Washington County educators know the score on adversity students face
MARIETTA — For many high school grads in Appalachia, a college degree can be the ticket out of poverty. In the six school districts in Washington County, poverty is a common drawback, with close to half of students in many schools living below the poverty level.
The College Board, the national nonprofit that operates the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) used for admissions, recently rolled out a project called the Environmental Context Dashboard, piloted at 150 colleges, that creates an index number to measure adverse circumstances that might affect students’ academic performances. It is intended to allow college admissions personnel to get a more thorough look at the lives of students who apply and evaluate circumstances that might have a negative effect on their test scores. The number is in addition to the test score but doesn’t affect the actual score.
Although the vast majority of Ohio students — and nearly all in Washington County — take the ACT rather than the SAT, getting college admissions personnel to look beyond the test scores is a task school counselors willingly help their students with.
Poverty, broken families and other burdens outside their school lives can impair the academic performances of students who otherwise might achieve more competitive marks to submit to the colleges of their choice.
Frontier High School counselor Holly Cunningham said Thursday said she advises all her graduating students who are applying for college to include personal information about any struggles they’ve faced.
“Especially for disadvantaged kids, I recommend that they include information about adversities or challenging situations they’ve faced. Some are reluctant to do that, but some follow that advice and they get some opportunities,” she said. “All of our kids have so much potential that sometimes goes untapped or unrealized. We encourage them to set goals and pursue them … if they don’t, you always wonder what could have been.”
One former Frontier student, Ashton Amos, is getting set to attend medical school in the fall. She’s from the class of 2016, stacked up a full year of college credits before leaving high school, finished her bachelor’s studies at West Virginia University this year and is enrolled at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, where she’ll pursue a master’s degree in medical science before entering four years of study leading to her doctor of medicine degree.
Although she elected not to include any background adversity in her college applications, Amos said many of her classmates did.
“A lot of times, colleges will have the option to make a personal statement, places where you can explain things a little. I didn’t do that, but I know tons of people who did use it, many students in our school do that,” she said.
Amos said keeping busy was her strategy to stay focused on studies, with activities that included cheerleading, National Honor Society, sports and Key Club. She began taking College Credit Plus courses in her freshman year, compiling 73 credits by graduation.
“Our guidance counselors heavily encourage that at Frontier, and they’ll bring the classes to you if you can’t drive,” she said. Transportation is a factor at Frontier, half an hour drive from Marietta or more for students. The college studies in high school, however, can be a two-edged sword.
“Some tried but failed their CCP classes, then you have to explain when you apply why you got those poor scores,” she said.
Mary Beth Shultz is a counselor at Fort Frye High School, where about half the students qualify for the free lunch program, meaning they are living in poverty.
Shultz said students can often get into a college, although it might not be their first choice for studies. In some cases, she said, they can get admission into a partner community college or satellite school and later transfer to a main campus if that’s what they want. But that isn’t the end of the obstacles.
“What I find happens is that they get admitted but don’t necessarily get the financial package,” she said.
Another asset for students are a pair of programs run out of Washington State Community College, Upward Bound and Talent Search. Both are federally funded to assist disadvantage students in getting higher education.
Deb Goins of Upward Bound said the program is focused on children who are first-generation college aspirants in their families.
“We work with kids from ninth to 12th grade, mentoring, sharing information to help students prepare for college. Our goal is to do everything we can to help the student gain confidence and help them choose a college,” she said.
A narrative of adverse circumstances is something that can be helpful for many students, she said.
“A letter of recommendation can include that,” she said. “We have students from split families, students raised by grandparents or aunts or uncles. We do that, of course, only with the student’s permission.”
Goins said that information can be helpful in admissions applications but is more often used in applying for scholarships.
It’s important to start the process early in the student’s career, she said.
“For example, if we have a student who wants to go to the University of Cincinnati, that student needs to know they need at least three years of foreign language studies as a basic admission requirement. If they start as a junior, it’s too late,” she said.
The Upward Bound program acts as a supplement to bolster school counselors in helping students achieve their post-secondary goals, in part by giving students realistic expectations, she said.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is to be there as much as we can to help students,” she said. “We’re not going to squash their dreams, if they want to be a surgeon or an architect, we encourage them, because there are many routes to get to those professions.
“We help them stick to the academics with tutoring and mentoring. We have a six-week summer camp at Marietta College. They stay in the dorms, understand what it’s like to be away from home, have a chance to meet new friends … we try to give them as many advantages as we can.”
At the other end of the application process, Marietta College assistant vice president for enrollment management Kelli Barnett said the small college already considers the factors that would be included in the Environmental Context Dashboard.
“We review all our applications holistically, along with grades and test scores. I suppose an adversity index could be useful, but we’re able to really take our time on applications. We’re selective and competitive, but we can spend more time on the process. The student biography, for example, might be read by three different people,” she said.
The Environmental Context Dashboard has been under a pilot program with a limited number of colleges for three years. According to College Board, 90 percent of the schools that used it found it provided a more comprehensive view of applicants, and it is being made available to more colleges this year.
The dashboard includes data on the student’s home neighborhood, including typical family income, educational attainment, housing stability and crime and data about the student’s school district, including advanced placement course opportunities, poverty level, whether the district is rural or urban, and senior class size.