Putting college within reach

Center: Educators strive to raise expectations for students at one of the city's worst-performing high schools.

January 25, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

With nearly half of Baltimore's high school freshmen never making it to graduation day, city school leaders could be forgiven if they focused on simply getting students to finish 12th grade and relegated college-entrance to a low-level priority.

But schools chief Carmen V. Russo has had higher expectations for the city's 14,000 high school students since she arrived two years ago. And despite a citywide 45 percent high school drop-out rate, she wants students to have those same expectations for themselves.

So it was a proud moment for the chief executive officer in the fall when the district opened its first College Center at Northwestern High School -- one of the city's worst-performing.

The placement of the center was symbolic: Even in one of the city's troubled zoned neighborhood high schools -- where 71 percent of freshmen don't graduate -- college isn't just a possibility. It can be a reality.

"We're trying to raise the expectations and the standards here for the students, so from freshman year on, they know they want to go to college and what they need to do," said Catherine Moser, who runs the center.

Northwestern's $60,000 College Center -- paid for with donations from local businesses -- is reminiscent of a high school guidance office, but bigger, more colorful and with a more pointed focus: moving on to college.

Russo said the opening of the center marks the beginning of big changes for the city's neighborhood high schools -- an area of the school system that she is determined to reform.

"This is more than a room. This is really a place where our young people can come share their dreams," she said. "When the reform effort is over, we're going to be able to walk into a college room very similar to this one in every one of those [neighborhood] high schools."

At Northwestern High, the center's shelves are filled with college pamphlets and SAT-preparation books. A television hooked up to a VCR enables students to take video tours of colleges and universities. Sleek computers give students electronic access to schools' Web sites and online applications.

Since it opened in October, the center has been popular, said Moser, whose official title is college access program specialist.

On a recent day, students lingered there much as they would at a university's student union building. Some stopped only long enough to poke their heads in to ask Moser a quick question or check for friends who were hanging out.

"Instead of this being a place to avoid, it's becoming the place to be seen," Russo said.

Many students visit to use the Internet because most don't have computers at home. But even the ones who do have computers find an excuse to visit regularly, Moser said.

And that excuse is usually Moser.

"It's hard to do it on your own," said Edwin Allen, a senior who wants to go to college but hasn't taken the SAT. "I need people to help me."

Personal touch

Allen's call for help is a common mantra in the center. Trained and experienced in all things college-related, Moser's trove of knowledge and personal touch give the students a leg-up that a glossy brochure can't offer.

"Seventy-five percent of the student body is first-generation [college-bound]," Moser said. "The parents don't know what to do. The students don't know what to do. They're really lost."

And although three-quarters of the city's graduates claim they want to go to college, officials say the number of seniors who make it is far lower.

"We're trying to change all that," Moser said. "We want to make everything available for them in one place, and schedule appointments for their parents to come in ... instead of having them flounder and do it themselves."

The obstacles she faces are daunting.

Sierra Rivers, 17, wants to be the first person in her family to go to college straight out of high school. But until Moser helped her, Rivers knew nothing about college entrance exams, scholarships or other financial aid, she said.

Her friend Quiana McCoy, 16, had no idea that college applications required essays.

And consider this recent conversation Moser had with a 17-year-old senior:

"I want to go to Princeton, Miss Moser," he says.

"You want to go to Princeton?" Moser asks, slightly surprised. "OK. What are your SAT scores?"

"4.0," he says.

"Um. You might want to rethink Princeton," Moser says.

Her observation wasn't meant to be negative. The student may or may not have a 4.0 grade-point average. But the fact that he didn't readily know the difference between his score on a college entrance exam and his GPA was telling.

And part of Moser's job is to help students set goals that are attainable, and then help them reach them.

"We see the potential in these students that they all have," Moser said.

Pushing college

Many students don't know -- even as late as their senior year -- just what it takes to get into college or what it will take to succeed once there.

To combat the overwhelming lack of knowledge, Moser spends a lot of time visiting classrooms, talking to students about college and the new center. Many teachers -- even some who teach only freshmen -- are scheduling class periods in the center.

"They have to kind of be led to the computers to get the process started and get them excited about it," said Richard Horowitz, a psychology teacher who marched his class to the center when it first opened. "So that's why this is good. And it looks like it might actually be working."

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