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'Good way to reflect': Springfield students mark college application season with annual march

An annual tradition for seniors — and ninth graders — who attend the Springfield Renaissance School begins with a walk.

Instead of classes, about 150 students met up for what's known as the "college march."

On a below-freezing December morning, the students gathered briefly on the steps of Springfield’s Symphony Hall. About 100 of them are in ninth grade. Some held miniature flags from Bay Path College, Pepperdine and UMass. Others carried banners that said things like "Class of 2024 you made it!,” congratulating the 50 seniors graduating in June.

Facing the group, at the bottom of the steps, were teachers and other educators including Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Warwick, and the principal of the Renaissance School, Derek Wright.

“Ninth and 12th graders, listen up!” Wright shouted over the wind. "We're here to march to the post office to symbolize our seniors applying to college, to make sure all of our students have a choice after they graduate.”

Why are ninth graders included? Educators said they're invited to the event with the intention of getting them excited about applying and going to college a few years down the road.

In western Massachusetts, students from the Springfield Renaissance School gathered on the steps of Symphony Hall in Springfield to take part in the "college march," December 15, 2023. It's an annual ritual celebrating college applications being sent (largely online) and the mailing of handwritten thank-you notes to educators, family members and friends who helped students get to this point.
Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM
In western Massachusetts, students from the Springfield Renaissance School gathered on the steps of Symphony Hall in Springfield to take part in the "college march," December 15, 2023. It's an annual ritual celebrating college applications being sent (largely online) and the mailing of handwritten thank-you notes to educators, family members and friends who helped students get to this point.

The Springfield Renaissance School, is a sixth to 12th grade “expeditionary learning” and STEM Magnet school in the Springfield Public School District. It’s part of a national network of schools, EL Education.

Each year, on a single day in December, every EL school around the country does a college march. Like in other schools, many of the Renaissance seniors had already submitted their college applications online. On this day, they walked to the post office at the corner of Main and Liberty streets to mail handwritten thank-you notes to a variety of people who helped them get to this point.

"I think it's a very good way to reflect on your past and see how others have helped you and how you didn't just get here by yourself,” said senior Xyler Lazare.

Lazare is mailing thank-you letters to friends and to her third grade teacher, who Lazare said helped her write her college essay. A few weeks ago, Lazare applied to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Drexel University, and other schools, with a plan to study business and marketing.

"It's a cool way to say thank you and goodbye at the same time," said senior Neisha Mia Butler, who wrote a letter to her guidance counselor. "We're not leaving — but we almost are leaving!"

Students from the Springfield Renaissance School take part in the "college march," December 15, 2023. It's an annual ritual celebrating college applications being sent (largely online) and the mailing of handwritten thank-you notes to educators, family members and friends who helped students get to this point.
Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM
Students from the Springfield Renaissance School take part in the "college march," December 15, 2023. It's an annual ritual celebrating college applications being sent (largely online) and the mailing of handwritten thank-you notes to educators, family members and friends who helped students get to this point.

Bringing together ninth graders and 12th graders, the bookends of high school, is on purpose, said teacher Tracey Marshall.

“We want folks to understand that college is an option for everyone, not just a pipe dream," Marshall said. "And we invite freshman to see there is light at the end of the tunnel."

The ninth graders may not fully grasp what's ahead, she said, but they're glad to get a few hours of out of the building.

Teacher Tracey Marshall joined students from the Springfield Renaissance School in the "college march," December 15, 2023. It's an annual ritual celebrating college applications being sent (largely online) and the mailing of handwritten thank-you notes to educators, family members and friends who helped students get to this point.
Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM
Teacher Tracey Marshall joined students from the Springfield Renaissance School in the "college march," December 15, 2023. It's an annual ritual celebrating college applications being sent (largely online) and the mailing of handwritten thank-you notes to educators, family members and friends who helped students get to this point.

After about a 10-minute walk along the city’s Main Street, with a few intersections temporarily blocked off by police, the students arrived at the post office.

The ninth graders started cheering. The seniors, one-by-one, walked up to the mailboxes and slid their letters inside.

Allison Stoddard, the 12th grade guidance counselor at Renaissance, positioned herself next to one of the boxes. Some students, she said, have never used a mailbox before — with all the technology in their lives. But this is about more than making sure they know how to handwrite a letter and address an envelope..

“As a school, [Renaissance is] big on reflecting. Thank you notes allow time for the students to appreciate the people who got them to where they are today,” Stoddard said.

Almost 80% of the students at Springfield's Renaissance School are "high needs," according to the state, about 10 percentage points less than the district average.

"Students who might not have seen college as an option for them are starting to realize they do have that option and that possibility," Stoddard said.

Seventy-six percent of Renaissance students live in low income households. At the district level, it's 85%.

Students from the Springfield Renaissance School take part in the "college march," December 15, 2023. It's an annual ritual celebrating college applications being sent (largely online) and the mailing of handwritten thank-you notes to educators, family members and friends who helped students get to this point.
Jill Kaufman
/
NEPM
Students from the Springfield Renaissance School take part in the "college march," December 15, 2023. It's an annual ritual celebrating college applications being sent (largely online) and the mailing of handwritten thank-you notes to educators, family members and friends who helped students get to this point.

All of the Renaissance students, Stoddard said, will apply to college and about 60-70% will attend a two- or four-year school. The goal, she and other educators said, is that after high school graduation, 100% will go on to some kind of additional education.

Every public high school in Springfield does something to celebrate its seniors, though it is unique to mark their achievements in this way, halfway through the school year.

With two mailboxes, it took just a few minutes for students to mail their letters. The ninth graders boarded nearby school buses. Stoddard, a few teachers and the 12th graders lingered outside the post office, including Shakim Meade, who recently applied to MassArt and University of Hartford.

Meade said he liked the ritual of writing and sending the thank-you letters, but he had a suggestion.

“It’s wonderful. But at the same time, it's really cold," Meade said. “So I would say maybe summertime to do it, in my opinion.”

Still, the seniors did have the rest of the day off from classes. They walked back toward Symphony Hall to get a pizza lunch, and then continued their celebration at the nearby Basketball Hall of Fame.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."