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Vermont college giving some high schools power to fill seats

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Jaelyn Marshall, center, with new friends she has met through the Pipelines Partnership at Southern Vermont College in Bennington, VT. She is among 17 students who were chosen by their high school programs to attend the college in a new effort to improve minority graduation rates. (Photo by Sarah Garland)

BENNINGTON, Vt.—For much of high school, Jaelyn Marshall, a 17-year-old from Harlem, was an indifferent student. She worked hard her senior year, but it wasn’t enough to make up for three years of bad grades.

“Every college I applied to said, ‘Sorry, we don’t want you,’ ” Marshall said.

She’s starting college this month after all, however, thanks to a partnership between KIPP charter schools and Southern Vermont College, a small four-year school here.

Under the program, called Pipelines into Partnerships, the college’s admissions office outsourced much of the responsibility for choosing 17 members of its incoming first-year class to KIPP, the largest charter chain in the country, as well as to a high school in Brooklyn and the Boys and Girls Club of Schenectady, N.Y.

It’s a rare setup. Although colleges often have close relationships with high schools, very few cede control over admissions decisions. But the partners believe their model—which focuses on unconventional measures of success, like grit and academic improvement instead of just overall grades and scores—will give a chance at college to minority students who might otherwise be overlooked.

All of the students in the Pipelines program, including Marshall, come from minority families and most are the first to attend a four-year college. Marshall’s father is a truck driver and her mother is unemployed.

Fitting in

On a recent afternoon at a Starbucks in Manhattan, Jaelyn Marshall, 17, a Harlem native, described Southern Vermont College in Bennington to her best friend, Khadaijah Hall, also a 17-year-old originally from Harlem. Both girls are attending the school this fall through the Pipelines into Partnerships program—which is sponsoring 17 inner city students to attend the small college this fall—but Hall joined the program late and missed visits to the school last spring.

“Is it like the suburbs?” Hall, who now lives in Philadelphia, asked Marshall.

“No. It’s mountains and woods,” Marshall said, adding, “It’s not like the city. You can’t go to the local bodega. And you have to have a car.”

For at-risk students headed to college, there are several factors that can influence whether they’ll make it to graduation. Finances are a huge determinant, but so is what college experts call “fit”—which includes matching the academic ability of the student with the academic rigor of the college, along with less tangible aspects like a school’s culture.

For inner-city students headed to a place like Southern Vermont College, which sits on a mountainside in rural Vermont, surrounded by pine forests and fields filled with hay bales, fitting in can be a difficult process.

Jennifer Ortiz, 18, will head to Southern Vermont College this fall with Marshall and Hall. Unlike her peers, she is armed with some experience of rural living. Although she grew up in the Bronx and attended the KIPP Academy in middle school, she spent her high-school years at a Connecticut boarding school on a scholarship.

“My freshman year I cried so much because I was homesick,” Ortiz said. For the other Pipelines students, she predicted that “it’s going to be really hard.”

Kimberly Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network, says that while many universities work with high schools and nonprofits that serve high-school youth, “they are rarely a funneling program.”

“I applaud all of these higher-education institutions that are reaching out to these students,” she said. But “we have to make sure that they’re making the right fit and match.”

At Southern Vermont College, many students head off campus on weekends, often to go skiing or hiking. None of the city students has a car. But officials at the school said they’ll work hard to provide alternative opportunities for fun, including school-sponsored trips to Albany and New York as well as outdoor activities.

They also note that SVC’s student population has more in common with the New York City students than initial appearances might suggest. About two-fifths of students are from low-income families, and about 60 percent are first-generation college-goers.

The size of the school and the amount of attention the students will receive from the college are also important factors in “fit,” says Jane Martínez Dowling, executive director of KIPP Through College, which nominated Marshall, Hall, and Ortiz—all KIPP middle-school students—to attend Southern Vermont.

Martínez Dowling says the first time she visited the school, she was impressed that the president, Karen Gross, seemed to know all of the students they passed in the halls. “She knew their situation. She knew people’s grades,” Martínez Dowling said. “It was a very good culture fit with what our kids have been used to within their KIPP experience.”

By the end of a week at a pre-orientation session this summer in Bennington, Marshall was a little homesick, and “ready to get back to her own bed,” but she was also looking forward to the first day of school.

“I’m excited,” she said. “And I’ve got the biggest support group in the world.”

Karen Gross, the president of Southern Vermont College, came up with the idea for the program. The college has taken most of the responsibility for raising money, organizing activities for the students, and providing mentors for them once they arrive on campus. The high-school programs were responsible for designing their own admissions processes and selecting the students.

“It’s very hard for a college to tell which vulnerable students will succeed,” said Gross, who raised funds from private donors and the Helmsley Charitable Trust to cover most of the tuition for the students, as well as stipends for the campus and high-school staff who work with them.

Gross believes the teachers and counselors who worked with students like Marshall in high school know best whether they can succeed in college—and whether they’ll fit in at SVC. She launched the partnership as a way to “shift the admissions paradigm, so that sending institutions play a vastly bigger role.”

The sending institutions consider grades and SAT scores in their decisions, but of equal or greater importance are motivation and other intangible factors counted less heavily by admissions officials.

Both sides stand to gain from the partnership. SVC saves time and money on recruitment, while also getting a set of students who sign a commitment to stay all four years. And their campus diversity gets a boost.

