Begin at the beginning: Library collaboration with early college high school freshmen

By Matthew Harrick
Brooklyn College


Early College High Schools partner with colleges and universities to ease traditionally underrepresented and at-risk high school students into college life, increase students’ college readiness, and provide the opportunity to earn college credits while simultaneously earning high school diplomas. One such partnership is between Brooklyn College and the STAR (Science, Technology and Research) program at Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, NY. As part of their introduction to college life, small groups of freshmen receive basic college library orientations prior to enrolling in credit-bearing courses as juniors and seniors. The education and liaison librarian to Early College High School programs created a six-week information literacy, science and research-based pilot seminar to further increase the college readiness of high school students.

Keywords: Early College High Schools; Information Literacy; STEM Research; Academic Libraries; Outreach; High School Students; College; Higher Education.


College readiness is one of the more pressing issues in today’s secondary education landscape (Achieve, 2016; Edmunds, 2012).  According to the Forum Guide to College and Career Ready Data (2015), high school students are considered college ready when they have “attained the knowledge, skills, and disposition needed to succeed in credit-bearing (non-remedial) post-secondary coursework” (National Forum on Educational Statistics, p. 1). Since 2002, Early College High Schools (ECHS) have existed primarily as interventions to increase successful college readiness. ECHS partnerships between high schools and colleges and universities provide students with intense academics and mentoring, access to academic resources and services, and the opportunity to earn both a high school diploma and transferrable college credits or an associate’s degree (if granted by the institution).

This article discusses a pilot project developed in collaboration between the Brooklyn College Library and one of Brooklyn College’s ECHS programs, STAR (Science, Technology and Research, at Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, NY).  This pilot introduced freshmen in the STAR ECHS to information literacy and research skills within a STEM framework. Most discussions of the information literacy needs of high school students focus on the 12-13 (high school senior to first year higher education student) transition, and the few collaborations between academic libraries and ECHS programs describe programming aimed at working with high school juniors and seniors. This program is unique among ECHS and library collaborations in its focus on high school freshmen. Introducing high school students to library research and resources as early as possible can provide tools that will increase the chances of successful college-readiness.

Brief History of the Early College High School Initiative

The Early College High School Initiative was founded and launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2002 to directly meet college-readiness needs of high school students (Dessoff, 2011); as of 2016, there are 280 programs nationwide (Jobs for the Future, 2016a). ECSH programs encourage underrepresented students, from freshman year through senior year to stay in high school, to continue to college, and to ensure, as much as possible, college retention: “These innovative small public schools offer young people who might not otherwise graduate from high school the opportunity – and the assistance they need – to earn both a high school diploma and credit toward a college degree” (Newton & Vogt, 2008).

To meet these goals, ECHS programs provide gradual, structured, and supported college exposure to high school students, mentoring for college preparatory and credit-bearing classes, tutoring services, and access to library resources and librarians. High school teachers and administrators work with college faculty to offer workshops, seminars, and credit-bearing courses for enrolled students. Success rates are impressive: 90% graduate high school (vs. 78% of students nationally); 94% earn free college credit while in high school; and 30% earn an Associate’s degree or other postsecondary credential while in high school (Jobs for the Future, 2016b).

