My people aren’t much for overarching advice or general proclamations, but my father has a saying that has always stuck with me: “People live down to your expectations.”
Perhaps that sounds a bit negative, and for my optimistic dad it borders on gloomy, but the point is valid: Set the bar really high, because even the most well-intentioned will usually do the least that’s required of them. It’s just how we work.
I thought of this advice when I heard about Manassas High School’s new graduation policy, which seems at first glance to be beyond lofty and approaching ludicrous. As reported by the Commercial Appeal, Principal James Griffin has decreed that all seniors must have 10 college acceptance letters as a condition to graduate. Not send in 10 applications, not visit 10 campuses — acceptance at 10 institutions of higher learning is required for a high school diploma. Whether this is an enforceable policy or just a well-publicized benchmark is somewhat unclear, but either way, these students have been given a set of expectations above even their highest achieving and most privileged peers. Especially considering Manassas’ tandem goal of a 100 percent graduation rate.
Manassas High School is best known for its football team, honored in the 2011 Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated. Their story is inspirational, and I’m sure the morale it infused into this small, struggling school was immeasurable, but as a former Mathlete, I’m much more moved by a principal and faculty committed to every student than a coach and community focused on just a few.
But I have to admit, my initial response to the new requirement was, “Heck, I didn’t get into 10 colleges.” But then again, no one expected me to. I didn’t even mail 10 applications. Part of the reason for that was the cost of applying — somewhere between $25 and $60 a pop, if I recall correctly, and it looks like about 25 percent higher now. It also took a lot of time, considering that no two applications seemed to have the same essay prompts and it was hard to fit in the extra homework. I was already taking a rigorous schedule of classes that were specifically designed to get me into college and working a part-time job that I hoped would help pay for it. Even as a suburban kid in a middle-weight recession, I would have found 10 acceptance letters to be an overwhelming demand.
And that’s where Manassas is doing it right. They have allotted school time for students to work on applications, and they’ve made deals with a growing number of colleges and universities to waive application fees for students demonstrating need. They’re not only setting high expectations over there, they’re eliminating excuses. And when you’re dealing with hundreds of teenagers, that’s a critical first step.
You may wonder what’s being pushed off the plate to allow for this academic sideline, but the odds are, probably nothing. With high schools making the graduation rate-inducing shift toward seven different class periods each semester but fewer staff available to teach electives, many Memphis seniors find themselves out of classes by their final year and end up shuffled into study halls or working as teachers’ assistants to fill the time. The Manassas model of using a class period for college preparation is therefore double-genius. It not only fills a slot in their schedules, it also gives students significant time and support to work toward this goal.
Will every senior make this target? Maybe not. I can’t imagine that in any group of 120 12th graders, there aren’t at least a few who lack either the ability or the give-a-damn to do so. But among the class as a whole, what amazing things will happen to those who are stretching themselves so far past what anyone had previously asked of them? What scholarships will be presented, what mentors will be discovered, what doors will open wider?
Maybe I’m not convinced all of those Manassas seniors will get into 10 colleges each. But I’m sure going to expect them to.