Western High student worries about college after school's application missteps

School system to take measures to prevent future problems, says discipline is possible in cases of incomplete applications

  • Cherry Abdou is a Western student whose college admission may have been compromised after the school failed to send some materials to colleges.
Cherry Abdou is a Western student whose college admission may… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
May 02, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Cherry Abdou says that from the moment she walked into Western High School four years ago, she has been crafting her college application.

The senior chose the college preparatory school hoping to get into a top premedical program when she graduated. She built a competitive resume, including an academic record that secured her title as the salutatorian of her class, a host of extracurricular activities including four years of lacrosse and presidency of the National Honor Society; and a transcript of mostly Advanced Placement and honors courses.

However, after applying to 12 colleges, Abdou was perplexed to receive nine rejections and one waiting-list notification in April.

"I was in a deep state of depression for a period of time," Abdou said, describing how it felt to watch her classmates receive acceptances to her first choice, the Johns Hopkins University, where she had done an internship in brain sciences and received a letter of recommendation from an assistant professor of neurology.

"I would get three [rejections] in a day, six in a week. It was really hard. I just didn't understand."

Alisha Trusty, principal at Western High School, revealed Friday on the school's website that the school system was investigating cases involving at least a dozen students whose college acceptances may have been compromised as a result of school staff failing to send pertinent documents to colleges.

Abdou was informed a few weeks ago that her case was among those being investigated, but she has not heard yet from the school system about whether her rejections were based on missing information.

City school officials said Monday that they were taking a number of measures to fully investigate the problem — now believed to involve about 14 students, down from a previously estimated 24 — and would respond by providing more resources in schools and more information to families going through the college application process.

The school system will also look into purchasing software that will internally track college application materials citywide and decreasing student-counselor ratios by having other school staff help with the application process.

Western has four guidance counselors, one for each grade. There are about 187 seniors in its graduating class.

Sonja Santelises, the system's chief academic officer, said that the investigation began in mid-April and was triggered by a high percentage of reported college rejections at Western.

What officials found, she said, was that there were "documents that should have been sent from Western to colleges and were not." Since then, the school system has been calling all colleges in question to check whether students' rejections were a result of missing documentation.

In some cases, Santelises said, students' rejections weren't a result of missing information, though she couldn't comment on any specific students. Since the investigation began, some students believed to have had their applications compromised have been admitted to colleges, she said.

For students not admitted to the caliber of school they had reason to expect, the system will provide support through next year to assist with transfers.

It is not clear where students' requests fell through the cracks, Santelises said, adding that in most high schools the guidance counselor is responsible for sending documents. Santelises said the school system may take "serious disciplinary action" against any staff found responsible.

"One of the things we prioritize is to identify any staff member who had a role in this misstep, mistake, tragedy," Santelises said.

She said that her office was not aware of any other city high schools experiencing a similar situation, calling it "highly irregular."

Vanessa Burrell, president of the school's Student Parent Involvement Network, said Western has a history of stressful college application seasons, but that ultimately the school is not the only party that should be responsible for making sure applications are complete.

"I think the responsibility lay on the school and the parents," Burrell said. "If the parents aren't aware of what's going on in the school, how can they hold their students accountable? But the schools hold the future of those children in the palm of their hands, and if they're not doing their job, [students] are going to be disadvantaged."

Western, the nation's oldest all-girls public school, was designated a 2009-2010 National Blue Ribbon School and routinely places all of its students in college.

"I lost sleep and worked extra hard to make myself competitive," Abdou said. "I had everything planned out, and I believe it was taken away from me."

Abdou believes her SAT scores were missing from her college applications to schools like George Washington University, University of Pennsylvania and Boston University.

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