Literature Review

Much of the literature on ECHS programs and their relationships with libraries, notably Burhanna (2007), Burhanna and Jensen (2006), Gresham and Van Tassel (2000), and Carlito (2009), promotes and advocates for university collaboration with local high schools, outreach to secondary schools, and information literacy (IL) programs on campus and at schools. Commonly cited library-related goals of ECHS programs are to increase comfort with academic libraries (Thorne-Ortiz, 2015) and to connect students with library resources (Massis, 2015; Esch & Crawford, 2006). There are many ways to accomplish these goals, starting with high school librarians themselves, as they are the first “information professionals” that students meet.  Martorana, et al. (2001) collaborated with high school librarians to “train the trainers” to impart college-level IL skills to school librarians, who in turn would prepare their students for the transition to higher education. Bringing high school students to a college library is another point of intervention. Cosgrove (2001) believes bibliographic instruction sessions can be used to promote higher education: “The very presence of the class in a college library means that the teacher believes that they are capable of using college-level materials,” sending the message: “you are capable of pursuing higher education and you should do so.” (p. 21). Seymour (2007) highlights assessment tools that academic and school librarians can share to determine if high school students are receiving appropriate IL training, and to determine if first year college students have the appropriate skills, or if they need to be developed further. General descriptions of individual ECHS programs fall outside of this article’s scope (for some recent examples of case studies of individual programs, and interviews with students enrolled in or graduated from ECHS programs, see Locke, Stedrak, and Eadens (2014), Munoz, Fischetti, and Prather (2014), Woodcock and Olson (2013), Cravey (2013), Edmunds, et al. (2013),  McDonald and Farrell (2012), Thompson and Ongaga (2011), Kaniuka and Vickers (2010), and Ongaga (2010)). This article’s focus is on how academic librarians can help to increase the college readiness of high school students through the implementation of a research-based seminar for high school freshmen.

Examples of more sustained or extensive programmatic partnerships between academic libraries and ECHS (or ECHS-like) programs have recently surfaced (Angell and Tewell (2012); Herring (2013)). The programs described by Edmunds, et al. (2010) and by Martin, Garcia, and McPhee (2012) begin to add research to this important aspect of the ECHS landscape. Earlier collaborations address the notion of providing IL instruction, and academic guidance and supports, before students enroll in credit-bearing courses, hopefully making the 12-13 transition even more successful (Oakleaf and Owen, 2010; Owen 2010; Fitzgerald, 2004).

History of ECHS at Brooklyn College

Brooklyn College (BC), one of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) 24 institutions, is a Master’s college with one library, 15 full-time faculty librarians, and an enrollment of over 17,000 undergraduate and graduate students (Brooklyn College, 2016, p. 6).  The campus’ population reflects the diversity expected in the largest urban public university system in the United States: combined, African American and Hispanic students comprise the majority of the campus population. (Brooklyn College, 2016, p. 7).

BC has a longstanding tradition of collaborating with local high schools, predating even the ECHS movement (Evans, 1997). Currently, three ECHS programs collaborate with BC: Science, Technology and Research (STAR), Brooklyn College Academy, and College Now, a CUNY-wide program. In all of these programs BC faculty partner with high school teachers and administrators to create curriculum for college preparatory courses for freshmen and sophomores, and for credit-bearing courses for juniors and seniors. Because many of these students take courses that require library research, the library receives funding from ECHS programs. This funding supports library faculty in preparation for, and teaching of, IL sessions in the form of release time from other responsibilities, such as reference desk shifts.

Of the three ECHS collaborations at BC, the STAR ECHS is the focus of a research-based college-preparatory seminar piloted at the BC Library in the spring 2015 semester.


STAR’s focus on STEM curricula prepares students for college-level work and  “promote[s] and maintain[s] a nurturing and rigorously challenging college oriented learning environment” (New York City Department of Education, 2016a). Launched in 2003 with a grant funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, it now receives funding from the New York City Department of Education, CUNY, and a National Science Foundation grant. For a detailed history of STAR’s inception and first five years, see Newton and Vogt’s full report (2008).

Admissions requirements for STAR students are highly selective: scores of 80-100 in English, Math, Social Studies, and Science classes; standardized test scores of 3-4 in Math and English Language Arts; an interview; and they must pass a review of attendance and punctuality. Enrollment for grades 6-12 for 2015 is 523 (New York City Department of Education, 2016b), and the graduation rate for the class of 2014 was 97.2% (New York City Department of Education, 2015). At graduation participants should have a minimum of 30 transferable college credits. If these students enroll in CUNY schools, they do so as transfer freshmen or sophomores.

