The situation is especially acute when it comes to college counseling. Take Northeast High School, where just seven counselors handle the more than 3,000 students.
Though Northeast is one of the city’s strongest comprehensive high schools – about half of its graduates go on to college, compared with 36 percent citywide – it’s not strong enough, leaders say.
“We knew we had the kids who had the ability, but we didn’t have the resources – enough counselors, enough parent input – to get the kids where they need to be,” said principal Linda Carroll, who lost two counselors this school year.
Northeast’s students are diverse and mostly low-income. Many are immigrants and would be the first in their families to go to college. Unlike students at suburban and independent schools, they lack the networks to provide things such as internships and summer programs, prompt them to take the SATs, help them fill out financial-aid forms.
Many city students feel overwhelmed by the paperwork, the choices, the deadlines, the finances.
As Northeast senior Brenden Mixson put it: “I know I want to go to college, but I didn’t know how to do it.”
Enter Philadelphia Futures, the nonprofit that helps promising low-income city students get into college and then succeed there. Traditionally, it has handpicked a select group of teens – currently, 176 high school students citywide – for intensive, long-term mentoring, academic enrichment, guidance, and funds for college-related expenses.
But Futures wants to do more.
This year, it’s launched a one-year pilot program for 31 Northeast seniors. There will be scholarship workshops and lessons in how to select the right mix of schools, advice on crafting essays, and help navigating student loans.
Though Futures’ staff is working closely with the students, school social worker Terrence E. Dillon, counselor Andrew Dunakin, and teacher Christopher Frank are also involved, and will help train other staff to help spread aspects of the program to other Northeast students.
“We want them to change the culture at Northeast,” said Frank, a social studies teacher and the National Honor Society sponsor.
Why Northeast? Because the persistent Dillon asked. With the district’s resources shrinking, it’s important to knock on lots of doors, he said.
“This is a social justice issue,” said Dillon. “Our kids deserve the same resources as suburban kids.”
The work is not cheap – Philadelphia Futures officials estimate it will cost the organization about $25,000 to help 31 Northeast students this year – but officials said they’re committed to seeing it through.
“There is such a need for intensive, long-term sustained relationships with students,” said Joan C. Mazzotti, Philadelphia Futures’ executive director. “That’s how we’re going to make an impact.”
Last week, the students spent four days in a crowded basement classroom in an intensive boot camp: preparing senior year to-do lists, working on resumés, learning about different kinds of applications and, setting a path for the rest of the year.
“If you can hear me, clap once,” Futures precollege program director Ann-Therese Ortiz told the class one afternoon, settling them down after a break. “If you want to make a lot of money for college, clap a lot.”
The room exploded in applause. Bonnie Lee Behm, Villanova University’s director of financial assistance, took over, explaining how financial aid works. (Villanova’s total costs are $56,745 annually, but if your expected family contribution is $5,000, that means you have financial need of $51,745, and it’s Behm’s job to help make school affordable.)
“We realize that many of our students can’t pay our costs, so we have to discount that,” said Behm. “We want to make it an even playing field. We want to make it so you can do this.”
She fired off tips – financial deadlines are set in stone; don’t lose out on free money because you miss them. Don’t fall for sites that offer to help fill out financial aid forms for a fee. Call and ask questions if you have them.
Several students looked relieved.
Candyce Schmidt said she felt overwhelmed by the pile of college mail accumulating at home.
“I didn’t even know where to start,” said Schmidt.
Inesha Smith “was stressing about not knowing much about college, and not knowing how to pay for it.”
But they felt better after seeing the calendar the Futures staff had laid out for them, complete with individual meetings with students and their families and workshops for polishing interview skills and reviewing financial aid packages.
The Northeast staffers had told the group that Futures was the gold standard of college prep, and to realize that in a way, they’d won the lottery. They would have to work hard, but they would have the tools to go to college.
“I feel blessed,” said Mixson, who asked lots of questions and plans on studying political science at either Hampton University in Virginia or Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.
Of course, the Northeast pilot doesn’t solve the district’s college-going issues. There are 56 other high schools that have no such program, and with a budget hole of more than $700 million, it’s unlikely the district will be able to help.
Both district officials and Mayor Nutter have set getting more students to college as a goal, but there is much work to be done.
Mazzotti, the Philadelphia Futures director, is hoping this one-year test has big results.
“We do want to work with the School District as they manage this budget crisis,” Mazzotti said. “We want to see if we can get this funded so we can roll this out to more schools.”
©2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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