This past Saturday morning our parking lot had more cars in it than usual because many of our teachers and staff had volunteered to help our seniors complete college applications. It takes a village to help students in their final year at our school prepare for their next steps in life.
The emotion of deciding what to do after high school, the angst about which colleges to apply to, and the need to meet application deadlines is no different than any other high school. At Cristo Rey, however, we’re helping students apply to college who are the first in their families to go through this process. Despite living in America’s college town, our families have little experience with post-secondary education. Our team, under the direction of our dedicated college counselor, Michael Mansfield, makes sure that every one of our seniors applies to multiple colleges. Michael helps students identify the right colleges, gives them a reality check on which ones are appropriate to their GPAs and SAT scores, and manages a process in which we review every application before it is submitted.
This year, Michael is the sole college counselor for 64 seniors who, we expect, will be first generation college students next fall. We plan to add an additional counselor next year to accommodate our school’s growth. Michael is supported by Beth Degnan, our Principal for Student Life (we moved her from Director of Counseling to this position this year). Beth and Michael are particularly skilled at pushing a small minority of skeptical and sometimes reluctant seniors through the intricacies of the application process.
Michael is helped by Aki Peterson, who works at our school one day each week helping students apply for financial aid. Aki’s salary is paid for by uAspire, an organization that places counselors at several schools in Boston that serve low-income students. He’s also helped by our Board member, Cathy Brennan, and her daughter, Kara, who have launched the College Perspectives Mentor Program. Cathy, who had her own college counseling consulting business for many years, has rounded up some volunteers who review essays and applications, prepare students for interviews, and sometimes drive students to see college campuses.
The goal is to get every senior to apply to a number of colleges by January 1st, place them in college by May, and ensure that they are enrolled and taking classes in a four-year institution in the fall of 2014. Our college placement and persistence rate (i.e., remaining in college) is in the top five of all Cristo Rey Network schools – arguably the best association of college prep schools for low-income urban students in the nation.
During these cold months in New England, many people devote countless hours to help a somewhat nervous group of seniors at a small school in Dorchester apply and eventually choose the right college. The process isn’t easy, sometimes it’s emotional, but ultimately our seniors are rewarded with a clear path to a better life.