Back to school after years away: A DC charter school serves adults

Back to school season is getting underway, and at one school, the education offered is for grown-ups.

Students at D.C.’s Community College Preparatory Academy range in age from 17 to 84.

Some decide to enroll at the school for adults in D.C. because they dropped out, others graduated but found their skills don’t match those demanded in the job market.

Others have been incarcerated and are working to get back on track.

CC Prep, as CEO Connie Spinner calls it, is designed to provide a bridge to economic self-sufficiency.

There are GED programs, career training and college readiness courses. Students graduate with certification for careers in IT, health care and HVAC. There are also programs to provide a steppingstone to higher education.

Spinner says while there’s no “typical student,” there are a number of students in their early to mid-twenties who enroll.

“At about 22, you’ve been out of high school, you’ve been in the job market, you know you’ve got some problems, and you’ve got to get additional skills.” And she added “You are mature enough to make a decision to invest in your own future.”

Many returning students find something surprising about themselves, said Spinner.

“They’re smarter than they think.”

That discovery comes after students take the leap to achieve their goals. “Many of them suffer from a grave lack of confidence. Whatever happened to them in their experience in education to date has made them feel as if they can’t learn math-they can’t use the computer.”

CC Prep is designed to provide students with the guidance and support they need.

Spinner says among the biggest problems students have to overcome is the lack of exposure to the education and skills needed to find the kind of work that allows them to become self-sufficient.

But they also have to learn what employers call “soft skills.” Spinner says, “We have a saying here at CC Prep-there’s nothing soft about soft skills.” Spinner explains to students, “If you don’t know how to prioritize, if you are not nice, and you can’t work with others in the sandbox, you cannot get a job and keep it.”

While this is back-to-school season for many traditional students, CC Prep is a year-round school, said Spinner.

“We have been allotted slots for up to 600, but because we are a school that backfills when a student completes, we serve up to 890 students a year.”

Spinner says the profile of the average student has shifted since the school opened in 2013. “When we started almost 80% of our population was female.” Now, she says, 41 % of our students are men.

The school has two sites, both in Southeast D.C., and students can get help with transportation costs with access to subsidized Smart Trip cards.

There’s always the concern that with changing technology, what’s being taught is relevant for current, and future careers, said Spinner. After being open for just five years, Spinner said the school is reassessing its course offerings.

“We’re starting industry focus groups. Spinner said,” Spinner said.

She explained businesses are asked about what their needs are, and what skills employees of the future will need. “They’ve been very, very helpful with that.”

Spinner says one thing that’s emphasized is that change is inevitable.

She cites research that shows today’s high school graduates will likely hold dozens of jobs before retiring. “You’d better be able to learn as you go” she said. And just as the needs of the workplace change, the course offerings will change too. “The variety of things that we’re able to offer people as bridges to higher education and to work have expanded. And we intend to continue to grow.”

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