Roadblock for graduates

Our view: District must ensure bungled college applications at Western High School were an isolated event that doesn't turn out to be a problem for other seniors

May 03, 2011

April is the cruelest month: It's the time of year when the state's high school seniors anxiously await those long-anticipated college acceptance letters in the mail. As they focus on their futures, they have enough on their minds without having to worry about their high school guidance departments potentially failing to send academic transcripts and other required information to the schools they hope to attend in the fall.

Yet that's what appears to have happened to at least a dozen of Western High School's 186 seniors this year. City school officials say they are still looking into how and why the students' transcripts and other documents never got where they were supposed to, leaving some high-achieving students with no college acceptances at all. The school didn't discover the problem until mid-April, after it became clear that many kids who should have gotten into college hadn't.

Someone at Western fell down on the job, and the students are paying the price. That's not fair to young people who have worked hard for four years preparing themselves to go to college. Western's guidance department and teaching staff not only need to find out exactly what went wrong and fix it but also to do everything possible to repair the damage by helping these kids find suitable alternatives to the schools they missed out on for the fall semester.

So far, officials at the school department's central office seem at a loss for what caused the breakdown, which happened despite an early-warning system that is widely used among college admissions boards today. Normally, when a college needs certain documents to made an admissions decision, it notifies the applicant that his or her file is still incomplete by email, phone or letter, usually by late February or March. The information is passed to high school guidance counselors or other school staff, who are responsible for making sure the colleges get what they need.

But somehow the failsafe mechanism didn't work at Western. Either the students weren't notified there was a problem, they didn't tell the school, or the school's staff failed to act on the information. Considering the problem affected a dozen students who applied to a variety of colleges, the first two explanations are highly improbable. Still, sorting this out won't be easy because Western apparently has no single individual designated to collect such information and make sure application documents are sent out. Instead, some students tell their teachers which documents are needed, while others pass the information on to the guidance department or to a school secretary.

Given the seemingly haphazard organization of the way requests for transcripts and other admissions materials were handled, it's a wonder more documents don't disappear (school officials insist this year's mix-up is unprecedented, but some parents have claimed similar snafus occurred in the past). In any case, it's hard to believe so many students could have been affected by the problem if the staff had been paying closer attention. Helping kids get into college is part of their job, after all. Dropping the ball on such a crucial matter is unprofessional at best, and those responsible should be disciplined appropriately.

School officials say it may take a couple more weeks to complete the initial phase of their investigation; that's because the priority now is getting as many as possible of those students who failed to get into any college situated for the fall. Western officials are making calls on their behalf to find schools that are still willing to take them, and they've also pledged to help affected students who end up at less-desirable schools to transfer to better ones next year.

But simply cleaning up this year's mess isn't enough. Western needs to learn from this mistake and do whatever is necessary to make sure it isn't repeated. It's already planning to introduce new computer software to track students' applications and documents more efficiently. Officials also want to reduce the student-to-staff ratio for senior class members, so that more adults are keeping an eye on each student's college preparations. Ultimately, they want to work more closely with students' families as well, to keep them informed of the process.

Those are good ideas, and when fully implemented they should make it a lot less likely that students' college hopes will be derailed by fumbled paperwork. The district should make sure they are standard practice at all city high schools. In the meantime, let's hope this remains an isolated experience that doesn't turn up again, either at Western or anywhere else.

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