I’m not sure if this is still the case, but at one time, MMSD offered a college entrance test prep course in an 8-week summer session. But for many reasons, needing to work among them, not all students can take advantage of this opportunity.
What if high school seniors or adult volunteers tutored their younger classmates, especially those who can’t afford the time or the money to take the Kaplan courses? How about a service project where students or adult volunteers offer a weekly review after school or (if student-run,during the lunch hour)?
In a perfect world, everyone would be taking these tests “cold”, but the reality is that a tremendous amount of coaching takes place. Practicing the test format alone is helpful.
ACT test prep for low income students
MIDDLE- and upper-class teenagers get lots of extra help in the college application process. They get personal SAT tutors and SAT prep courses, they get assistance on their résumés and college essays from writing coaches and parents. They have guidance counselors and teachers with time to help.
The poor tend not to be so lucky. They can’t afford tutors or prep courses, and often don’t have parents who’ve been to college to guide them. Their high schools are more likely to be understaffed. North High School here, which is three-quarters black, has two guidance counselors for 1,100 students.
But a nonprofit program started here five years ago, Admission Possible, aims to give 600 poor teenagers a year (average family income of $25,000) the kind of edge that wealthy students routinely enjoy.
Students in Admission Possible get a 15-week ACT prep course (the dominant college entrance exam here), and their scores rise an average of 15 percent. They get extensive coaching on the essays. “We did my essay over 20 times,” said Akil Foluke, a North High senior who hopes to go to Georgia Tech.
They get individualized help that would cost $100 an hour from a private tutor. The week before the ACT, Jocelyn McQuirter, a senior, called her Admission Possible coach, John Lindquist, begging for one more session. “I knew if I could get a 20 on that ACT, it would make a difference,” she said. “We met at McDonald’s. He gave up his Easter Sunday for me.” And Jocelyn got her 20 (equivalent to 950 on the SAT verbal and math).
The day of the ACT, Admission Possible coaches like Bidisha Bhattacharyya are on the phone making sure students show up for the test. “She woke me at 6,” said Melissa Mantooth, a Roosevelt High senior. “I probably would have been late or something. She even told us what to eat: lots of protein but nothing too heavy.”
Jocelyn said, “For the ACT, John suggested peanut butter.”
In 2000, Jim McCorkell, now 37, started Admission Possible out of his apartment, drawing on his experiences. Mr. McCorkell, whose parents never finished high school, is a graduate of Carleton College and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He worked on the campaigns of Senator Paul Wellstone and was influenced by that Democrat’s social activism. Mr. McCorkell helped pay for college by teaching Kaplan SAT prep courses for $15 an hour. “My starting idea was what if we replicated Kaplan for poor kids,” he said.
The program is financed by corporate donations and foundations and has grown to a $900,000 budget, moving from the apartment to an office. It recently won a state award for innovation among nonprofits.
But what really makes Admission Possible succeed is the two dozen college coaches who are members of AmeriCorps, the nation’s domestic Peace Corps. They are in their early 20’s, just out of college, and idealistic enough to put in 50-hour weeks for an AmeriCorps salary of $10,600 a year. To get by, several need food stamps. Asked why he does this when he could earn so much more, Mr. Lindquist said, “I’m interested in closing the achievement gap.”
Mike Favor, North High’s principal, thinks so highly of the program, he gave Admission Possible an office beside his guidance department. “They’re the glue keeping kids on track for college,” he said. At the nine urban schools where the coaches are based, they have as high a profile as the military recruiters, but push college instead of the Army.
Each spring, they spend six weeks recruiting. It is not an easy sell. The program seeks motivated students with a realistic shot at college. They need a 2.5 average and must pass the state skills test. They interview with Admission Possible, get recommendations, and commit to four hours a week after school for two years. They take four practice ACT’s in junior year.
To recruit, the coaches attend faculty meetings and pep rallies, send letters home, go to parent conference night. Nick Maryns wears a sandwich board at lunch at Patrick Henry High. “Kids laugh at me,” he said, “but at most tables, there’s one who’s interested. It’s not that they’re irresponsible. They have so many responsibilities – raising siblings, translating for parents, working to support the family – they don’t think of college.”
The 317 accepted in this junior class are overrepresented by females (63 percent) and Asians (43 percent, mainly Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia). Twenty-one percent are black, but only 6 percent, 19, are black males. “It’s our biggest problem,” Mr. Lindquist said. “We recruit plenty, but a lot have G.P.A.’s of like 1.8. We tell them to spend the time raising their grades.”
On the first ACT practice test, students average 15.5 (a combined 750 SAT) and improve to 18 (a combined 900 SAT, still low, but good enough to get into a college). Students like Louis Adams who went from 16 to 22 (1,050 combined SAT) are able to aim for more elite colleges. Retention is good; 10 percent drop out a year. Of the 300 juniors starting in 2003, 246 finished last spring, and 100 percent of them got into college (96 percent at four-year schools).
STUDENTS visit colleges and get help with schoolwork. “I’ll call John three times in two hours,” Louis said. “Today I came to John’s office for help with AP calculus. To me, he’s even more powerful than a military recruiter. You see him in hallways, in the office, everywhere.”
The essay is a challenge. “At the beginning they think they should write about volleyball or student council,” Ms. Bhattacharyya said. They are isolated in minority schools and neighborhoods and don’t understand how they differ from middle-class America.
Ms. Bhattacharyya encouraged Tim Dumas, a Roosevelt senior, to write about his life in foster care. “Because my mom did not watch over me,” he began, “I missed about three months of school in first grade.” He described the two social workers who came to take him away, his hope of living someplace nice, and the reality. “I was greeted by the disappointment of a small bed in someone else’s room.” By eighth grade, he wrote, “I became the person who mainly cooked and cleaned the house.”
All his life, Tim wrote in his college essay’s conclusion, school has been his great joy: “Throughout my whole experience with dealing with foster care and moving a lot, I know of one friend, school, that stuck with me through it all. School has been my foster parent all along guiding me into my future. I would never turn my back on education because it never turned its back on me.”