The DDCE’s Students Partnering for Undergraduate Rhetoric Success—or SPURS—does more than just provide high school students with three-hours college credit for RHE 306, the mandatory introductory rhetoric and writing course at the University of Texas at Austin. It is life-changing for many students, giving them the confidence boost they need to go on to college.
RHE 306 is designed using a “public controversy” model, where all students research, converse, and write on a single issue of public debate for an extended period of time. The students access the UT Austin curriculum online and chat with an assistant instructor assigned to their class. High school teachers deliver lesson plans as provided by DDCE staff member Eric Dieter who is the SPURS program coordinator. The assistant instructors grade the high school student assignments and provide feedback on their papers.
According to Austin Independent School District Teacher of the Year Sarah Dille, who teaches at Crockett High School, students experience many changes during the course of the SPURS class.
“For one thing, they become much more willing to revise their work,” said Dille. She explained that initially students are reluctant to make difficult revisions that are suggested by the assistant instructor at UT Austin who grades their papers, instead choosing to address the small changes such as punctuation or word choice. By the end of the course, students are much more willing to start the writing assignment completely over if need be.
“As a result of SPURS, they become more in tune with national conversations around issues like DREAM ACT and affirmative action; they become more well-informed citizens and start paying attention to national issues,” she said.
Central Medical Magnet High School (Beaumont ISD) teacher Stephanie Alfred reported, “It is a confidence builder that they are able to do level of work associated with college.” Plus, Alfred said there is a certain cache for the SPURS students among their peers.
“Even though we are a magnet school with lots of upper-division courses, because the SPURS students are taking a class through the University of Texas at Austin they are viewed as an elite group in our school,” she said. “I use that as a point to keep them motivated. Even if they don’t get to go to college at UT, they still have that experience. It is a privileged program.”
Almost immediately after the course begins, it becomes clear that the curriculum is at a college-level. Alfred said that once class started, “It took some growing up quickly. This was the only class they may have been held to a higher standard in. For most of my students, it was a quick process to start thinking ‘I’ve got to get a handle on this if I’m going to be successful as a student.’”
“The most positive benefit is students get real college experience with the comfort of the high school setting still there,” said Dille. “They are surprised by how much group collaboration is expected of them. The length of what they were asked to write surprised them, too.”
Dille explained that because of standardized testing, schools most often focus on the short types of writing required for the standardized tests. “Students were happily surprised they were expected to do the real level of work as college students. This is real college curriculum—not watered down. They are ready for college by the end of the course.”
Indeed, 99% of the students at 10 schools that participated in SPURS last year had end-of-year essays ranked as acceptable for the college classroom. Seventy five of the 348 SPURS students applied to UT Austin; 36 were automatically admitted and 16 of those will enroll in the fall.
SPURS students have the opportunity to visit UT Austin and the RHE 306 classroom, interact with the students in that class and ask questions about college life.
“Campus visits are phenomenal,” said Alfred. “Students have a lot of light bulb moments when they come to campus. When they audit the class, they are very interactive. My students try to take over,” she laughed.
Dill said, “The trip to UT—having that day eating in the cafeteria, touring dorms, hearing from financial aid—helps to make college more of a reality for them.”
Both Alfred and Dille find the teacher training component of SPURS helpful as well. Alfred is in her fifth year of teaching; Dille is in her fourteenth.
“I feel like I’m growing as a teacher. I’m learning at the same rate as my students—learning what education can do for everybody—no matter what background. SPURS has helped me understand my own goals,” said Alfred who is now working on a doctorate in educational leadership and administration.
On the first day of SPURS teacher training this summer, Dr. Mark Longaker, associated chair in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing came and spoke to the group. Alfred said, “He made a statement that SPURS was dual credit done right and I agree so much with that statement. I’ve seen students take college- level courses before and they were out there on their own. It wasn’t that great of a learning experience. If ever a choice, this is a model and a teaching process that is very valuable,” she said.
Students Partnering for Undergraduate Rhetoric Success (SPURS) is part of the Longhorn Center for School Partnerships under the direction of Dr. Kenya Walker, assistant vice president for school partnerships, and Eric Dieter, program coordinator. Nearly 10 years old, the program began as an enrichment program for high school students to help them become better prepared for the writing that is expected of college students. In 2011, SPURS piloted a dual credit course in two school districts and in 2012, all of the SPURS programs became dual credit.