ORIENTATION – Selling kids on college as early as possible

Selling kids on college as early as possible
By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
HARTFORD, Conn. — Jean Figueroa, a wispy-haired second-grader, wants to be "a crime-fighting lawyer" when she grows up. "It helps a lot of people not to get hurt and stuff like that," she says.
Jean is 7, and a bit sketchy on the details, but she knows where she’s going to college: Central Connecticut State University, or CCSU.

Asked if she knows which nearby college people consider the best in the country, she says, "I would take a guess — I would say CCSU."

Did she mention that she and her classmates at Dwight Elementary just got back from a field trip … to CCSU?

Call it savvy marketing or good old-fashioned empowerment. Adults in Hartford are coaxing even the youngest students into thinking about college with events like last Thursday’s Early College Awareness Blitz, in which college representatives visited all 36 public schools in Hartford to plant early seeds.

Experts say "early college awareness" programs are vital to giving low-income and minority students a needed boost to succeed in school and continue their education.

"Students who don’t have role models, who don’t have members of their families who’ve gone to college — we have to create pathways for them," says Rick Dalton, president of the Foundation for Excellent Schools, a Vermont non-profit group that matches colleges and non-profits with public schools in low-income areas.

The foundation, which has helped several New England colleges "adopt" gritty urban and rural public schools over the past decade, began working with Dwight and three other Hartford schools last year. It expands to 10 schools this summer.

According to recent statistics, far fewer poor students than wealthy ones go to college. In fact, a 2000 federal study found that the highest-achieving poor students were no more likely to go to college than the lowest-achieving wealthy students.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, a former gang member and the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor, convened a special commission last January. It found that of the 790 Hartford students who graduated from high school last spring, only 160 are enrolled in four-year colleges this spring. "That was a disappointing number, but that’s the number we’ve got to build from," he says.

Hartford is doing better than many other cities: Hartford’s graduation rate has jumped more than 12 percentage points in two years, to about 66%, while most cities graduate only about half of their students.

Last week, representatives from 35 colleges descended on Hartford, trying to pump kids up.

Standing in front of a group of sophomores at the Sports & Medical Sciences Academy, a downtown magnet high school, Kelvin Roldan, a special assistant to Perez, says, "Do you know the steps you need to take to go to college?"

The kids mutter: "Yeah." One girl near the front of the group says, "Kind of." Roldan says, "Let us know and we’ll help you."

At Dwight, teachers wear sweatshirts from their alma maters; small signs taped to walls read, "College is for You." Two third-grade boys walk past, one saying to the other, "I’m going to the University of Michigan."

"What we are trying to do is set aspirations young," says Nancy Hoffman of CCSU’s School of Education, which will bring Dwight parents on campus in the fall. This spring, Hoffman started with students as young as kindergartners to give them a taste of campus life. At this age, she says, it’s the little things that stay with kids.

For Jean Figueroa, it was the campus bookstore crammed with "school supplies" and the dining hall’s pressed white tablecloths and silver serving dishes.

"We can’t just do a college fair and expect the kids to take it on from there," says Perez, who has bargained for increased control of city schools, recently gaining the right to appoint five of nine school board members.

Hartford schools now require all students to take an SAT prep course and to pass Algebra I by freshman year. Struggling students get mentoring and tutoring, with the option to take failed courses online.

The city is building four elementary schools and will spend $98 million to renovate Hartford Public High School.

But Perez still has a tough sell on college. At a rally at the Hartford High gym, he urges students to enroll in college after they graduate, even if they register for one class.

But the onlookers, who have just finished cheering on classmates with college offers, are restless. It’s six minutes past dismissal time and the mayor is still talking.

As soon as Perez ends his speech, students crowd the gym doors.

Still sitting in the bleachers with a few friends, sophomore Sofia Medina says she wants to be a veterinarian but doesn’t know what college she’ll attend. Sofia, 15, says teachers have been urging her to think about college since elementary school.

"When they talk to you about it, you have something to think about," she says. "It straightens you out a little."
Source : http://www.usatoday.com

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