The high-school programs increase the number of their alumni who go on to college, helping their recruitment efforts and images. While 85 percent of KIPP alumni go to college, only about a third graduate. With a partnership like the one at SVC, KIPP is assured that the college will be paying close attention to some of its more vulnerable students and putting extra effort into helping them succeed.

“We spend a lot of time and resources making sure our kids are supported in college,” said Jane Martínez Dowling, executive director of KIPP Through College, a program that tracks KIPP students from eighth grade to their college graduation. “But to actually have an institution make the commitment to say we are going to track your kids on campus, provide advisories for them and academic supports, and almost customize their experience, was a win-win.”

The partner institutions believe their model could spread nationally. Gross wants to share the Pipelines model with other higher-education institutions so they can replicate it. And KIPP has launched an initiative to create at least 10 such partnerships with colleges around the country, including Franklin & Marshall, a small liberal-arts college in Lancaster, Pa., and Hunter College in New York City.

Success for the Pipelines program isn’t certain, however. Most of the students chosen for the program’s inaugural year have bounced back from academic troubles in high school—and they’re well aware of the obstacles ahead. They’ll face new social pressures as they attempt to fit in among their mostly white peers in a rural town surrounded by upscale ski resorts.

“They told us we were going to be pretty much guinea pigs,” Marshall said.

At the same time, Southern Vermont College, with an enrollment of about 500 students and an acceptance rate of 80 percent, has a graduation rate that hovers around 40 percent.

“It sounds wonderful, but I’m skeptical, especially about the college graduation rate of these students,” said Rick Dalton Jr., president and CEO of College For Every Student, a nonprofit that includes Southern Vermont College as a member. “These kinds of partnerships take a whole lot of care and feeding.”

Although direct-admissions partnerships between high schools and colleges are rare around the country, there is a precedent. Since 2001, the University of Vermont has accepted about 30 students per year through a partnership with Columbus High School in the Bronx and two other schools housed in the same building. Of 211 students who have gone through the program, 80 percent have graduated.

“What has made this program work is that people on both ends are dedicated to it. I’ve worked with other high schools where the staff was just too busy to pay attention to the partnership,” said Deborah Gale, a UVM admissions official.

The UVM program had help from Jet Blue, which pays for free plane tickets so that students and families can easily visit the school. And UVM admissions staff begin preparing Columbus students for college in frequent visits starting in their ninth-grade year. Overall, the six-year graduation rate at UVM is 73 percent, but for minorities, it’s only 58 percent.

SVC offers both associate and bachelor’s degrees, and has a tradition of serving low-income students, many of them from rural New England. About 40 percent of its students are eligible for federal Pell grants.

Gross says the school’s graduation rate compares well to local state schools and community colleges. “We’re not outside the norm for the kinds of students we serve, but I’m not satisfied at all with our graduation rate,” she said. “Which is why we’re doing this.”

Jennifer Ortiz, left, of the Bronx, at a pre-orientation week on the Southern Vermont College campus in Bennington, VT (Photo by Sarah Garland)

In contrast to most of her peers in the SVC Pipelines program, Jennifer Ortiz, 18, has some experience in a rural, mostly white environment. She grew up in the Bronx, but after graduating from a KIPP middle school, attended a boarding school in Connecticut on a scholarship.

Before joining the SVC Pipelines program, Ortiz had hoped to go to a large and diverse university. She applied to several campuses of the State University of New York and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She was an average student in high school, and her financial-aid offers from the large schools weren’t as generous as the one from SVC.

The college organized and paid for the group of Pipelines students to visit twice in the spring, so they could make sure it was the right fit. Despite its tiny size, Ortiz liked it.

“It seems like they’re really on top of us,” she said. “The classes are small, and the professors seem to give each student the attention they need.”

For KIPP students, the admissions process was relatively informal: Admissions counselors working for KIPP Through College identified potential candidates, talked to them about the school, and helped them fill out applications.

At the Institute for Student Achievement’s Academy for Young Writers, a small public high school in Brooklyn also participating in the Pipelines program, the admissions process was more formal. The high school’s administrators assigned an essay to interested students, and then conducted interviews.

They weren’t typical admissions interviews, however. The first question the high-school administrators asked every student was, “What concerns do you have about attending Southern Vermont College—a non-diverse, 90 percent white … college that is three-and-a-half hours away from New York City?”

Gross thinks that if the students do well, her program—and others that emulate it—could help solve larger problems in American higher education.

“It’s about being more systematic about making sure first-generation students make it through college,” she said. Increasing college graduation rates, she added, will depend not on elite schools, but on figuring out how to make “institutions like ours” more successful with their students.

During the program’s pre-orientation week this summer, professors taught mock-classes where they told students what to expect from homework, discussions and exams. They also emphasized that their doors would always be open to any student in need of help. The students learned study tips and how to take notes, and got to know the student-mentors with whom they’ll meet regularly this fall.

By the last day, Jaelyn and her friend, Khadaijah Hall, a 17-year-old Harlem native and KIPP alumna who is also attending SVC through the Pipelines program this fall, were a little homesick. But they were also excited.

“I’m kind of scared,” Hall said. “But who isn’t? I think I’ll be fine.”

A version of this story appeared on September 15, 2011 in USA Today.

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