This weekend, CNN shared the story of Houston high school senior Michael Brown not only being accepted into 20 top tier universities, but receiving a full scholarship at each one. With guidance and support from his mom, Ms. Rutledge-Brown, Michael has fantastic college options. Here are 4 lessons parents and high school students can learn from his amazing success.
1. Explore your options.
Michael was a lifelong public school student, and based on the details provided in the article, his family didn’t have the financial means for private school to be an option. His mom, wise woman she must be, knew that public school was her choice, but it wasn’t her only choice. I imagine she did two very important things: 1) she set an academic vision for her child and 2) she actively sought out and explored options within the public school system that would help Michael realize that vision. So often I hear parents say "well, it’s either public or private" as if there are no shades of gray in between. In many public school systems, there are options. In Houston, there are magnet and transfer options, which allow students within the district to apply to specialty schools. There are also public charter choices. And while just mentioning charter options can lead to heated political debates, one thing is true: attending a high-performing, state-funded charter school has put many kids on a life-altering path to success. So no matter where you live, to think your choice boils down to public or private is a miss. Had his mom said, “Well, we can’t afford private school, so we’re just going to send you to the school down the street,” Michael may not have had access to the rigorous academics and extracurricular learning opportunities both in and outside of school. Ms. Rutledge-Brown actively exploring her options made all the difference in the world. Which brings me to the next lesson...
2. Start early.
Michael’s journey to full-scholarship success didn’t start in high school. Michael participated in Breakthrough Houston, a summer program for academically strong students who are zoned to and/or attend under-resourced public middle schools. Middle school. This program, hires college students from across the country to teach advanced coursework while also offering life-lessons in grit, perseverance and discipline. And as bonus for his participation, Michael has at least one friend at each Ivy League school. Talk about exposure! Michael didn’t wait until his junior year to start thinking about and working towards college. He started taking small, intentional steps much earlier. And while you may not qualify for a program like Breakthrough, you can absolutely take some of what the program does and apply it on your own. In Houston, I host Plan.Succeed. a week-long workshop for rising 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th graders that teach them how to be intentional about their high school years while also teaching the skills and habits they need to be successful. While some might argue this is over the top, I’d argue that hanging out with your friends, doing something you like (even if it is learning) helps kids feel prepared for what’s ahead. And when kids feel prepared and equipped to excel the confidence, happiness and progress they experience in exchange for a little bit of time is well worth it.
3. Empower your teens to own their education.
"After sixth grade, Mike was in control of his education," recalled the proud mom. "He was focused, he knew what he wanted and he made his own decisions.” A couple of years ago, I was a guest on a local radio show and spoke about this very thing. One of the most powerful things we can do for our kids is to make them the CEO of their business, the sole purpose of which is to get the best education to help them realize their full potential. This doesn’t mean one day call it quits and just stop checking their homework and asking what’s been done, but it does mean that we gradually turn over the reigns. Mike's mom started in 6th grade. You can start now.
4. Encourage your teens to use their summers wisely.
It’s one thing to participate in a program like Breakthrough, the EMERGE Fellowship or QuestBridge–it’s something completely different to pursue experiences that help you refine your interests. When colleges look through applications, they are not just looking for great grades. That’s often a baseline for consideration. What they are looking for is someone who over the course of their time in high school has intentionally worked towards uncovering their strengths and interests by doing.
Let’s say my son loves sports but doesn’t know what he wants to do professionally, and each summer he works at the local Y lifeguarding. Now let’s say your son also loves sports, and the summer after his freshman year, he spends a week interning at the Rockets, where he realizes he likes the business side of things. The next summer he interns with a sports agent, and while he thinks it’s really cool to work on big contracts, it doesn’t excite him as much as he’d like. The following summer while visiting family in Baltimore, he pursues and gets clearance to shadow a few people at Under Armour and falls in love with the marketing team. When your son and mine apply to college, who do you think will have a better sense of what he’s looking for from a school? Who will have the most compelling application? Again, none of these summer experiences have to be major time drains. Michael is spending two weeks traveling to cities that have historically fought for racial justice. Two weeks for an experience that might help him have a greater sense of clarity and purpose is priceless. So sit down with your teenager and talk about what interests them, and then help them think through things they can do/experience in the summer to further refine or nurture those interests. Encouraging your teen to use their summer doing will likely make for a more focused student, a more compelling college application and a more fulfilling life for your soon-to-be young adult.