Enrolled freshmen and sophomores take college preparatory classes (including four college-prep writing workshops for sophomores), while juniors and seniors take credit-bearing courses. Some juniors and seniors take ENGL 1012, BC’s second-term English and composition course which has a mandatory information literacy session with a librarian. Those not yet taking credit-bearing courses receive many library access privileges, but notably cannot access e-resources from off campus. Juniors and seniors taking credit-bearing courses receive the same library benefits as undergraduate students.

In conjunction with the college-preparatory courses freshmen take in their fall semester, students also form six small groups of fifteen to twenty students each, and visit a different “Early Immersion” pre-college mini-seminar on six consecutive Fridays: Exploring Artificial Life, Finding Information Online (not information searching, but a basic introduction to web design coding), From Bones to Behavior, How Animals and Humans Find Their Way Around, Is it Food?, and Library Orientation. At the culmination of these visits, students choose one seminar to attend in the spring in an expanded version.

STAR and the Library

The BC Library partnered with STAR upon its launch in 2003. The initial partnership included a library component and research project. This project lasted only one year, but the students continued to visit the library as part of their introduction to college courses, during which the education librarian gave the freshmen groups full IL sessions. In 2011, the new education librarian

In 2012, I modified the session’s content, and shifted the focus to give a general sense of an academic library’s resources and services, and the role of librarians. The revised sessions began with one of the library faculty’s instructional resources: a general library orientation presentation titled Library in a Nutshell, used at college orientation and open house events for new undergraduate and transfer students. This colorful, image-based presentation gives students an overview of the resources and services provided by the library, and became the sessions’ new foundation.

I changed or removed the content that did not apply to this group. For example, I removed the slides that discuss in detail the research process, and specific online resources, and replaced them with one slide that represented research more generally.

The presentation is meant to facilitate further conversation about academic libraries, and to show these groups of freshmen resources and services available to them as freshmen and sophomores enrolled in college-prep classes, and those resources and services that will be available to them when they enroll in credit-bearing courses.

For example, the presentation shows students that they can access our computer labs and use our resources on site, and that they will be able to reserve and use group study rooms, and borrow laptops and tablets through our laptop loan program.

We spend a considerable portion of time discussing the different collections in the library. First we discuss the general circulating collection. I explain that librarians build this collection to reflect primarily what undergraduate students are working on. Our undergraduates and their research and projects are our first concern. This is important to highlight, as many of these high school freshmen will become undergraduates at our institution.

I explain how subject specialist librarians build the collections and that the stacks might not look like the collections in a public library.

We move on to Course Reserves, where we talk about the high cost of textbooks, and how students should always check the library to see if we have copies of their textbooks and required readings before they purchase them. Next is the Music library, where students are always interested to hear we have scores they can check out, as well as vinyl records they can listen to. The last collection we discuss is Special Collections: what researchers can find in special collections in general, and more specifically, what we collect at our institution.

Finally, we talk very briefly about research resources beyond books (articles), working from home, and getting help from librarians.

Following the Library in a Nutshell is a brief catalog demonstration, after which the students search for a book of their choosing. While searching, they record something about their search: a successful or unsuccessful search, or where “their” book is located, for example. Finally, students record something they learned during the session, or something they thought was interesting. These two written responses, the sole assessment mechanisms in the fall semester, demonstrate student interest and basic retention. Next is the library tour, during which students visit Government Documents, the reference desk, a computer lab, and portions of the library’s art collection, two of our large, popular public study spaces, and Archives and Special Collections.

Prior to 2013, the library’s collaboration ended with the fall semester. However, in 2013, for the first time, students expressed a desire to “choose the library” for their academic seminar, and asked what they would do in a library seminar. There was no library option in place, but because there was now interest, it only made sense to develop a spring seminar. There was no time to have a curriculum ready for spring 2014, so the spring was spent meeting with the STAR coordinator, who agreed to support a library seminar. I saw an opportunity to intervene even earlier than is traditionally done. I explained what a six-week seminar’s curriculum would look like, and with STAR’s logistical details and programmatic requirements clear, I began drafting a curriculum.


