DREAM Charter High School proudly graduated its third-ever 12th-grade class last month, a cohort of 96 seniors, 95% of whom are Black or Hispanic, and 28% of whom have identified special needs. Together, the class of 2023 achieved a 100% college acceptance rate, including an average of eight acceptances per student, and garnered more than $2 million in funding for college.
While a true testament to the class of 2023’s talent and dedication, these postsecondary accolades are also a result of the strategy and work executed by DREAM’s Office of College Access and Postsecondary Success (OCAPSS), led by Director of College Briana Avery. After joining DREAM in August 2020, shortly before the start of the college application process for DCHS’s first-ever graduating class, she has developed the OCAPSS team into a supportive group of counselors and mentors advocating for DREAM’s students as they pursue the next part of their academic journeys.
Find out more about Briana—who is also the 2023 recipient of the New York State Association for College Admissions Counseling’s Inclusion, Access, and Success Award—in the Q&A below.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
DREAM: Can you tell me a little about your background and how you got into college access work?
Briana Avery: I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. That’s something I always proudly share because my community is what made me, and I think that’s something that really ties in with the DREAM mission. I wouldn’t be who I am if I was not raised in Flint.
I went to public schools in Flint my entire life, and it was a student who was a year older than me—who received the Millenium Gates Scholarship and ended up going to Yale—who told me I should apply for the scholarship. And then it was my best friend Alice and her family who guided me through the college process. I really just did what Alice did. Her mom was a teacher, her dad was a lawyer, and they had a better sense of what they were doing. I was top of my class, involved in many activities, but there were no systems or structures in my high school to ensure I was successful. I applied to a robust college list because Alice did. I applied for the scholarship because another student told me to.
I ended up getting into NYU, and with the Gates Scholarship I was able to fully fund my college experience. But as I was going through college and seeing my peers back home who were more talented than me but not able to experience the same things, I realized I was a product of luck, and that isn’t fair to Black and brown students. It isn’t fair in communities of color.
I decided I wanted to learn about why there were no systems supporting kids of color in communities like my own, and that’s what I focused my undergrad education on. I then had the opportunity to join the College Advising Corps after graduating. Knowing how impactful college counseling could have been in my community, I wanted to learn as much as I could by becoming a college advisor, and that was how I started my career.
DREAM: DREAM has had a great deal of success with its college access work, considering DREAM Charter High School was founded just a short time ago. What do you attribute that success to?
BA: The things we do are tested college access strategies. What makes us exceptional are the people that we have. I think that also comes from having very clear and high expectations for our students and understanding how urgent this work is.
The reason this work is important to me is because it’s racial justice work—it is making sure students of color have access to opportunities that they have long been intentionally blocked from, and our team has that same level of urgency and mission alignment in our work. We are all able to consistently ground ourselves in the urgency of the work, the importance of it, and even in moments where we are giving feedback to each other, it’s because of how urgent and important the mission is. We are in the business of young people and their lives and their futures, and we know what our students are able to do impacts their communities, and their families, and sets them up for generational success.
DREAM: College access doesn’t always mean college persistence. How does the goal of persistence play a role in DREAM’s college access strategy?
BA: The goal is to get young people to and through their postsecondary pathway. For students going to college, we talk a lot about fit and match, and the importance of our young people going to schools that are comfortable, academically rigorous, supportive, and that also give them a financial aid package that doesn’t cause them financial hardships. Those are all factors that help them persist.
We also do a lot of community building with colleges. We are really selective with the schools we support our students applying to. We want schools that have a track record of supporting and graduating students of color. We rely heavily on New York State opportunity programs to provide extra support, because we know our students are going to have questions, and they don’t always have someone in their close family circle who has gone to college and knows how to navigate those spaces.
We are also intentional in the way in which we transition students to our Legends programming. In order to graduate, each student has to have a 30-minute meeting with their college counselor and their college success coordinator on the Legends Team in order for them to get to know each other, talk about their strengths, their fears, their hopes, their dreams. We know that relationships matter so much in this process, especially when you’re an 18-year-old experiencing something new for the first time. You need people who you know are in your corner.
