College prep: A tale of three schools

For some local undergrads and applicants, College Hill sits a little too close to home

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, October 31, 2011

Hope High School students are aided in the college process by community volunteers and Brown students in programs based out of the Swearer Center for Public Service.

As Brown students savored their spicies with at Josiah’s last night, high school students all over the country were slaving away to finish college applications before the University’s Nov. 1 early decision deadline. Students in Providence were no exception. For some, the moment represented the culmination of years of careful planning, but for others, it underscored the few preparatory resources they had been offered in high school.


Managing stress

The Wheeler School, a private school on the East Side, boasts academic rigor geared toward college preparation. The school’s comprehensive advising system ensures that students maximize their potential from the moment they walk through the doors, said Amy Baumgartel-Singer, director of college counseling.

During students’ first two years at Wheeler’s high school, the advising program encourages them to pursue challenging activities and courses. As sophomores, all students take both the PLAN test — the preparatory exam for the ACT — and the PSAT, Baumgartel-Singer said. The school’s advising program provides individualized attention to students who desire tutoring and matches them with classes or individual tutors based on where they need help, their location and their financial constraints, she added.

During junior year, the academic program intensifies. Students are assigned to a college counselor in addition to the academic adviser they have worked with throughout high school. That spring, students and their families begin to meet with a college counselor to explore the students’ interests and prospects for admission. Baumgartel-Singer extolled Naviance, an online data-management system that helps parents and students research college options.

“I think that parents are very involved in an emotional way,” Baumgartel-Singer said.

Students begin visiting colleges their junior year of high school. About 80 college representatives visit campus throughout the year, and the school takes part in a college fair held every April for independent schools in Providence.

Seniors are expected to meet with their college counselors once a week in order to stay on top of their application process.

Ninety-nine percent of Wheeler graduates immediately go on to college. The other 1 percent attend college after taking a gap year or post-graduate year to strengthen their athletic or academic profile, Baumgartel-Singer said.

“We have a fully developed program that can help students manage the stress of the process,” she said.


Exploring aid

At Classical High School, a public exam school located on the West Side of Providence, the college preparation process is similarly intensive. In January of students’ junior years, the advising team lays out a month-by-month plan for researching and applying to colleges, said Louis Toro, Classical’s head of guidance.

Toro said he spends a lot of time working with families on their financial aid options, especially since the economic downturn. “We actually fill out (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms for our students and families because there are some students who can’t go to H&R Block,” Toro said.

Colleges have been offering less generous financial aid in recent years, but Toro said he still urges parents to investigate expensive private schools that may be better able than public schools to offer financial aid and scholarship money. “There are dozens and dozens of kids each year who end up going to a private school that’s cheaper than (University of Rhode Island) and (Rhode Island College),” Toro said.

Classical attracts a number of representatives from colleges around the world and, like Wheeler, participates in the Providence Independent School College Fair.


Striving to be prepared

For a student at Hope High School, an East Side high school, the experience of applying to college is very different. Frequently, when students visit counselor Jimps Jean-Louis to learn about attending college, they find they are unprepared — often they have not taken the right classes or have not achieved the necessary grades.

Hope students are not required to meet with a counselor to discuss college options at any point during their high school experience.

They face a broader set of challenges. For many of them, English is a second language, Jean-Louis said. Few have parents who attended college, so even if students come from families that support higher education, parents may not be able to advise them in the process, he added.

Talent development programs at schools like URI accept students into the school but require them to complete a summer program before their freshman year to prepare them for the rigor of the college academic experience. Such programs are particularly helpful for students who are interested in higher education but are academically unprepared, Jean-Louis said. Students also have the option of taking courses at Rhode Island Community College to prepare for a four-year university, he added.

Ninety-six percent of students who apply to college from Hope are accepted, Jean-Louis said, adding that many of them go on to URI or RICC.

The University College Advising Corps, based out of the Swearer Center for Public Service, is also central to helping students through a process they may otherwise be unprepared for, Jean-Louis said. The program — part of AmeriCorps, a national organization of community volunteers — provides students with college counseling services and is also responsible for Algebra in Motion, Brown SAT Prep and the College Guidance Program, which allow Brown students to volunteer at Hope.

The organization works with students during the fall of senior year and requires “having all hands on deck to make sure that students are doing the straightforward elements,” said Ralph Johnson, manager of the program. The advisers — all AmeriCorps volunteers — make sure that students are taking the SAT, requesting recommendations from teachers and writing admissions essays and remind students of important deadlines.

A recent Stanford University study found students with access to college counselors are 14 percentage points more likely to attend college, said Kate Trimble, associate director for the Swearer Center. Advisers are “opening up the menu of possibilities to high school students,” she said.

“I think we’re doing a good job,” Jean-Louis said. “We have some smart kids out there.”

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