But Carrington, 17, is nervous, and so are his parents. What if Dunbar — where truancy is chronic and fewer than one-third of students are proficient in reading — didn’t prepare him for the rigors of college? What if he isn’t ready?
“I don’t think I’m going to fail everything,” Carrington said. “But I think I’m going to be a bit behind.”
It’s a valid concern. Past valedictorians of low-performing District high schools say their own transitions to college were eye-opening and at times ego-shattering, filled with revelations that — despite taking their public schools’ most difficult classes and acing them — they were not equipped to excel at the nation’s top colleges.
When these students arrived on campuses filled with students from high-flying suburban public schools and posh privates, they found a world vastly different from the one they knew in their urban high schools.
For Sache Collier, it meant writing her first research paper. For Darryl Robinson, it meant realizing that professors expected original ideas, not just regurgitated facts. For Angelica Wardell, who grew up going to school almost exclusively with African American students, it meant taking classes with whites and Asians.
And for many top D.C. graduates, it meant discarding the idea that school is easy.
“You can’t make it in college by yourself,” said Wardell, who just finished her junior year at Ohio State University. “You need professors, you need friends, you just need all the help you can get.”
Wardell said she breezed through H.D. Woodson High before graduating in 2010 and heading to Ohio State, where the workload was immediately overwhelming. And the diversity was a social shock. But her lowest point came during sophomore year, when she failed trigonometry despite pouring herself into the course.
She had taken trigonometry in high school and earned a B.
“I basically thought I was stupid,” said Wardell, 21. “I just felt like, ‘What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m not meant to be here at one of the best schools in the nation.’ I told my mom I wanted to leave.”
It was a temporary impulse, eventually drowned out by a chorus of encouragement from friends and professors. Wardell redoubled her efforts to reach out for help and earned a C-plus on her second try at college trig. She is majoring in public health and plans to continue for a master’s degree in the same field.
“I like to challenge myself, even though sometimes it frustrates me,” Wardell said.
College can be jarring for young people no matter where they’re from or how challenging a high school they attended. But experts and educators say the transition can be particularly difficult for first-generation collegians and students from struggling inner-city schools.