Making the dream of college a reality

Advisers: A nonprofit group focuses on boosting the number of city students who go on to higher education.

April 16, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Rachael Darge doesn't mind that Michael Branagan didn't begin thinking about whether he wanted to go to college until March 1, a crucial deadline for mailing financial aid forms and a time when most students are waiting for acceptance letters.

She's not disheartened that the Patterson High School senior hasn't taken the SATs or that he eluded her - his college adviser - for three weeks until she got her scouts to round him up.

Darge has Branagan at her office door, and she is not letting the lanky teen-ager with slicked strawberry blond hair and a shy grin escape. "You have made my day! Sit down. Here is your application. You are going to fill it out now," she orders.

Darge is one of nine full-time college guidance counselors that a local nonprofit group, CollegeBound Foundation, hired and placed in Baltimore's neighborhood high schools this year to boost college admissions.

She is there to shepherd dozens of students, build their confidence and confront their fears that they aren't good enough to go to college, that they won't get financial aid, that they will "fail" the SATs or that their parents won't let them go.

They come from high schools where as many as half of the students drop out, the majority are low-income and only a fraction go to four-year colleges. The SAT scores are low at Patterson - an average of 714 out of a possible 1600 points, math and verbal combined.

Patterson and the eight other zoned high schools are where students who don't have the grades to get into a top citywide school, such as City College, end up.

Darge arrived last fall at the 1,800-student campus, which is wedged between Interstate 95 and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in East Baltimore. She was recruited by CollegeBound while pursuing a master's degree in education at Towson University. At 24, with a warm manner and black ringlets that cascade down her back, she's not much older than the students she advises.

Although Darge expected the worst, she found students such as valedictorian Shalaah Watson, who wants to be a neurosurgeon. Accepted at Loyola College, St. Mary's College and Frostburg State, Watson is waiting to hear from the Johns Hopkins University.

But there were many more students who didn't dare dream that they could go to college. That was the case for Jeanette Cash, who was expelled for a month last fall after she fought with another girl in the hall. "Me and my mom had to fight to get me back in," she said.

"Ever since that, I realized I have to be more productive. I didn't want to miss college. Nobody else in my family went to college. I wanted to be the first one," Cash said.

She will go to a community college in the fall and hopes to transfer to University of Maryland, Baltimore County so she can become a geriatric nurse.

In the eyes of Darge, Cash has traveled miles in just half a year.

Then there was the really tough case of Paris Woodard, 18, tenacious enough to take the SATs five times, until he got to the high 900s, but so nervous and uncertain about his future that he didn't seem able to complete the essays and college applications.

His friend, Watson, worked with Darge and others to get Woodard into college. "We had to strangle him. `Where's your stuff? Where are you going?'" Watson said. "They held him down until he wrote his essay."

Without the support of Darge and friends, Woodard said, "I probably would have let this whole opportunity slip away."

Instead, he is now thinking about going to Frostburg with his best friend, and is waiting to hear from St. Mary's College.

Darge will do whatever she needs to help the students. She gets classmates to round up recalcitrant students. She puts them in her office or the library until they finish an application or essay.

Although there is open enrollment in community colleges for students who graduate from high school, college doesn't become real to many of the students at Patterson until they hold a letter of acceptance in their hand.

Sometimes that is all that's needed, she said, to set them on course.

But sometimes it isn't. Statistics from Baltimore City Community College show that 70 percent of their students from city high schools must take remedial classes in math and English before they are able to take college courses. And about 50 percent of the students in remedial classes will drop out.

Even a student with a 3.5 grade point average at Patterson might have to take a remedial class, Darge acknowledged.

So why spend so much time pushing students into college when they may be so ill-prepared by the school system that the struggle to catch up will be too much and they will drop out?

Craig E. Spilman, a former city middle school principal who is executive director of CollegeBound, explained it this way: "There are so many diamonds to be mined."

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