Poorer School Districts Point Students on Path Toward College


Syracuse Herald American (NY)

December 21, 1997

By Lori Duffy

Lucas DeStevens lifted his hand about a foot off the kitchen table. That’s how high the stack of college recruitment letters – including one from Harvard – grew over the summer.

It’s easy to understand the colleges’ interest in DeStevens: the Mexico High School senior scored better than 93 percent of the students nationwide who took the PSATs, a standardized test in English and math. His high school average is 96.38 percent. He loves math, science and physics. Yet DeStevens wasn’t looking to go to college; he planned to join the Marine Corps.

“I thought I must just be on some mailing list or something,” DeStevens said. “I didn’t even think about it. Of all my friends, none of them are going to college.”

DeStevens’ outlook is not unusual among students at Mexico High School, where only 52.56 percent of the 1996 graduates went on to two- or four-year colleges.

Mexico’s percentage of college-bound students was the lowest in Central New York for the Class of 1996, the latest year for which statewide statistics are available.

Area school officials say how rich or poor a school district is plays a crucial role in determining how many of its high-school seniors go on to college. Some administrators have started to fight the trend of poorer districts graduating smaller shares of college-bound students.

Mexico’s figures were a shock to district officials, most of whom joined the district in the past three years.

“Obviously, the kids have the skills to go on to college,” Superintendent Michael Havens said. “We should have about 80 percent of our kids going to college.”

Mexico’s seniors had the second-highest average SAT scores in Oswego County this spring, just one point behind Oswego’s.

PSATs prepare students for the SATs, which are the most commonly accepted college-entrance exam. The PSAT scores help colleges decide which high-school students to recruit, and high scores often lead to scholarship offers.

Students then take the SATs in their junior or senior years.

Havens said many Mexico students, including DeStevens, are first-generation high school graduates. They have the grades to go to college, but they don’t have the support from their parents and they fear they can’t afford tuition.

None went to college

Roxanne Cummings, DeStevens’ mother, said she graduated from high school, but her son’s father and stepfather did not. Like her son, Cummings thought all seniors got the volume of college mail he received. She didn’t know that he should have started looking into colleges last year.

“I had no idea,” Cummings said. “No one – none of his aunts or uncles – have gone to college.”

Havens has worked with the Mexico guidance counselors and the high school administration throughout his three-year tenure to change that. Examples of such efforts throughout Central New York prove his mission is not impossible.

Tully High School topped the 1996 list, with more than 93 percent of its seniors going on to college, despite a poverty rate that is higher than many other Onondaga County districts. Its rate of college-bound students has held steady over the past few years.

“I think it’s the vision of our community at this point in time,” Tully Superintendent Gary Heymann said. “We have tried very hard to push kids toward harder academic programs and not give them a way out.”

The Syracuse School District, which the state considers the poorest in Central New York, boasted a college-going rate of 80 percent in 1996.

Syracuse boosted rate

Thomas Colabufo, head of pupil services for Syracuse, said the city district generally saw only about 65 percent of its seniors off to college until 1987. That year, the district decided to so something about it.

First, Syracuse got rid of its general diploma. Too many of those students left school with no jobs and no goals. Students now must choose either a Regents diploma, which prepares them for college, or a career-oriented diploma, which prepares them to go from high school to work.

The administration also hired a higher-education specialist for each of its high school guidance offices, Colabufo said. These counselors walk students through the college application process.

The results were dramatic. In 1992, 83 percent of the city’s graduating seniors pursued college educations. An average of 80 percent have gone on to two- and four-year colleges each year since.

“This was the missing piece,” Colabufo said. “I think it’s dramatic from the standpoint that we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish because we knew the potential was there. Self-esteem-wise, the kids didn’t think they could go on.”

Mexico hired counselor

Similar changes are under way at Mexico High School.

Mexico hired Patricia Meaker as a guidance counselor last year. Meaker worked in admissions at Cornell and Syracuse universities. She knows what colleges expect from kids and she isn’t afraid to call college deans, department heads and professors on behalf of her students.

Her office prepared a schedule for this year’s junior and seniors that tells them exactly what they need to do and when to apply to colleges.

