Inspired by her students, this former teacher and 2018 Social Innovation Fellow connects Bay Area youth with degrees, jobs, and their own potential.
“The American system of higher education has the potential to lift young people from poverty to the middle class, and from the middle class to affluence,” writes author Paul Tough in his 2019 book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us. “But in reality, for many young Americans, it functions as something closer to the opposite: an obstacle to mobility, an instrument that reinforces a rigid social hierarchy and prevents them from moving beyond the circumstances of their birth.”
As chronicled by Tough and other education writers, college can be a ticket out of generational poverty for children born into low income communities. In response, a range of social innovations — such as tutoring providers, college-preparatory charter high schools, and scholarship programs — have sought to dismantle the barriers between these students and college. Other efforts are underway to ensure that college students from increasingly diverse backgrounds persevere all the way to a meaningful degree.
Teaching Meaningful Skills
But some of the most promising approaches may be those that tightly connect low-income and minority students with what will really transform their lives: meaningful skills that pave the way to not only a degree, but also a career.
“A college degree and an actual job is a far more accurate proxy for stability than high school graduation alone,” says Claire Fisher, a former teacher and social entrepreneur who graduated from Stanford in 2018 with an MBA and an MA Ed. “Low-income young people often are neglected by our system, yet they are uniquely equipped to excel in an environment that demands creativity, persistence, and resourcefulness.”
Fisher notes that there are many reasons these motivated but under-resourced students, though bright and capable, might not be able to access selective colleges or afford the time and cost of a four-year degree. Some have checkered academic track records or undiagnosed learning challenges. Others might be managing chronic homelessness or serving as primary caregivers or wage-earners in their families.
“We need to get better at providing pathways that allow all of these students to more reliably earn a degree and a job,” says Fisher.
To connect the dots between these students and the companies that could put them to work, in 2018 Fisher founded The Arena, with the support of Stanford’s Social Innovation Fellowship. Students in the two-year Arena program will spend their senior year of high school dual-enrolled in college, working toward an associate’s degree while building their leadership skills and exploring career paths alongside a cohort of peers and coaches. In the second year of the program, they will pursue apprenticeships with Arena’s corporate partners, graduating from the fellowship in a position to pursue a bachelor’s degree or continue work, depending on their interest and chosen career track.
What Teaching Taught Her
Before coming to Stanford for graduate school, Fisher was a dean and advanced math teacher at Collegiate Academies, a charter high school in New Orleans. Many of her students had faced years of chronic trauma and adversity at home. Their families struggled to make ends meet, their neighborhoods were dangerous to navigate, and their previous schools expected little of them — causing them, in return, to expect little of school, and of themselves. Fisher realized that access to positive culture, greater leadership opportunities, and more rigorous and supportive math instruction would be key to changing the students’ attitudes and showing them what they could achieve.
Fisher found that students’ motivations and achievements were often transformed by what she calls “love and challenge.” She set high expectations for her students — despite their past struggles with math — and committed to providing them with the support they’d need to meet those expectations. That led her to spend an extraordinary amount of time behind the scenes to build relationships with students and their families, visiting them at home and at work in addition to checking in on them throughout the day. She also attended social events like football games. “For kids who’d often been abandoned, I knew I needed to do the opposite,” she says.*
In the classroom, Fisher created different structures for learning that would reach students who were often frustrated by the solitary nature of advanced math. Through real-life math tasks and group projects, she found ways for her students to develop both their math chops and their leadership skills by solving big problems together.
But, Fisher confesses, after she learned how many of her students were struggling and giving up once they got into college, Fisher felt as if she had failed them by giving them a false sense of hope about their futures.
“I saw everyone flailing — from my students getting full rides to the most selective schools to those who we knew would struggle to make their way to community college,” she reflects. “I knew that what we were doing wasn’t good enough. There had to be a more practical way to help them earn degrees and start down the road toward a meaningful career.”
She realized she would have to do more than one-on-one and classroom work if she was going to help them have a real shot at success. So Fisher returned to graduate school to see what innovative interventions other organizations were developing and to figure out how she could make an impact on the broader educational system.
The Practical Idealist
“Education felt like a system that would allow me to be both an idealist and somewhat practical,” Fisher says. “All I knew is that I wanted to create a world that would look more like the one I wanted to live in, especially for the students of color with whom I worked.”
Fisher spent the first year of her journey after graduate school talking with a wide range of K-12, post-secondary, and workforce institutions across the country. Rather than starting yet another high school or post-secondary program, Fisher decided it would be more effective to establish a coordinating intermediary that could knit existing services together for students. This is the path that The Arena is now pursuing: building through-lines for students to pursue both college and career in an integrated way, especially for those students who feel that they must select one or the other — and who, without support, often end up doing neither successfully.
The Arena combines these insights about college support and career connections, and works to provide students with both a useful degree and the career exposure and skills they’ll need to succeed. “Too many students fall through the cracks in the transitions between high school, college, and career, which means even the employers who want to hire them can’t,” explains Fisher.
Due to a range of factors, just 40% of students who start college earn their degrees within six years, and a third never manage to complete one. What’s more, both college students and employers find a significant mismatch between the work that needs to be done and the skills that students are gaining in post-secondary programs, leaving many college graduates underemployed and many companies with unfilled jobs. To address this, Fisher says, “Arena connects high schools, colleges, and employers that are already doing great work, and empowers students with the leadership fundamentals needed to succeed in any environment.”
The First Cohort
In summer 2019, Arena hosted a summer immersion pilot in the San Francisco Bay Area with 21 rising seniors from a public high school in East Oakland. Students built professional skills and received individualized coaching while they explored careers with a local sports team, a biotech startup, a retail conglomerate, and a tech company. Participation in the pilot increased students’ confidence in their ability to succeed after high school — whether they move directly into the workforce or go on to college.
This summer, Fisher also launched the first full cohort of The Arena, kicking off with a summer program to set expectations for a group of students who are now dual-enrolled in their senior year of high school as well as in college. The students explore career options and participate in regular leadership skills seminars.
“Before Arena, I didn’t think I could go to college: too anxious, not enough options, need to help my family,” says a participating high school student. “Then this opportunity came along and provided guidance, practical pathways, and support. I get to know what I am doing now in 12th grade when my peers are still figuring it out!”
The Arena’s corporate partners, including the Oakland Athletics and LinkedIn, have been pleased with the program’s support and the talent they’re tapping into. Other local companies are expected to sign on soon through a partnership with the Bay Area Council. But what Fisher is most excited about is the students: “They’ve been starved for support, and they’re soaking up the exposure to careers and the coaching that goes well beyond what their schools are able to offer.”
Ultimately, Fisher is a pragmatic optimist. She doesn’t believe the world around these students will get any easier, and she knows she is only in the first inning of a very long game. However, she hopes that the persistence these students have already demonstrated can be harnessed to develop traits like tenacity and creativity, allowing The Arena’s fellows to become “an agile, resilient generation of workers” whose circumstances ignite their potential — rather than stifle their opportunities.
— Julie Landry Petersen
Claire Fisher received an MBA from Stanford GSB in 2018. She was awarded Stanford GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship, which provides $110,000 in funding, along with advising and support, to graduating students who want to start a nonprofit venture that addresses a pressing social or environmental need during the year after graduation.
Julie Landry Petersen is a freelance education writer based in Petaluma, California.