DREAM: Why are college access and persistence so important to fulfilling DREAM’s overall mission?
BA: Persistence is important because outcomes for students who go to college and don’t graduate are only marginally different than when they graduated high school. We want students to live choice-filled lives, which includes having benefits, having career advancement opportunities. Those are things that come from completing whatever your postsecondary pathway is. It’s also important that our young people are critically conscious and engaged back in their communities, and they really aren’t able to engage to the full extent until they’ve made it all the way through that pathway.
DREAM: You’re also a part of many organizations, like the College Access Consortium of New York and the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling. How does that engagement with the wider college access community enhance your work at DREAM?
BA: It only increases the resources, opportunities, and information that students have. Ultimately the goal of any college access programming should be for every student to have access to information and opportunities to make the decision that’s best for them. And that’s what we always come back to—making sure that young people have information and the support to act on it. Everything we do falls into one of those two buckets. The more connected we are in the outside world, the more we have to share back with our students. Especially considering the Affirmative Action ruling on race-conscious admissions, having those connections is going to be even more important.
DREAM: How have recent rulings on Affirmative Action changed DREAM’s college access strategy, if at all?
BA: I think there’s a lot of concern around the Affirmative Action decision, but I’m not sure I’d argue that admissions to top-tier institutions were equitable in the first place. The level of hoops our young people have to jump through to compete against legacy and other special admissions has always been steep, so we have really intentional strategies. There have always been additional hurdles for students of color in the admissions process, and sometimes that’s lost in the conversation.
In terms of shifts in our strategy—we acknowledge that this won’t impact admissions to CUNY schools or SUNY schools. Where there will be impact will be to the top 25% of our students applying to highly selective institutions. Schools that are historically white, those are the schools that are going to almost be working to demonstrate that they’re not giving preferential treatment to black applicants. So it’s scary. How do we protect our students—who are amazing, who have earned everything given to them, who deserve the world—when their admissions to these institutions can be complete game-changers in their trajectory?
We had this conversation with our counseling team, and we’re going to continue to do the things we know we do well. We’re going to continue to build community with these institutions, invite them into our space to meet our students, advocate with them for our young people, and continue to put ourselves in professional circles where we can continue to build those relationships. We’re going to get our kids on campus, too. Those are the things we’ve always done, and those are the things we’re going to lean into more, because we know that in states where Affirmative Action has been considered illegal for years, that is what has made the difference. Is it going to be a little harder? Yes. Am I confident in our team and our strategy? 100%.
DREAM: How is DREAM’s college access work different from other networks?
BA: A lot of that is in who DREAM is. We’re rooted so much in community and family. There’s a different energy and expectation that we have of our office and college counselors. I say all the time that we have the best college counselors anywhere, because that’s what our students deserve, and that means as a team we hold each other accountable for doing the best and serving our young people thoroughly. Everyone is all-in, and we believe in the importance of what’s at stake. These are young people and young people’s families, and this is a community that many of us live in or have worked in for years. The work is just really urgent, and the work is very personal.
In terms of skills, our counselors are involved in college access communities both locally and nationally, which allows them to engage in different kinds of professional development, and understand different skills and topics, and meet people who do things differently. It’s easy to feel very siloed or isolated in college counseling—generally, there’s a single college counselor in a school, maybe two if you’re lucky. So if you don’t have a network, you really feel alone. Our engagement in outside communities helps our team stay on top of what’s new, what’s coming, and what people are doing in their schools. And there’s an expectation that we share best practices with other communities. It helps level the playing field for students and counselors who don’t have access to the same network or resources that we do.
We also have systems and structures at DREAM that make it really easy for us to identify when a student is falling behind, and have a number of different people who can support in that moment. We’re lucky to have an in-house success program. At public schools across the country, that’s not normal, and having the Legends Team here, meeting with students, talking to seniors about what the transition to college will look like—those are things that reinforce our college access programming.