Seniors may take a new half-year English course that focuses on SAT preparation and college research. Beginning this year, all students in grades nine through 11 took old PSATs to prepare for the real thing.

The school district paid Kaplan Educational Centers, an SAT-preparation company, to score the tests and charged the students nothing.

Seniors took old SATs through Kaplan in September and learned their scores by Oct. 1, well before the deadline to register for the actual exam. All students are now encouraged to take the SATs in the spring of junior year so they have time to take it over if they need to raise their scores.

Better time for PSAT

The school also offered the PSAT on a Tuesday during school hours this year. Previously, it was offered only on Saturdays. Many Mexico students work on the weekends and can’t take the time off for Saturday exams, Meaker said.

“We got more participation than ever,” she said.

The money for the practice tests came from a $2,000 school-to-work government grant that Meaker applied for. The grant also paid for new college and scholarship guides for the guidance office.

Meaker turned to the State University College at Oswego for more help. Two college students work in her office as part-time guidance counselors. That gives the staff time to concentrate on the juniors and seniors. It gave Meaker time to work with DeStevens.

“She was pretty disturbed to find out I hadn’t even looked into colleges,” DeStevens said. “Without Mrs. Meaker’s help, I could see myself in the Marines right now or just sitting at home with mom, trying to figure out what to do.”

DeStevens revealed his true passion to Meaker – aerospace engineering. His dream is to earn a Ph.D. and spend the rest of his life developing ways to explore outer space.

Together, they narrowed his choices down to three schools – Cornell University, Boston University and SUNY Oswego. Cornell ranks highest on his list. DeStevens and Meaker meet every other day during his study halls to fill out applications.

Despite her assurances that he will get plenty of financial help, DeStevens is nervous. He fears competition and doesn’t understand why Cornell, the state and the federal government would want to help pay for his education.

“It scares me more than I’ve ever been scared before. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been so unsure of anything,” DeStevens said. “I wish I didn’t have a reason to worry.”

A-P-W takes steps

In the neighboring Altmar-Parish-Williamstown School District, where only 56.19 percent of 1996 graduates went on to college, administrators also are trying to boost their numbers.

The district hired a part-time school-to-work coordinator through the Oswego County Board of Cooperative Educational Services this year. Like Havens, APW Superintendent Marcia Schwarz said parents are the greatest influence on the students, and many parents don’t see college as an option for their children.

“I think the parent piece, as I say, is key,” Schwarz said. “The school is a reflection of the community and community values…I think we all have a need to have somebody believe we can do something. Some of these kids never had that.”

Havens said school districts can fill that need one student at a time. In DeStevens’ case, Meaker’s special effort touched more lives than she knows.

DeStevens’ mother was accepted at SUNY Oswego six years ago, but she was a single parent with three young children. Cummings was afraid of failure. Her son’s courage gave her the confidence to try again next fall, she said.

“I chickened out. I didn’t think I could do it,” Cummings said. “Seeing Lucas go to college….He did all this because he wanted to. Seeing him go just makes me want to cry.”

After graduation

This chart shows the percentages of 1996 graduates from high schools in Cayuga, Cortland, Jefferson, Madison, Onondaga and Oswego counties who went on to college (either two- or four-year colleges); to employment; to military; and to other (including trade schools, volunteer service and other programs). It also shows how many students graduated in 1996; and the extraordinary needs ratio, a state Education Department measure of how rich or poor a school district is. The higher the percentage, the poorer the district.



To        To                    To        To               Extraordinary

College    Employment    Military   Other    1996      Needs

District             %         %                     %         %         Graduates    %*