The basic one-shot information literacy session was the skeleton for the syllabus, and searching, evaluating and using sources, and compiling a bibliography, would all be important IL skills to be learned during this seminar. The goal was to provide a foundation, to introduce important themes early, especially since it might be two years or more before these students revisit the library for an information literacy session.

The six weeks (Week 1: Introduction to Research & Keywords; Week 2: Using the Catalog to Search for Books; Week 3: Articles and Databases; Week 4: Special Collections; Week 5: Other Sources; and Week 6: Final Presentations and Wrap-Up) followed the same schedule as the fall sessions: six consecutive Fridays, from 9:00-10:30am. To complement each week’s content, I used a combination of ACRL Thresholds/Frameworks and Common Core State Standards. I employed them in their broadest sense, and though not evident to the students, they provided a solid foundation for my curriculum, as described below.

Finally, to provide thematic structure to the students’ research, “Brooklyn” was the seminar’s overarching theme. Students were encouraged to choose three narrower themes within “Brooklyn”: Brooklyn and Nature, Brooklyn and Art/Architecture, and Your Brooklyn Neighborhood. With some minor tweaking, the formalized curriculum became the syllabus, which also served as a worksheet for weekly questions and to record progress.

As is often the case with library programming, the program needed support from other units. It was necessary to work with the acting archivist, since we would spend one week in Special Collections using primary sources. We ensured that the archives had materials which would interest these students, and which would supplement their research. We planned to meet during the fourth week, after enough classroom discussion and practice to make using primary sources meaningful.

For the fullest experience possible, it was imperative that the students be able to check out books, so I also needed support from our Circulation/Access Services staff to ensure this group could get access cards borrowing privileges.  Our Access Services staff provided temporary access and borrowing passes. With all these pieces in place, the program was ready.

At the end of the fall semester, fourteen students out of ninety opted for the new library seminar. We called the pilot program “Exploring Brooklyn through the Library,” and launched it in spring 2015.

Pilot Program: “Exploring Brooklyn Through the Library”

When the library seminar began in the spring, I reacquainted the students to the library with the Library in a Nutshell presentation, previewed expectations for the seminar, and discussed what the group would be working on over the next six weeks by going through the syllabus. I gave them their folders, which contained their worksheet, a temporary library card and access form, my contact information, a “library locations” bookmark, a handout detailing their library privileges, a “conducting research” handout, and a pen (their favorite).

Week 1: Welcome Back & Introduction

The first session, and indeed the entire program itself, used the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Threshold Research as Inquiry (ACRL, 2016a), and the Common Core State Standard ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.7 which expects students to learn how to “conduct a short as well as more sustained research project to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation” (Common Core State Standard Initiative, 2016b), as its foundations.

Next, our discussion moved to why research is done, who researchers are, who reads and uses research, and different modes of doing research. I queried the group to see how they felt about research, how they saw themselves doing it at school or elsewhere in their lives. I asked them to draw “the research process,” to show, on paper, what it looked like to them. To prompt them, I pointed out that they actually do research every day: every time they look up the weather, or comparison shop for clothes, for example. At the end of the six weeks, they would again illustrate research, this time with six weeks of experience and conversation to inform their drawings. We discussed types of sources and different types of reliability, and the distinction between freely available online resources and those that an academic library can provide. This discussion, predicated on the ACRL Threshold Searching as Strategic Exploration (ACRL, 2016a), laid the groundwork for the succeeding weeks.

Next we discussed keywords in order to narrow their research topics into keywords and phrases. On their worksheets, they listed general and more specific keywords and phrases, and possible synonyms for their topics. The group used this list to search for primary, secondary, and other sources, with the understanding that at any point, they had the agency to change their words/phrases.

Before the group left for they day, they completed their access forms, and received activated barcodes at Circulation so they could borrow books.

Week 2: Books

Our discussion covered the main elements of information production: the different kinds of books, who reads them, how they are written and published, and how the collection of books at an academic library might differ from the collection at a public library.

The demonstration of the catalog included keyword/phrase searching, the use of basic Boolean operators, and interpreting results; then the group searched for a title or author of their choosing. We discussed why certain results might be coming up, and how to find more information about the books so they could make educated choices about which ones to use for research.

