College dreams, prep school greens

    Delaware is preparing low-income students for college through a summer program at one of the state’s most prestigious prep schools.

    St. Andrews School in Middletown, Delaware looks like something out of a postcard–from its stone archways to its Gothic cloisters to the carpets of green grass that checker the more-than 2000 acre campus.

    It is so picturesque, in fact, that director Peter Weir literally filmed a picture here, the prep-school classic Dead Poet’s Society.

    Kaylani Williams, though, had another blockbuster in mind when she arrived at St. Andrews for the first time this June.

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    “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is place is huge,'” says the rising junior from Dover. “It looks like the castle from the Harry Potter movies.”

    Williams is one of about 80 Delaware high school students who spent close to three weeks this summer living and studying at St. Andrew’s–all for free. She’s part of the Delaware College Scholars (DCS) program, a partnership between St. Andrew’s and the Delaware Department of Education.

    DCS participants share two things in common: they’re low-income and they’re high-achieving.

    Delaware hopes that by sending these promising students to St. Andrews for three consecutive summers–after their sophomore, junior, and senior years–the teens will grow comfortable with the rhythm and texture of campus life. Ideally they’ll call on that familiarity as they navigate the transition to higher education, a period where many talented, but disadvantaged, students get left behind.

    “We’re trying to show them that things can be different,” says Tony Alleyne, who runs DCS and helped launch the program last summer. “They can feel what it’s like to live in a college setting.”

    While at St. Andrews the students take traditional academic courses alongside college-prep classes. All designed to help them study for the SAT, write entrances essays, and think more deeply about picking the right school. The teaching is done in small, seminar-style classes meant to mimic what they’ll find in a university setting.

    “All of our courses are Socratic seminars,” says Alleyne. “So instead of having students sit in rows–having them raise their hands to contribute to the conversation–everyone’s on the same level.”

    Just as important, DCS gives students a small taste of campus life, from the dining hall to the dorm rooms. It is a sort of vaccine dose, meant to inoculate them from the culture shock that some low-income students feel when they first arrive at college.

    “It’s definitely helped to shape me and mold me into being okay with being away from home, being okay with trying new things, being okay with meeting new people,” says Williams.

    Moses Myers, a rising senior from Wilmington, admitted he was nervous when he started with DCS last summer as part of the inaugural cohort. This summer, he couldn’t wait to get back on campus.

    “It almost feels like this is my second home,” says Myers.

    Myers’ parents immigrated from Jamaica. His mother recently passed and his dad works 14-hour days to support the family.

    “I want to be the one to not have to use my body as my source of income,” says Myers. “I want to be able to use my mind.”

    Myers envisions a future in finance, and he’s looking hard at mid-sized universities with strong business programs.

    “I’m looking into Drexel, which has the co-op program where they partner with companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Johnson & Johnson, DuPont, and almost immediately after you graduate they typically offer you a job,” says Myers. “Then Lehigh, I think they’re ranked number four in finance. So that would be amazing.”

    Almost all DCS students appear fluent it what one might call “college speak.” They know how to classify various schools. They ramble happily about specific schools, noting, for instance, how isolated a campus may be from the city surrounding it. They’re intimately familiar with rankings and median SAT scores and all the miscellany that accompany the modern college entrance process.

    This is all, of course, by design.

    “What we’re trying to do with Delaware College Scholars is to expose these students to the many different types of schools,” Alleyne says.

    DCS hopes to combat a recently identified phenomenon known as under-matching. The term describes the disproportionate number of low-income students who attend less selective colleges than their academic credentials would theoretically allow. Put another way, many disadvantaged high school students never apply to or attend elite colleges–and thus never reap the rewards those schools can provide.

    The problem reflects a knowledge gap. Poor students often aren’t familiar with the full roster of selective colleges (beyond the Ivy League). And even when they are, they’re either not encouraged to apply to top-tier schools or don’t think they can afford the seemingly exorbitant tuition prices.

    Many flock instead toward mid-tier public universities with poor graduation rates, lackluster post-graduate outcomes, and higher real costs due to a relative lack of financial aid.

     “They’ll see the in-state price for a school versus a fifty-to-sixty thousand dollar price tag on a private school,” says Alleyne. “But they don’t understand that there’s different ways of getting scholarships and grants and different types of financial aid structures.”

    Kaylani Williams, for instance, didn’t know much of the college landscape beyond her local state schools. DCS introduced her to liberal arts colleges such as Wellesley and Haverford, and she’s smitten with the idea.

    “I have a focus for humanities and social sciences,” says Williams. “I want to be in a smaller setting so I can learn more effectively.”

    There’s still a ways to go before Williams can attend the liberal arts college of her dreams, but at least she’s knows it’s out there.

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