College programs target young students early

BOSTON, MA Which is exactly why officials decided to make it the only middle school in Boston with a full-time college counseling office. They want to convince the school's 560 students that college is attainable.

Middle school offices specifically dedicated to college guidance are part of a growing trend at schools across the country as officials try to make sure students don't begin planning too late.

"Middle school is when students are still open to all the opportunities and options they have, because by the time they get to high school they are often at the point where they say 'Oh, I can't do that,'" said Jill Cook, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association.

Getting to students early is especially important in a time when many elite schools are either increasing financial aid or eliminating loans for low-income students, said Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard University's dean of admissions.

The Mildred Avenue program, funded in part by a Gear Up grant from the Department of Education and managed by TERI, a nonprofit group that helps students plan and pay for college, is one of seven middle school college-guidance programs in the state.

All serve largely low-income students, who are statistically less likely to attend college. About 31 percent of low-income, college-age students enroll, compared to 75 percent of high-income students, according to the Washington D.C.-based Pell Institute, which promotes better college access.

Gear Up — which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs — has been successful is setting up counseling offices in middle schools and high schools across the country, said Diane Jones, assistant secretary for postsecondary education. More than 55 percent of students involved in Gear Up programs enrolled in college within a year of graduation, she said.

Rashad Cope and Jeanna Murat, who run the college guidance office at Mildred Avenue, focus on different ideas for different grade levels. Seventh-graders learn about types of colleges — junior, undergraduate and graduate — and how much schooling they would need for different careers.

One student, Shante Maddix, looked flabbergasted recently when Murat told her she would need at least four years of college, followed by another three years of law school, to become a judge. That estimate didn't include the time it would take to be elected or appointed.

Still, Shante wasn't discouraged.

"I was kind of surprised by how long it would take, but it hasn't made me change my mind," she said. "It doesn't matter what I have to do."

In eighth grade, students learn about how they can finance their education, about dorm life and how to manage money and time.

They make campus visits to colleges in the Boston area and even one out-of-state visit this spring, scheduled for Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Cope, who grew up in Boston, attended Boston public schools, and went on to Fitchburg State College, tracks students when they get to high school to make sure they are taking the right classes and performing well.

Eighth-grader Larisa Osorio is among the students who has taken full advantage of the help the program offers. Her study skills have improved, her grades are up, and she's focused on what she needs to do academically to attain her goal of owning a health spa.

"I learned that I have to take health classes, learn about anatomy, the nervous system, then when I get into college, take business classes so I could learn how to maintain my own business," she said.

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