Teens Getting a Leg Up on College

08/28/2008
By From the Boston Globe

By Erin Cahill, Globe Correspondent

Classes start Tuesday at Lawrence High School, but for some ambitious students, they never stopped.

Learning interview skills, writing research papers, and preparing for the SATs, 165 of them spent their summer in class. They gave up their vacations not because they failed a subject or received one too many detentions, but because they want to go to college.

College Prep is a seven-week program organized by the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell for Lawrence students committed to advancing their education.

"Most of the students have been the first in their family to start thinking about college. So we walk them through the process," said program director Hector Torres.

Stephanie Polanco, a senior in Health & Human Services - one of the six specialty schools at Lawrence High - has attended College Prep for four years. "Some people are like, 'How can you do this all summer long?' They say it's stupid," Polanco said. "This is not stupid."

Four days a week, the students in grades 7 through 12 attend enrichment classes, career development workshops, and educational extracurricular activities on the UMass-Lowell campus. They have homework, final projects, and attendance records. At the end of the summer session, provided they have fulfilled all requirements, they are awarded a stipend of $250 to $500 and an opportunity to return the following summer to further prepare for college.

For high school seniors, September kicks off the long stretch of standardized tests, financial aid forms, applications, interviews, and essays to meet the college application deadline in January. The 100 College Prep seniors are eager and ready to tackle a process they have been preparing for over the past three years.

Bernard Long has spent his last six summers at UMass-Lowell. He started in the Young Scholars program for seventh- and eighth-graders and continued with the College Prep program. The senior at Lawrence High's International school said he's fully prepared to continue his education.

"We saw how the admissions process works," he said. "So we know what to do for college."

"Or not to do," added Polanco.

College Prep seniors are guided not only during the summer, but also throughout the school year. Faculty members at College Prep work with students and their parents to make sure they have the best chance at furthering their education after high school. They help students prepare for the SATs, navigate the application process, and ultimately make the transition to life away from home.

"We follow them from the time they meet here until the time they get accepted to college," said Torres.

According to Torres, the students in the Young Scholars and College Prep programs come from varied backgrounds. Most, he said, are minorities. Some have recently moved to this country and are just starting to learn English.

"We show them the possibilities," he said, "We say to them, 'It's about how much you want it.' "

Torres said some College Prep students are in foster homes or under the care of the state Department of Social Services. For these students, the program organizers can act as parental figures or guardians during the college process.

"They're basically like our parents because they're always over us watching," said Adriean Matos, a senior in Lawrence's Humanities & Leadership high school who completed four years of College Prep.

Since its launch in 1983, the academic partnership between the Lawrence public schools and UMass-Lowell has grown. Created by then-state senator Patricia McGovern and UMass-Lowell chancellor William Hogan, the program began as a way to lower Lawrence's high dropout rate. In 1996, Torres took over as director, expanding the College Prep program and adding the Young Scholars in 1999.

The program is funded by the UMass-Lowell chancellor's office and the state. State Senator Susan Tucker of Lawrence makes sure funding is specifically earmarked in the state budget so that the programs can continue to be offered free of charge.

"These students may never have thought of themselves as potential college students," said Tucker. "I'm a big fan of College Prep."

UMass-Lowell also has established two new scholarships for College Prep students. The $5,000 Henry J. Powell Lawrence High School Endowed Scholarship for University Success was created for graduates who will be attending UMass-Lowell. According to Torres, 100 percent of College Prep graduates go on to college, and 60 percent attend UMass-Lowell.

The success of the program can be summed up by the enthusiasm in the students' rally cry.

Huddled together, Torres shouted to them, "College Prep, how do you feel?"

"Highly dedicated! Super motivated!"