Prepping for College

Charter high school seniors gain experience

The 2017-18 school year marks the first senior class at Rochester Prep High School, a charter school RIT helped form in 2014. This year the school is piloting a new capstone project that pairs seniors with RIT faculty to get them hands-on, college-level experience in a field they are passionate about.

An important goal of RIT’s partnership with Uncommon Schools’ Rochester Prep High School is to help the students there envision their college future and build toward success.

Targeting that goal is a new program that engages several of the high school’s first class of seniors to work on research projects with RIT faculty and students.

From September to December, seven Rochester Prep students met with RIT faculty to work on capstone projects varying from photojournalism to microbiology to game design and development.

Rochester Prep students Terrell Marble collaborates with RIT students to design and develop an experimental computer game.

“The idea behind the capstones is to give students the opportunity to go in-depth on a topic, gain exposure to RIT faculty and students and to get on RIT’s campus to have an authentic college experience,” said Christy Hendler, director of Strategic Initiatives at Rochester Prep. “When they leave high school, it’s a whole new world that can be intimidating. After completing the capstone, we hope our graduates will go to college believing, ‘I can do this. I have already been successful working with college students and faculty at RIT.’”

RIT has been a strategic partner since the charter high school’s inception in 2014, with the goal of increasing the number of city high school students who enroll in and succeed at college. Rochester Prep will graduate its first class in June.

RIT students have served as tutors and mentors for Rochester Prep students. Faculty developed design courses. Staff coached Rochester Prep students on admissions interview techniques, and Rochester Prep students have visited the Henrietta campus frequently to explore the range of majors.

“I definitely like coming to RIT,” said Rochester Prep senior Terrell Marble. “I’ve been coming here ever since ninth-grade, so it’s like my home away from home.”

The capstone projects provide students hands-on, advanced-level work in fields they would not be able to experience in their high school. “Students come from high school with a whole variety of interests and I don’t know if there’s an interest you can have that RIT doesn’t cover somehow in its programs,” said Doug Merrill, professor and director of RIT’s Center for Bioscience Education and Technology.

Rochester Prep students and RIT faculty who expressed interest in the capstone projects were teamed up based on their common interests:

  • With guidance from Merrill, Rochester Prep senior Jalynn Webb designed and developed an experiment to examine antibiotic resistance of bacteria found on fruit sold in supermarkets.
  • Under the tutelage of Chris Homan, associate professor of computer science, Rochester Prep seniors Ayesha Lee and Keaton Hall worked alongside a group of graduate students to code computer games.
  • Studying photojournalism under Assistant Professor Josh Meltzer, Rochester Prep seniors Justice Marbury and Ismael Cortez Jr. interviewed Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and other community members for a video they are producing to explore the future of Parcel 5, a key piece of open downtown real estate.
  • Working with Assistant Professor Ian Schreiber, Rochester Prep students Marble and Zaid Abdulsalam collaborated with RIT students to design and develop an experimental computer game that uses colored visors to distort what players see.

The capstone projects have been an encouraging and transformative experience for the students involved.

“I’m really excited for college just because I got the experience of taking this class,” said Cortez. “It makes me feel like I’m more ready for it. Before I was thinking, ‘Man, I don’t think I’m going to be ready for college. I’m not good to be on my own.’ But taking the capstone class makes it easier.”

A student and professor examine antibiotic resistance of bacteria.

Rochester Prep senior Jalynn Webb examines antibiotic resistance of bacteria found on fruit with assistance from Doug Merrill, professor and director of RIT’s Center for Bioscience Education and Technology.

The RIT faculty and students involved in the program seem to be getting just as much out of the program. Ashley Bonney, a fourth-year biomedical sciences student from Prince George’s County, Md., who helped mentor Webb through her microbiological experiment, found it to be a learning experience.

“This is my first experience mentoring,” said Bonney. “It’s nice to see someone like me interested in the medical field and the STEM fields, so I’m glad to encourage her to stay on track. It’s a valuable experience because you get to reinforce what you learned and then you get to help somebody else learn and help to see if they want to pursue this or if it’s something they like.”

Hendler says Rochester Prep hopes to expand the program next year.

Both RIT and Rochester Prep officials hope the program’s reach can extend beyond those two schools and serve as a model for other schools in the region and beyond.

“This partnership between a high-performing urban charter school and a major university could be a model for Rochester education,” said Kit Mayberry, RIT vice president for strategic planning and special initiatives. She said it is important for the university to be at the forefront of programs like this “because RIT can provide these students with a four-year orientation to all aspects of college life, and because the faculties of both RIT and Rochester Prep can learn critical lessons from each other about college preparation and college success.”