Once they found titles that interested them, they went into the stacks to find the books. I showed them , and the online map the catalog provides, to figure out what floors their books were on. After ten minutes on their own, I went to offer help. Some found their books, some were browsing and finding other books, and some were having trouble. In the end, all had one book to bring back to the classroom.

Back in the classroom, the students evaluated their books. Some felt the books they found fit their research topic, while others felt they did not. Those who were happy with their texts began recording on their worksheets what they felt was valuable. The others spent some time searching for different titles, and then finding them in the stacks.

Finally, we talked about plagiarism, I showed them a citation for a book in APA style, and they created their own for the books they found.

Week 3: Background Information and Articles

Building on the basic searching and evaluating skills from the previous week, during week 3 we shifted our focus to finding background information first, then scholarly articles. We used Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVRL) to search for background information. This was a prime moment to discuss other freely available online encyclopedia sources, and why a researcher would choose a resource like GVRL, one that provides many more perspectives and a higher degree of reliability. Students found an entry in GVRL, recorded it, and created its citation.

Prior to searching for articles, we discussed popular and scholarly sources as the types of resources they can find in databases, the characteristics of these two main types of publications, and that they can find such resources in databases that they would not be able to find freely available on the web (and why this is so). After a demonstration of EBSCO’s Academic Search Complete, the students found one article each, and created citations for their articles.

Week 4: Special Collections

Week 4’s visit to Special Collections aligned with the Common Core State Standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2, the goal of which is for students to “Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2016a). For our visit, the college’s archivist had pre-selected resources (photographs, maps, newspaper articles, and diaries), as well as books some students found in the catalog, for the group. The archivist presented for half of the session, highlighting the library’s collection development mission, and how important primary sources are to research, after which the students investigated and researched the available primary sources. We returned to the classroom to discuss how they could use primary sources in their research, and what primary sources they have at home. The group also recorded, on their worksheets, information about the primary source(s) they investigated, as well as creating a citation for their source.

Week 5: Other Resources (Video, Blog, Digital Image, Zines, etc.)

In our penultimate session, we focused on differently formatted resources, such as videos, blogs, and zines, as well as popular news sources. We used the ACRL threshold Information is Constructed and Contextual (2016a) to illustrate how information in different forms originates, and how information can be viewed differently depending on its context. Using the CRAAP test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose), I showed the group how to evaluate a website and other information they might come across online. They then paired up, and did a search in Google on their research topic. They picked the first or second website, as long as it wasn’t Wikipedia, and used the themes of the CRAAP test to evaluate the source. If the source was reliable, they created a citation for it. If it wasn’t, they recorded why it wasn’t, and then did a new search narrowing it down by adding .org or .edu to their search terms, then selected a new website to evaluate.  Next, we talked about news sources: which are reliable and trustworthy; the presence of bias in news reporting; and local versus national reporting. The Freddie Gray story was fresh in the news, and greatly piqued the students’ interest. In fact, they suggested this subject as a current news story worth of research. So, using New York Times via Lexis-Nexis and New York Times Historical database, the group researched current new stories. At the end, for both sources, students created citations.

Week 6: Wrap-Up

In our final meeting, though we lacked time for individual presentations, the group discussed what they had learned over the past five weeks. They put all of their citations together into a complete bibliography. To complement the discussion, and to bookend the pilot, I passed out the research illustrations the group made in week 1, and asked them to do one now to see how their ideas about research had changed, which had remained the same, and what they might add to their illustrations.


In order to evaluate the program for myself, and to present successes and challenges to colleagues in the STAR program office, I gauged student and program success in three ways.

The worksheets provided instant feedback about weekly lessons. I used students’ answers to questions/personal reflections, such as “What is a primary source? What kinds of primary sources might you have at home?”, to ensure I was not going too quickly or overwhelming them with content. The responses also showed how quickly students were absorbing conversations about content, and how quickly they were able to digest the content and manipulate it in their own language (see Figure 1).


