action. While the students present their final call to action and reflect on their year’s work at the annual Civic Night in May, the curriculum is designed so that the civic practice students gain during the meetings is more important than any final project. For instance, students practice research literacy and then prepare a fact sheet about the topic, practice formal communication when reaching out to activists on their topic they would like to interview, and practice leadership in meetings when they organize themselves to attend a local event on their issue. Some of those achievements will be apparent in their final presentation but others will not.

Academic TAs are responsible for communicating with students between meetings to confirm attendance and then run the meetings based on the pre-written lesson plans. TAs are paid for four hours of meeting time and four hours of prep time each month.