Mexico 52.56 41.03 6.41 0 156 32

Altmar-Parish-Williamstown 56.19 30.48 9.52 3.81 105 49

North Syracuse 57.25** 15.06 2.04 25.65 538 20

Cincinnatus 58.33 30.56 8.33 2.78 36 63

Carthage 60.80 27.64 7.04 4.52 199 58

Oneida City 61.70 25.53 4.26 8.51 141 36

LaFargeville 62.07 6.90 0 31.03 29 44

Phoenix 63.87 17.42 10.32 8.39 155 29

Canastota 65.17 23.60 5.62 5.62 89 37

DeRuyter 65.71 34.29 0 0 35 47

Hannibal 66.27 25.30 7.23 1.20 83 46

South Jefferson 66.34 19.80 5.94 7.92 101 42

Central Square 66.51 27.98 3.67 1.83 218 NA

Moravia 66.67 22.22 8.64 2.47 81 47

Onondaga 66.67 26.32 5.26 1.75 57 21

Sackets Harbor 66.67 20.00 3.33 10.00 30 36

Indian River 66.92 20.30 9.77 3.01 133 NA

Homer 69.35 13.44 3.23 15.05 186 29

Pulaski 70.13 22.08 7.79 0 77 44

Watertown City 70.27 12.61 6.31 10.81 222 59

Port Byron 70.89 20.25 6.33 2.53 79 NA

Fulton City 73.25 11.84 7.46 7.46 228 43

Chittenango 73.83 19.46 6.71 0 149 29

Brookfield 73.91 17.39 4.35 4.35 23 73

Marathon 74.00 22.00 2.00 2.00 50 41

Sandy Creek 74.19 12.90 9.68 3.23 62 54

Cato-Meridian 74.23 22.68 3.09 0 97 32

Stockbridge Valley 75.00 13.64 4.55 6.82 44 40

General Brown 75.41 14.75 6.56 3.28 122 32

Hamilton 75.51 16.33 6.12 2.04 49 27

Oswego City 75.93 11.75 5.16 7.16 349 34

McGraw 76.92 20.51 2.56 0 39 47

LaFayette 77.55 14.29 0 8.16 49 36

Cortland City 78.88 15.53 3.11 2.48 161 45

Southern Cayuga 79.66 16.95 3.39 0 59 35

Syracuse City 79.97 15.78 2.79 1.46 754 79

East Syracuse-Minoa 80.15 17.18 2.67 0 262 29

Jordan-Elbridge 80.58 9.71 4.85 4.85 103 32

Morrisville-Eaton 80.70 15.79 3.51 0 57 46

Thousand Islands 80.82 12.33 6.85 0 73 61

Alexandria 81.58 10.53 7.89 0 38 33

Belleville-Henderson 81.82 4.55 0 13.64 44 57

Madison 82.93 14.63 2.44 0 41 31

Baldwinsville 83.17 8.57 4.44 3.81 315 16

Solvay 84.68 12.61 2.70 0 111 37

Marcellus 85.04 11.81 3.15 0 127 13

Auburn City 85.39 10.06 3.90 0.65 308 40

Weedsport 85.92 11.27 1.41 4.23 71 13

Cazenovia 86.36 10.91 2.73 0 110 15

Lyme 86.36 0 9.09 4.55 22 45

West Genesee 86.96 0.62 0.62 11.80 322 12

Fabius-Pompey 88.46 3.85 5.77 1.92 52 32

Union Springs 88.75 10.00 1.25 0 80 NA

Liverpool 89.53 8.38 2.09 0 573 27

Westhill 90.08 8.26 1.65 0 121 5

Skaneateles 90.48 5.71 3.81 0 105 9

Jamesville-DeWitt 91.46 6.10 1.22 1.22 164 14

Fayetteville-Manlius 93.00 3.50 1.95 1.56 257 5

Tully 93.24 8.11 1.35 0 74 25

*Extraordinary needs: The extraordinary needs percentage is based on 1996 enrollments. It includes measures of free and reduced-price lunch applicants, limited English proficient students and geographic sparsity. Test performance indicators are used for schools with no lunch programs. The higher the number, the poorer the district. If no number is listed, the state did not receive all data necessary to calculate the percentage.

The correlation: School administrators believe poverty rates correlate to the percent of students in a school district who go on to two- and four-year colleges. Generally, the higher the poverty rate of a district, the less likely its high school graduates will attend college. In many low-income families, the parents are not college graduates. They often do not expect their children to go to college and do not understand the application process, administrators say.

** = North Syracuse School District administrators recently discovered errors in the way they collected their information on college-bound students. They now have their guidance counselors gather the information from students in June, instead of relying on final transcript requests for colleges. In 1997, 78 percent of their graduates went to college, up from 57 percent in 1996, according to Stephen Nevins, the district’s director of pupil services.

Source: New York State Education Department