Project aims to steer stu­dents to­ward col­lege

Univer­sity costs re­main stiff bar­rier

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JU­LIA BROUIL­LETTE

As a D.C. high school ju­nior, Mikayla Hooks was over­whelmed by the prospect of go­ing to col­lege.

“The whole col­lege thing — I was lost,” she says, glanc­ing down at her hands. “I wasn’t think­ing about it. I didn’t even know where to start to think.”

An all-star ath­lete, Mikayla knew she wanted to con­tinue her cheer­lead­ing ca­reer af­ter grad­u­a­tion, but she lacked a clear, aca­demic di­rec­tion.

Mikayla is one of 190 se­niors at Bal­lou High School, where ev­ery grad­u­at­ing se­nior has ap­plied to col­lege this year — a first for the longstrug­gling school with one of the low­est grad­u­a­tion rates in the D.C. Pub­lic Schools sys­tem.

The per­cent­age of stu­dents at D.C. schools who grad­u­ate from high school in four years is at a his­toric high of 69 per­cent, but the city’s grad­u­a­tion rate still falls sig­nif­i­cantly short of the na­tional av­er­age — which is up­wards of 80 per­cent.

Over the past year the city has amped up its ef­forts to en­sure more stu­dents like Mikayla not only

grad­u­ate but also pur­sue their in­ter­ests af­ter grad­u­a­tion — whether by at­tend­ing col­lege, join­ing the mil­i­tary or en­ter­ing the work­force.

DCPS di­rected $4 mil­lion of its bud­get for this year to­ward hir­ing “Path­ways co­or­di­na­tors” — school-based ad­vis­ers tasked with mon­i­tor­ing the progress of a small group of stu­dents and keep­ing them on track for grad­u­a­tion.

Nel­son Greene be­came the Path­ways co­or­di­na­tor at Bal­lou in Au­gust, af­ter spend­ing seven years as a D.C. Col­lege Ac­cess Pro­gram ad­viser. He meets with about 40 stu­dents on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, and as­sists them with ev­ery­thing from draft­ing emails to fill­ing out ap­pli­ca­tions for col­lege or work­force de­vel­op­ment pro­grams.

His calm, col­lected de­meanor lends it­self to a high school ad­vi­sory role — but in the hall­ways, his bond with his stu­dents is un­mis­tak­able.

“You find a com­mon in­ter­est with stu­dents and de­velop a rapport around that,” Mr. Greene said. “You find out what the stu­dents re­ally like to do, and tie that into the workplace and into col­lege.”

For col­lege-bound stu­dents — par­tic­u­larly those at Bal­lou, lo­cated in a low-in­come South­east neigh­bor­hood — “the ma­jor need is fi­nan­cial,” he said.

“Stu­dents are be­ing ac­cepted, but now it’s about how are they go­ing to af­ford pay­ing for col­lege,” he said. “Those are some of the things I’m help­ing stu­dents with: find­ing schol­ar­ships, fill­ing out forms for aid or other things they’re el­i­gi­ble for.”

Mikayla has spent hours in Mr. Greene’s of­fice over the past few months, weigh­ing her op­tions and ex­plor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“I thought I’d have to pick which school I was go­ing to based off the money they gave me,” she said. “That’s what I was go­ing to do.”

An­dre Mur­rell, an­other Bal­lou se­nior, said Mr. Greene has been help­ing him sift through ca­reer op­tions. Al­though he ap­plied to col­lege with the rest of his class, he has since be­come more in­ter­ested in be­com­ing a D.C. fire­fighter.

“I wasn’t re­ally plan­ning on go­ing to col­lege,” he said, re­call­ing his hes­i­ta­tion. But when he learned about the Dis­trict’s fire­fighter cadet pro­gram, he felt a sense of re­solve.

“For stu­dents who aren’t col­lege-bound, some of the chal­lenges are find­ing the right per­son to talk to,” Mr. Greene said. “Much like the col­lege stu­dents who are try­ing to find the best col­lege for them, they’re try­ing to find a pro­gram that’s the best fit for them and their needs.”

Oth­ers in Mr. Greene’s co­hort are fo­cused on a more short-term goal: get­ting through high school.

