College is a viable goal

Guidance: With strong direction from adults, Dundalk High students are changing course and no longer cruising through senior year.

October 17, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | By Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Christina Heagy's mom dropped out of school at 16. She manages a local KFC. Her dad didn't finish school either. He works two jobs now.

Her 21-year-old brother skipped college and headed for the National Guard. His girlfriend had a baby the day after Christmas.

For most of her 17 years, Heagy didn't know anyone who went to college.

Then she met G. Scott Kilpatrick. He's the guidance counselor whose job is to manage the futures of 300 high school seniors at Dundalk High School. It's not a place where many students have followed high school with a taste of college, or where Kilpatrick's spiel on deadlines for SATs and financial aid has meant much.

But this is the Class of 2002. Two years ago, when Heagy and her classmates were sophomores, Kilpatrick and the staff at Dundalk intervened. It wasn't enough to spread the gospel of college. The message had never really gotten through.

In the Class of 2000, just 19 percent of Dundalk's graduates moved on to a four-year college; only 11 percent went to community college, despite the presence of the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus literally at the high school's back door. There are no statistics on how many stayed.

So Kilpatrick and company took steps to put their students on the path to higher education - testing them to see where they stood and whether they could make it in college. If it looked as though the prospects would be slim if students maintained their status quo, Kilpatrick helped them change course in time to make a difference.

And instead of allowing students to wait until graduation day to think about what comes next, as Heagy sheepishly acknowledges she would have done, Dundalk High is not only talking about college, but funneling students into CCBC while they're still in high school.

"Kids respond to data," said Kim Stephanic, in her third year as Dundalk's principal. "We're old to them. I can say it's really important that you focus. They're polite and they smile, but I'm an old lady. But I can sit down and show them their performance ... in time to do something about it.

"It's all about time."

For years - long before Kilpatrick and Stephanic arrived - a diploma from Dundalk High was a ticket to a well-paying job with good benefits at Bethlehem Steel or General Motors or Lever Brothers. That was when jobs were plentiful, when the skills needed to get a foot in the door were minimal.

"The economic conditions in this community have drastically changed," Stephanic said. "We're preparing kids for a world their parents didn't know."

Translation, she said: "We were sending too many kids out of here unprepared to meet many demands."

That is changing at Dundalk. Stephanic and Kilpatrick are opening new doors to students such as Heagy, showing them that college is an option, and holding their hands as they learn that their new dreams can come true, that college isn't too expensive or too hard, that they can be the first in their families to pursue school beyond the 12th grade.

With this early information, some were persuaded to take more classes - and more difficult classes. Stephanic quashed a longtime practice that allowed seniors to have nearly empty schedules, dotted with the two required classes, English and social studies. They need 21 credits to graduate - the four-period day allows for 32 over four years.

"What had become tradition was you took most of your senior year off," she said. "You had most of the day to do something. I'm not sure what they were doing, but I think Jerry Springer was involved."

"Or working a $5.50-an-hour job ... saying they were saving for college but taking the year off from science and math," Kilpatrick chimed in.

Instead, more than 130 students are taking courses at CCBC-Dundalk this year. Some take remedial reading and math courses, which they would otherwise have to take for full tuition but no credit as college freshmen. "We felt like we were letting our kids down," Stephanic said, when graduates arrived at community college and had to take courses in subjects they should have mastered in high school.

Other students take science or computer or psychology courses. They see on their own that college isn't so tough, that getting a degree isn't far-fetched.

They learn that teachers in college don't watch, hawk-like, to see if work is getting done. You can go to the bathroom without permission, walk the halls without a pass.

"I thought it'd be hard. All this homework. But I had fun over there," said Heagy, who plans to pursue a nursing degree at CCBC-Dundalk.

Chuck Swearingen, the union partnership coordinator at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant, graduated from Dundalk High in a different era, in 1969.

The next year, he went to work for the steel giant. He entered an apprenticeship program he calls "the equivalent of a four-year degree. It was 8,000 hours of training, a good portion of that was in the classroom.

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