Figure 1

The short exercises (find the book, find an article), coupled with citation creation, demonstrated progressive skills building by showing that the students understood concepts and were able to apply them.

Finally, the “How I did research” illustrations showed  “before and after” pictures of the group’s various interpretations of the research process. In the first class session, the students preferred basic, mostly text-based responses. The final illustrations were more detailed, and incorporated library resources and information literacy “language,” such as “primary sources” and “database.” Thus, in six short weeks, the students’ conceptions of research had expanded and taken on a more academic dimension.

Success, Challenges, & Beyond

As with any pilot program, there will always be challenges, room for improvement, and happy (and not so happy) surprises.  Recalibrating the fall sessions to use the Library in a Nutshell presentation, also set up the starting point for the spring sessions. The Library in a Nutshell worked better than the information literacy sessions of previous years for two reasons. The slideshow is visual and colorful, and at nine in the morning, nothing fails faster than a dull, text-heavy presentation. Furthermore, the highly visual presentation encouraged a more interactive and conversational session. For example, when discussing the different ways librarians can help with research, students have asked what it takes to become a librarian. This leads to discussions of post-secondary education and job choices. Now, when they come back in the spring, they already have an idea of what awaits them, and thus the easing of students into college-level research has begun.

Students enjoy “testing the catalog” to see if their favorite book is in the library, and searching on their own gives them a sense of agency. One student commented in 2015: “I liked learning information about libraries and how they get their book [sic] etc. It was interesting looking up books on my own it made me feel independent.” This exercise also sets up deeper searching in the spring session.

From a practical perspective, there are components of the syllabus that need attention and change. Despite my attention to the phenomenon of transition, and despite the above successes, the leap from the fall sessions to the spring ones was, at times, still too much for the first group of students. For example, the worksheets I developed were ambitious in terms of both scope and time required and will be modified for use in future classes either by reducing the number of weekly questions, or by giving students the option to answer a selection of the whole.

With less time spent on answering worksheet questions, there will be more time for conversations. The class’s tendency to engage in spontaneous discussions of relevant issues, like copyright, was an added benefit to the experience, though one that took time away from other scheduled exercises. Building in more conversation time should allow for these important sidebars without delaying the entire curriculum.

An important part of the experience is to have a tangible product at its culmination. Because the first group had many great questions, and because it took longer than predicted to work through the content, the group missed the opportunity to put together a presentable object that showed their progression. The revision of the worksheets and curriculum will allow time for the students to be able to give short presentations, rounding out the program.

In future semesters, new collaborations with teachers at STAR’s high school will strengthen the ties of the library program to the high school curriculum. The librarian will work with STAR’s high school librarian and science teacher to align the theme with what the students are currently working on in their ninth grade Earth Science curriculum.  This strengthened collaboration will be grounded in a more rigorous application of ACRL standards (2016b) specific to the needs of locating, using, and evaluating science information. Future iterations of this program will involve more directly these science standards to prepare students for subject specific research (Scaramozzino, 2010).

For this pilot, when discussing scholarly resources and databases, the focus was primarily on subscription library resources. However, because STAR students will not have remote access to the library’s resources until their junior year, and because the goal is to improve college readiness and information literacy (part of which, it can be argued, includes time management and working from home), I plan to include NOVELNY resources in future seminars. NOVELNY resources (select Gale databases) are available to New York state residents free of charge, and cover topics such as business, current events, and health, and provide information to consumers, educators, job seekers, and students (NOVELNY, 2016). If they do not come to the library to access resources before they enroll in credit-bearing classes, they can still research and find resources elsewhere.


College readiness is comprised of many components, one of which is successfully identifying, navigating, and using scholarly and popular resources at an academic library. It is natural, then, that an academic library partners with early college students in a more profound way, to augment the college immersion experience, and to build an information literacy foundation which will inform students’ work as they take high school and credit-bearing courses. As librarians partnering with these programs, we need to anticipate student needs before they enroll in college courses.


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