‘Ev­ery­body has the same goal’

Cur­rently, the Dis­trict has about 1,500 stu­dents it cat­e­go­rizes as over­age and un­der­cred­ited, mean­ing stu­dents who are un­der the age of 24 and more than two years be­hind in class­work.

A mix­ture of miss­ing classes, fam­ily com­pli­ca­tions and so­ci­etal in­flu­ences can cause stu­dents to fal­ter in school, ac­cord­ing to Mr. Greene.

Part of his job is to iden­tify strug­gling stu­dents and coun­sel them to­ward post­sec­ondary suc­cess.

“The chal­lenges are dif­fer­ent for each stu­dent,” he said.

Re­gard­less of ob­sta­cles they may face, stu­dents at Bal­lou are de­ter­mined, he said. And for him, help­ing them flour­ish is more than worth­while.

“Mikayla isn’t the only stu­dent, An­dre isn’t the only stu­dent — but I feel that joy that they feel when they get that col­lege ac­cep­tance let­ter, or an email from a ca­reer acad­emy say­ing ‘hey, we’d love to talk to you,’ ” he said. “You get a sense of en­joy­ment when they ac­com­plish some­thing that they set out to do.”

An­other aim of the Path­ways pro­gram, DCPS of­fi­cials say, is to en­sure stu­dents are “mean­ing­fully con­nected to at least one staff mem­ber” at the school.

For many kids at Bal­lou, Mr. Greene is not sim­ply an­other adult ad­vis­ing them on aca­demics, he’s there to lis­ten to their strug­gles and cel­e­brate their suc­cesses in and out of school.

Mr. Greene was quick to point out that other ad­vis­ers at Bal­lou, in­clud­ing Col­lege and Ca­reer Co­or­di­na­tor Ja­manda Porter, are equally as in­volved in mak­ing sure stu­dents feel ready to pur­sue their am­bi­tions af­ter high school.

“I can’t re­ally say that I have a stronger re­la­tion­ship with the stu­dents than she does,” he said, re­fer­ring to Ms. Porter, who usu­ally be­gins work­ing with stu­dents as soon as they en­ter high school in ninth grade. “We work as a team here at Bal­lou, so ev­ery­body has the same goal.”

So far, Bal­lou, H.D. Wood­son and Ana­cos­tia High School are the only D.C. pub­lic schools with full-time col­lege and ca­reer co­or­di­na­tors, but DCPS plans to hire six oth­ers start­ing next school year.

Path­ways is ac­tive in all com­pre­hen­sive and al­ter­na­tive D.C. pub­lic high schools — 13 in to­tal — and will ex­pand to in­clude the Columbia Heights Ed­u­ca­tion Cam­pus next year.

“It’s a DCPS pri­or­ity to make sure that our stu­dents are get­ting ex­tra sup­port no mat­ter which path they’re go­ing on,” said schools spokes­woman Janae Hin­son.

But pro­vid­ing ex­tra sup­port to ev­ery one of Bal­lou’s 930-plus stu­dents is no small task, she said. Path­ways co­or­di­na­tors like Mr. Greene make sure stu­dents don’t slip out of the sys­tem un­no­ticed.

Through the pro­gram, the group of stu­dents Mr. Greene mon­i­tors — “my 40,” as he calls them — re­ceive more one-on-one at­ten­tion than they might other­wise. And as they leave Bal­lou, stu­dents will be able to rely on Mr. Greene. He said he will con­tinue to as­sist and be in con­tact with them as they nav­i­gate their cho­sen ca­reer path.

For Mikayla, the next step is Vir­ginia State Univer­sity, where she will be­gin study­ing so­cial work this fall.

She also was ac­cepted to Bowie State, Delaware State and Mor­gan State. She joked that her de­ci­sion came down to each school’s ath­letic depart­ment.

“It was an elim­i­na­tion process,” she said. “But it was also kind of be­tween Mor­gan and VSU’s cheer teams.”

Right now, what ex­cites her most about at­tend­ing col­lege is leaving her home­town.

“I’m over the whole D.C. thing,” she said. “I’m ready to go be ex­posed to new things and new peo­ple.”

JU­LIA BROUIL­LETTE/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Path­ways Co­or­di­na­tor Nel­son Greene coaches stu­dents like Mikalya Hooks to­ward a path that hope­fully will get her through a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. Mikayla has al­ready been ac­cepted at Vir­ginia State and other schools.

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