Just outside Teresa Monroe’s classroom at Caldwell Elementary, a copy of her Towson University diploma hangs above two photographs: on the left, Monroe smiles sweetly in a kindergarten-era school portrait; on the right, she poses in her Towson University cap and gown.  

The display drives home the message of Caldwell Elementary: The journey to college begins now. No excuses. 

As students move through the halls of the campus, they are immersed in an environment aimed at changing the way they perceive life after high school. University of Arkansas hogs dangle from the ceiling, Texas A&M bulletin boards display student projects and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets glare from between lockers. Every classroom is decorated with the trappings of its adopted university.  

The journey to college begins now. No excuses.

It’s all designed to promote the “No Excuses University” program that Caldwell has adopted this year.

Founded by California principal Damen Lopez in 2004, the No Excuses University model is changing the way elementary schools -- and their students -- think about college-preparedness by creating “exceptional systems” in the following areas:

1) culture of universal achievement

2) collaboration

3) standards alignment 

4) assessment 

5) data

6) interventions.

“The No Excuses University model is important because it begins promoting college readiness for students the moment they enter elementary school,” said Lopez. “To wait until high school to prepare our students for college ignores the massive amount of data about the importance of a college degree and sets our students up for failure.”

For many of Caldwell’s students, the prospect of college is an “unknown,” something too far away and unattainable to consider. Their teachers intend to change that. 

“The goal is that, when our kids leave from K-5th grade, they have exposure to so many different universities that college isn’t an ‘unknown’ to them,” said 5th grade teacher Kelly Phillips. 

“We want them to leave with the thought that anybody can go to college if they are ready and they work hard and apply themselves,” she said. 

And, at Caldwell, preparation for college is promoted at every opportunity. 

“Everything we do with the kids, we talk about why we’re doing it, what it’s going to do for the kids, why they need to know it,” said Phillips, “instead of just giving them information and saying, ‘Learn it because I said so.’ We’re trying to give them the reason for it.”

That preparation for the future is having a positive impact now. 

Second-grade dual language teacher Patricia Bernal said that, in the past, she has seen that many of her students have been focused on just getting through the school year and moving on to the next grade, with little or no thought given to the bigger picture. Now, a shift in their attitude is evident.

“The self-discipline of the kids has grown,” Bernal said. “They are more aware of what they have to change. Right now, they want to go to college, and they are planning their future already. So, they have to start becoming self-disciplined. And you can see that change in their self-discipline and behavior.”

Bernal and her colleagues establish the foundation for that self-discipline by guiding students to explore the career opportunities that await them and to grasp what it takes to attain those careers.

“They are not aware that they can be whatever they want, and we [tell them about different] universities and what they can study,” she said. “If you [talk] to kids about being electrical engineers, they have no idea what they are going to do. So you start talking about what an electrical engineer does, or an architect, or a communications professional or what they have to study for [a career in] television. They are very aware that they have to start changing right now.” 

Fifth-grader Elian Diosdado gets that. “[You have] to focus and to study more and to work hard and [make] no excuses. Just do your work because if you don’t do it, you’re not going to complete your dream.”

First-grader Grace Garner dreams of a degree from the University of North Texas, and like Elian, she understands what it will take to get there. “[I’m] going to need to work hard and study and pay attention.” And while Grace is not sure yet which career path she will pursue, she’s working on it.

As far as Caldwell Elementary is concerned, college is the target for every student that walks through their doors from kindergarten on up. No exceptions.

“Right now, you can’t tell me that there is a kindergarten kid who can’t go to college,” said Phillips. “We don’t know that about that kid. So, we’re going to set the expectations really, really high in hopes that they will really, really take that to heart and expect it of themselves.”

And, perhaps one day, every Caldwell Elementary student will hang two photographs on the wall -- photographs that bookmark their journey from kindergarten to a college diploma. 

There are plenty of challenges that await them. But there are no excuses. 

For additional information on the No Excuses University network of schools, visit http://turnaroundschools.com/neu-network/.