Florida’s Doral College is a special place. Unlike other higher-ed institutions, it was founded in cooperation with public charter school nonprofit organizations to serve charter school students. Doral provides college-level courses and co-curricular opportunities to high schoolers, most of whom are students of color and come from underserved communities.
I have been a part of Doral’s faculty and administration since its founding in 2012. During that time, I’ve taught a seminar class at the college in legal and ethical analysis of contemporary issues. As part of the class, my high-school-age students prepare for and compete in intercollegiate ethics competitions, including the National Undergraduate Bioethics Bowl and the International Business Ethics Case Competition.
Coaching students for these competitions as part of my “ethics class” has been the most rewarding experience of my education career. In addition to giving my high schoolers the opportunity to compete in college-level competitions, the class also boosts their critical thinking and research skills through a “learning-by-doing” educational approach. The workload is heavy and the material difficult, but my students rise to the occasion each year because they are motivated by the prospect of getting to take on students from the nation’s best colleges.
And “take on” they do. These Doral kids work hard, and they have the results to show for it. My students (some as young as 15) posted an undefeated record at the National Undergraduate Bioethics Bowl in 2014, besting schools such as the University of Washington and New Mexico State in head-to-head debate. And in 2017, they won the Emmons Prize for Best 25 Minute Presentation at the International Business Ethics Case Competition, outscoring the likes of Boston College and UMass-Amherst.
It has been a privilege to work with these remarkable young people. And though I am not a career teacher, my experience with this class has taught me a few important lessons:
- Students can exceed even the highest of expectations—if you make the goal worth it for them. Year after year, these kids achieve incredible learning outcomes. And they do it because they want to excel at the competitions. They want to show the country what high school kids can do. They put in a ton of work, and that work empowers them to overcome a lot of obstacles. It empowers them to learn material typically taught to upper-level undergrads and grad students. It empowers them to analyze complicated legal concepts. It empowers them to debate in their second language against elite college students. Teenagers are remarkable. They can do amazing things when we give them goals worth achieving.
- Learning by doing can lead to great outcomes. Learning by doing is a central component of the class. I could conceivably teach the subject matter more conventionally by assigning textbook readings, lecturing each class, and then assessing my students with a bunch of essays and tests. But I imagine my students would abhor that approach (as would their instructor!), and I don’t think they would learn as much. Granted, my class does feature some standard lecturing and assignments, but for the most part, my students learn the material by working with it to prepare for the competitions. Frankly, they learn more from preparing with each other than from anything I say in class. And that’s the way it should be.
- Charter Education Opens Doors. As I look back on what these incredible kids have done, I can’t help but think of the role that the charter school movement has played in creating these opportunities for them. My high schoolers would have never been able to participate in intercollegiate competitions in a typical dual enrollment program, but they could at Doral College. And Doral College does not happen without the leadership of a number of innovative charter nonprofit organizations. Forward-thinking initiatives like Doral represent the promise of charter education, and my students have been the beneficiaries.
Ryan Kairalla is an instructor and general counsel at Doral College in Doral, Fla.