Seeking academic middle: How one group works to boost college completion in Philly

George Washington High School (Image via The Notebook)

George Washington High School (Image via The Notebook)

George Washington High School in Northeast Philadelphia has three guidance counselors for 1,700 students. Those seeking individual attention need to be one of two things, said recent graduate Tyreek Thompkins:  Really smart or really troubled.

“The people in the middle are just left there,” said Thompkins.

That’s no fault of the guidance counselors at George Washington, said Thompkins’ classmate Joseph Ware. He knows they’re overextended. Still, Ware can’t help but feel, in his words, “shafted.”

“He was never in his office,” Ware says of his assigned counselor. “When you needed him, he wasn’t there because he always had to deal with another student who needed to graduate rather than helping someone who’s on track to do it.”

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Thanks to a modest budget surplus, the School District of Philadelphia will be able to put at least one guidance counselor in every school this September. But years of cutbacks have taken a toll, with outside groups often working furiously to fill in the gaps.

When it comes to college access, in particular, the nonprofit space is increasingly crowded. The White-Williams Scholars program run by Philadelphia Futures focuses on steering financial aid to high achievers. Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia identifies students in middle school and tracks them through high school graduation. TeenSHARP over in Camden works hard to link bright, low-income students with selective colleges that better reflect their academic ability.

Then there’s College Possible Philadelphia, an organization that intentionally avoids the highest of high achievers.

“We’re looking for that academic middle,” said founding executive director Wyneshia Foxworth. “That’s that young person that comes to school every day, wants to see a bright future for themselves, doesn’t know how to navigate it, doesn’t have someone to kind of nudge them. 

“That’s the student we wanna work with.”

College Possible’s logic seems well-suited to an era of budget austerity. When resources are scarce, the nonprofit’s leaders reason, students in crisis often receive the most attention. Highly motivated and intelligent kids also tend to attract adult attention — and usually don’t need that attention to succeed, anyway.

Students in the middle, though, may be lost in the shuffle. And George Washington is exactly the type of place where they can be overlooked. In fiscal year 2014, the comprehensive high school was budgeted for just one counselor. It has since gained a couple counselor slots back, but the student-to-counselor ratio remains well above the national average of 478-to-1.

Enter College Possible

Founded in St. Paul in 2001, College Possible also has locations in Milwaukee, Portland, Omaha, and Chicago. The Philadelphia branch launched in time for the 2014-15 school year.

Students first enter the program as high school juniors. Each College Possible cohort has about 40 students. Under the guidance of a “coach” embedded at their high school, the cohorts meet twice a week. Junior year consists largely of SAT prep.

Senior year focuses on the minutiae of applying to — and paying for — school.

“My college counselor, Coach Matt, he stayed on my back,” said Stevenson Calixte, a recent graduate of Parkway Center City High School. “He was on me every day, all the time, about scholarships, about applying to schools, about getting my homework done, turning things in. He was like my third parent.”

The coaches then follow students until they graduate from college.

College Possible Philadelphia’s first cohort just finished high school, and 97 percent of the 132 graduating seniors are headed to college next year. There are 176 juniors right behind them spread out across six area high schools:  George Washington, Murrell Dobbins, Parkway Center City, West Philadelphia, Upper Darby, and Penn Wood in Landsdowne.

But raw matriculation numbers alone may not tell the whole story. College Possible focuses much of its attention on guiding students to schools that fit their interests, pocketbooks, and long-term goals.

That often means steering them to four-year schools, which are more likely to have the on-campus supports students rely on when they struggle.

A 2013 study of College Possible’s flagship program in St. Paul found the program had little effect on exam scores or overall college enrollment, but did “significantly” increase the likelihood of students applying to and attending four-year schools.

Ultimate college success often hinges less on whether students go to school and more on where they go, said Matt Cuozzo, a College Possible Philadelphia coach at Parkway Center City. He points to cases where students were certain they’d attend community college, but ended up at a university — or another instance where a student was determined to attend school in Florida, but instead landed at a full-ride at a state school.

“The biggest thing that trips people up is the lack of information and the misinformation,” said Cuozzo.

Matching students to the right school requires the sort of individualized attention students in the “academic middle” rarely get in a resource-depleted school system. And just as College Possible Philadelphia works to fill that particular gap, its peer organizations operate in the other spaces district guidance counselors simply can’t reach.

“We do it as a village,” said Foxworth.

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that College Possible coaches follow students until they graduate from college. A prior version stated that coaches follow students for up to six years after high school.

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