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Nonprofit takes aim at college readiness gap in city schools

This fall, Orlando Geigel used his hour-long D train commute from the South Bronx to Brooklyn to practice math problems from a review sheet to prepare for his first set of college finals. The answers were written on the back, but he waited until the end of each ride to check his work.

Geigel, a 2011 graduate of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, rarely studied in high school, and he didn’t think much about it in college, either — until he failed his first midterm in October.

That’s when Geigel turned to Bottom Line, New York City, a branch of a 14-year-old counseling program in Boston that aims to address the challenges that lead many low-income, first-generation college students to drop out.

Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years. The City University of New York reports that just 24 percent of its full-time students — mostly graduates of city high schools — receive degrees within six years of entering college for the first time.

The striking statistics have prompted city and state officials to argue for the first time that schools should be judged by their students’ ability to succeed in college. They have also prompted a constellation of nonprofit groups to try to ease the transition from high school to higher education.

Some of those groups place privately funded counselors inside schools. Others outsource counseling entirely — in Bottom Line’s case, to an office in Downtown Brooklyn where high school and college students come for individual guidance about applying to college and adjusting to its demands.

This year, Bottom Line is working with 125 high school seniors and 20 college freshmen. Those numbers are set to rise to 800 high school students and 850 college students in 2016.

Of the 600 students Bottom Line has supported in Massachusetts, 74 percent have graduated from college within six years, according to the organization.

The boost came not from bolstering students’ algebra or grammar skills, but by teaching them study skills and work habits that their high schools might have ignored, according to Ruth Genn, Bottom Line NYC’s executive director.

“We don’t provide tutoring, but what we do help them with is time management, understanding the syllabus,” Genn said. “If they come to us and say, ‘hey I’m having trouble with math,’ we help them find a tutoring center. It’s advising, mentoring, parenting, advocating.”

That kind of attention is exactly what Geigel said propelled him to graduate from high school — and what he missed when he arrived at the New York City College of Technology in September.

“In high school, I used to have the teachers on my back every day telling me, you, do this or I’ll call your parents, you’ll get in trouble,” he said. “In college, the professors give you the work and if you don’t do it, it’s your fault.”

He had trouble adjusting to that culture shock until he began meeting with Risa Dubow, a Bottom Line counselor, in October after a friend urged him to apply to be part of Bottom Line’s inaugural class. For the first year, Bottom Line recruited students through word of mouth, in addition to partnerships with nonprofits that manage schools and CUNY’s Center for School Support and Success.

“It’s important to talk to your professors,” Dubow told him. “They’re not always going to be on your back.”

Dubow, who previously worked as a college adviser with the Harlem Children’s Zone, also suggested he use an array of organizational and study tools he hadn’t considered before, such as reviewing his essays for grammar and coherence before submitting them to a professor, blocking out schedules for work time and free time, and renting a sociology textbook for his sociology class.

Bottom Line structures its programs around one-on-one counseling that takes place by appointment. Geigel meets with Dubow as often as three times a week, and he is also one of many students who visit the classroom-like office overlooking Brooklyn’s Borough Hall frequently to do schoolwork. He spent a recent December afternoon there studying for a sociology exam on immigration patterns in the United States.

“This place got me back on track,” Geigel said. “I think I’d be failing without it. I would think about dropping out already.”

Experts say Bottom Line is on the right track by targeting the culture shock that can set in during low-income, first-generation college students’ freshman year.

“A lot of students don’t understand that college is a little different than a high school and they’re not going to have a guidance counselor chasing them down to be successful,” said Alan Seidman, executive director of the Center for the Study of College Student Retention.

But Seidman cautioned that small-scale efforts to hold students’ hands as they work through the challenges of college would not make up for broader problems with city students’ preparation for college. At CUNY’s two-year colleges, about three quarters of new students must take remedial math or English classes.

“If you teach me a study skill, and I’m only at a ninth-grade reading level and my textbook is at a college level, that’s just not going to help me,” Seidman said.

Bottom Line recruits students who earn at least an 80 average in their high school classes. Still, students say the skills Bottom Line helps them develop could make the difference for them.

Annabel Perez, a student at Peace and Diversity Academy, credited her counselor, Deborah Steinberg, with coaching her through a complicated maze of college application requirements.

“The whole [State University of New York] application process—I didn’t know it was that long,” Perez said. “Now I’m less overwhelmed. At the beginning I remember telling my teachers, oh my god, what am I going to do? I felt like I was going crazy, and my parents didn’t go to college, so they couldn’t really help me with the process.”

On a recent December evening, Perez spent nearly five hours rewriting her college essay and preparing to submit applications to New York University, SUNY schools, and Mercy College.

Earlier this year, she and the other high school students met with the counselors to create the lists of schools where they would apply. Genn said those meetings were the first time many of the students had heard of the concept of “reach” schools and “likely” schools—schools where their chances of acceptance would be higher or lower. Since then, the counselors have been helping students stay on top of application requirements, and soon, they’ll turn their attention to filing for financial aid.

Perez said her school’s guidance counselor had been “too busy” to monitor those details for each student.

Guidance counselors in city schools juggle caseloads that include students transferring schools, failing courses, or in need of disciplinary action — so students who are on track to graduate can’t always be their first priority, Genn said. Bottom Line acts as a surrogate for those students, she said.

And the organization’s program director, Ginette Saimprevil, herself an alumna of Bottom Line Boston, said the surrogacy role extends further than that.

“We sort of replace the parents for these students, because a lot of this work isn’t done in the school,” Saimprevil said.

That means lots of nagging — but also lots of encouragement for students who have trouble imagining themselves in college.

“It’s also about letting them know that they are capable of doing this,” she said. “We really take the time to talk to them and encourage them to do more, or to apply to other schools that can give them great financial aid.”

Olivia Rivera, a senior at Peace and Diversity Academy who commutes an hour and a half to Bottom Line from the Bronx, said Saimprevil’s enthusiasm motivated her to apply to nine private colleges in addition to 10 CUNY and SUNY schools.

“I’m the first to go to college in my family, so it’s basically the unknown,” she said. “I didn’t know how to fill out the Common Application [which is used to apply to many private schools], but Ginette reassured me that ‘we’re going to get all of this done and we’re going to help you.’ And they’re going to help me with financial aid, scholarships—they’re not just done once I submit the applications.”

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