Kevin McMahon, an admissions counselor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, distributed a brochure to 12 students in the library of Wilbur Cross High School. At one table, students read the brochure and raised their hands to ask questions: Can we have a car? How many years does it take to be a vet? Students at another table paid less attention. One pretended to groom himself with a girlfriend’s brush. Another passed a note to a friend: “When are u gonna call me?”
When the table erupted in giggles, McMahon stopped talking.
“Yo, can you guys give me a chance?” he said. “I’ll be out of here before you know it.”
Every year Wilbur Cross, the largest public high school in New Haven, urges seniors to look at postsecondary education. A good 78 percent of last year’s graduating seniors enrolled in a two or four year college, up from 61.5 percent in 1997. Of college-bound seniors, 38 percent went to Gateway Community College. Some 15 percent attended Southern Connecticut State, the University of Connecticut or Albertus Magnus. Eight students went to Top 50 colleges such as Yale and New York University. A handful chose vocational schools in areas like cosmetology and plumbing.
Compared with counterparts at private schools, Wilbur Cross guidance counselors focus less on where students are going to college. Of course, they get excited when the occasional student applies to an Ivy League school. But their first concern is that students graduate; their second is that students devise a postsecondary plan — whether it is college, employment or the military.
At Wilbur Cross, getting a degree is itself an achievement. The school has one of the highest truancy rates in the district, and nearly 20 percent of the entering class of 2002 dropped out.
“For them to get a high school diploma and even go onto college at any level is a fantastic feat,” guidance director James O’Connor said. “Not for the school, for the kids. For the kids.”
Guidance counselor Kristen Rittel said the 44 seniors she advises have very different agendas. One is ranked fourth in the class and is looking at Amherst and Yale. Another does not want to go to college.
“His plan — which I’m happy he has one — is to go to trucking school and drive trucks as a living,” Rittel said.
Senior Mara Revkin has noticed the disparity among her peers, too.
“It’s totally stratified,” Revkin said. “Something like four percent of every grade is on the AP track, and then the vast majority of students go into junior year without knowing what the SAT is.”
Still, college-related resources at Wilbur Cross are available to all students. These resources include college visits, SAT tutoring classes and six devoted, but overworked, guidance counselors.
The counselors form the backbone of college prep at Wilbur Cross. Each student is assigned a counselor, whom they see at least twice: once at a short college presentation during English class in junior year, and again at an individual meeting in the fall of senior year. After that, the college office is always open, but students must drop in or schedule meetings on their own.
“Six to 10 students come see me regularly with applications and questions about college,” said Rittel. “It’s really sad.”
Sometimes the counselors ask to see students they have concerns about.
Guidance counselor Linda Grant has already made 10 appointments this year with junior Montoria Franklin to discuss her grades and attendance. Franklin missed 30 days of school last year, but she still hopes to graduate and go to college.
“Even if I have to start off at a two-year college, I’m definitely going,” Franklin said.
The counselors leave their doors open, and students often stop by. But the counselors’ workload would likely be unmanageable if every student took full advantage of them. Each counselor has an average caseload of 250 students from all grades. This includes 45 seniors, on average.
“I know all the names, and I think I know all the faces, too,” said Yoseli Roman, who advises 61 seniors. “Sometimes I have to write a recommendation, and I don’t really know them.”
Since counselors advise the same students all through high school, Roman’s eight years at Wilbur Cross give her an advantage. The job is especially daunting for the four counselors hired this year, who met all 250 of their students at once. These four also had little or no experience in college counseling before coming to Wilbur Cross.
“I think the counselors are competent, they just have a lot to do,” Revkin said.
In addition to meeting individually with students, the counselors plan college trips and arrange for admissions officers to speak at the school. So far this fall, officers have visited from 20 schools, including Swarthmore, Lehigh and Mt. Holyoke.
“Our population that’s at the bottom, some of them have never set foot on a college campus,” guidance counselor Kathryn Monaham said. “Now how intimidating would that be?”
The college trips, which bring 25 juniors and seniors to a different Connecticut school every week, are especially valuable.
Wilbur Cross also offers SAT electives and workshops for enterprising juniors and seniors. Progress in these classes varies: in Patricia Schread’s workshop, some students get combined scores of 1300 or 1400 on old SAT practice tests, while others get as low as 800.
Junior Diawadou Barry, now a student in Schread’s class, hopes to attend New York University. But Barry, who came to New Haven from Equatorial Guinea at age 12, said he did not know what the SAT was before this fall.
Matt Bachand, who teaches another SAT workshop, said many of his students find the test difficult because they do not read regularly. The problem is compounded when these students are not introduced to new words at home.
“The cycle starts in elementary school, and it’s always a struggle to keep up,” O’Connor said, voicing a common feeling among faculty and students.
Some guidance counselors said family income has a major impact on how much students achieve and how proactive they are about applying to college.
“The more affluent ones usually go to better schools,” Roman said. “Not to say that every so often we don’t have a resilient child who does very well.”
Wealthier students have computers and internet access at home, which make the application process more manageable, Monaham said. They need not worry as much about tuition or room and board. And they have traveled more, so they are willing apply to schools in new environments. Monaham said high school itself is easier for students with money.
Low expectations are another barrier to college.
State universities accept students with SAT scores of 1000 and C averages, Monaham said, but many students do not know this and are reluctant to apply.
“At Cross, a lot of the students have this mentality that they’re going to end up at Gateway, so why try?” Revkin said.
Gateway Community College, which claimed 38 percent of college-bound seniors last year, has an open admissions policy and a New Haven campus; it also costs just $1,203 a semester.
“Some kids say, ‘I’ve already had this pattern of not performing, so why don’t I just keep doing it?’” guidance counselor Kamara Amaker said.
Roman, who has worked at Wilbur Cross for eight years, occasionally hears from old students. There are some success stories and some disappointments. One student, who moved to New Haven from Equatorial Guinea in tenth grade, spoke four languages and ranked seventh in the class, but got a combined score of 800 on the SAT. He nevertheless was accepted at the University of Connecticut, and two years later, all his grades are B+’s and above.
“He used to send me all his report cards,” Roman said. “He was like one of my babies. Very bright.”
Another student whom Roman called one of her “nice kids” enrolled at Gateway, but stopped going after a month. Roman saw him working at Firestone Tires.
He has found employment, though. New Haven’s five “Bold Goals” for its public schools do not include specifically increasing the number of college-bound seniors. The fifth goal states, “95% of students entering 9th grade will graduate ready for college, postsecondary education, military or the workforce.” Wilbur Cross achieves that percentage with students who work at Firestone Tires. But Roman still wishes students would stay in school.
“I said, ‘you gotta go back,’” Roman said. “‘Yes, yes, miss. I’m going back,’ [he said]. I know he didn’t.”