Evanston Township High School English teacher Steve Newman told a story to introduce his new Evanston Scholars program to guests at Boocoo cultural center last month.
Two of his former students had stopped by to see him recently, bringing the disappointing news he hears all too often. The ETHS graduates told him they had dropped out of college, making them two more examples of a worrisome trend the 14-year teacher says he has observed at the high school.
Mr. Newman says he watches too many of his capable low-income juniors become rudderless seniors "with no plan, guidance or support" for life after high school." And then he sees too many go on to college but drop out – at least in part, he says, because they have "settled on [colleges] that were not a good fit."
Aware of the slippery slope that life after high school can present to poor and minority students, the Golden Apple award-winning teacher began considering how to intervene. In January Mr. Newman took a step to address the problems by founding Evanston Scholars, a program to help underserved kids negotiate the college choice and application process and stay in college to complete a degree.
Mr. Newman did not need to reinvent the wheel. He discovered in the 16-year-old Chicago Scholars program a blueprint for his project. Like its big-city model, the Evanston program hinges on mentors, since studies have demonstrated, says Mr. Newman, that for underserved students "success in college comes with support and relationships."
While Mr. Newman says ETHS and Evanston Scholars "share a similar vision [for students]," he says for low-income kids the school has "no cohesive structure to get to a good fit [for post-secondary education]."
Because students "at the [academic] upper end [tend to] have supports" or know how to ask for them, he says, and lower-level students "need different supports," Evanston Scholars is aimed at underserved students in the academic middle. Some of these competent students are "gung-ho about college," Mr. Newman says. But since many of them are the first in their families to aspire to post-secondary education, he says they "don’t know what to do when they don’t know what to do."
Beth Arey, ETHS college and career coordinator, was an early recruit to the Evanston Scholars board. She sees the program as enhancing, rather than competing with, the work of the high school guidance department.
The school has a staff of 13 "generalist counselors," she says, with an average case load of 250 students per counselor. "That is aligned with the number recommended by the professional counseling organization," she says. These ETHS counselors do high school academic planning with students of all grade levels and help with "initial post-secondary planning," says Ms. Arey.
She and one other counselor focus on post-secondary planning, seeing individual students, doing presentations for classes on subjects like the college essay and coordinating evening programs on topics such as financial aid.
The two specialists do take appointments with students after school hours. But she says she believes "it is good [for students] to have a relationship they can count on outside school. Research shows students of color are most successful when they have [such] relationships."
Evanston Scholars will each receive a $1,500 scholarship. But mentoring relationships are the essence of the program. It pairs an adult mentor with a prospective ETHS senior and assumes they will work together from the beginning of senior year at ETHS through college graduation. Each mentor contracts to spend face-time with his or her student as well as to keep in touch by email and other means. Beginning in the summer before senior year, the pairs will attend workshops on various admissions-related topics.
Ms. Arey says she told Mr. Newman at the outset she wanted to be sure the mentors had "current, clear, accurate information" on the college admissions process. To ensure that this would happen, she agreed to train the mentors, who will in turn serve, she says, as "support guides and motivators" for the students. She has pledged to keep the mentors on track with deadlines. "I will remind them of what to remind" their mentees about, she says.
Mr. Newman and the organization’s board have designed the program to serve 10 students a year. The first 10 Evanston Scholars have been named, selected on the basis of applications, letters of recommendation, parents’ permission and their own motivation and willingness to follow through. Mr. Newman reports the roster of mentors is all but complete. Workshops will begin in August.
Down the road, says Mr. Newman, there are numerous possibilities for enhancing the program. Chicago Scholars has an "onsite" program in October, when colleges come to offer scholarships. And Evanston Scholars should be prime candidates for internships, says Mr. Newman. After all, he says, the program can present them to employers as pre-selected – "kids with good character and ambition."
From Ms. Arey’s point of view, ETHS cannot help but benefit from the Evanston Scholars program. "We’re better off if more students are better off," she says. Everyone profits, she says, when teens make use of school and community resources – and urge their friends to do the same. "I hope as more kids receive services, they’ll be our best advertisement," she says.