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Getting HS students into college requires dedication, and staff

The Brooklyn high school profiled in the Daily News today doesn’t get its students into competitive colleges by “maniacal dedication” alone. The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice also has a robust college counseling program that outstrips what’s offered by most city high schools.

The school’s college placement office has two staff members who edit essays, help students find internships to build their resumes, and organize trips to colleges near and far. Most schools of SLJ’s size, with about 100 students in each grade, are lucky to have a single person dedicated solely to helping students navigate the college admissions process.

Susan Knight, SLJ’s director of college placement, told me about the school’s college program after a panel discussion this spring about how to boost achievement at city high schools. During our conversation, a college counselor from another Brooklyn high school approached Knight to ask her how he could replicate SLJ’s success on his own. It would be a challenge, Knight said: She hired additional an additional staff member only after persuading foundations to cover the salary.

One of those foundations, Robin Hood, also helped another public school build its college counseling program. Bronx Lab School has sent students to selective liberal arts colleges up and down the east coast with the help of three full-time college counselors: a director of college placement, an assistant director, and an alumni director. The trio makes sure students are “doing something” every summer, helps them land scholarships, and then stays in touch with graduates to make sure they’re staying in school. Amy Christie, the director of college placement, also developed once-a-week courses for juniors and seniors about the college application process.

“Do you have to have a Robin Hood grant to make it happen? It certainly makes it a lot easier,” Christie told me in June. “Could I have the same results if I didn’t have a three-person team? I would be working a lot harder.”

The network of college counselors running public school college programs like SLJ’s and Bronx Lab’s is small. About Knight, Christie said, “We are frequent e-mailers and phone callers.” 

The city could encourage schools to give college counseling the level of individualization that SLJ and Bronx Lab offer by emphasizing the college advising position, Christie said. She said school budgets lump college counselors in with other counseling and student support positions, making it easy for schools to assign them other responsibilities when budgets are tight. “If the DOE created a special budget line just for college counseling that would be incredible,” she said. “But it’s not likely.”