Education

Nurturing Skills To Live Out College Dreams

Spingarn Senior High School teacher Vernon Williams works with John Swain, left, and Santos Odumuyiwa in a discussion of their research project. More than 200 seniors in the District are taking the College Transitions course.
Spingarn Senior High School teacher Vernon Williams works with John Swain, left, and Santos Odumuyiwa in a discussion of their research project. More than 200 seniors in the District are taking the College Transitions course. (Photos By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Last fall, Dasha Spencer was shooting for an eventual career in the WNBA after graduation from Spingarn Senior High School, hoping to become the next Lisa Leslie.

For Spencer, the idea of breaking into the pros seemed more real than getting into college.

Since then, the senior has mastered the fine art of writing essays that get an admission committee's attention, completed stacks of financial aid forms without going crazy -- and overcome her own reservations in the process. She now has two scholarships and letters of acceptance to three universities.

Spencer, 17, said her about-face was the result of a privately financed course offered at her Northeast Washington high school and five others in the District. The class aims to boost the number of disadvantaged students who go to college.

"My attitude was: I wanted to play basketball. I didn't really care about [college]. None of my family went," she said.

"When I took this class, I realized I had a lot of opportunities to get into college," added Spencer, who was accepted to Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Central Pennsylvania College in Summerdale, Pa.; and the University of the District of Columbia. She said she plans to attend Northwood.

As of last week, 188 of the 208 seniors in the College Transitions program at Dunbar, Spingarn and Woodson senior high schools and at two charter high schools, IDEA and Booker T. Washington, had received multiple college acceptance letters, according to directors of the program. Most of the 188 have received scholarships, they said.

Having the ability to pick from multiple offers is a given among students from affluent families. But it often is a rarity and a celebrated feat in low-income communities such as the ones where the high schools are located.

Founded seven years ago in Atlanta by Helping Teens Succeed Inc., College Transitions was introduced in the District in the fall. Organizers of the $60,000 program said the schools were selected because of their high numbers of low-income students. The course is offered free to District schools and is financed in part by the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT.

College Transitions is one of more than 20 private programs working to get D.C. high school kids into college but among only a few offered as a class for credit.

"This is really good for kids who are less focused and less organized," said Argelia Rodriguez, executive director of D.C. College Access Program, a privately funded nonprofit organization that sponsors college preparation programs in all of the District's public high schools. The organization helped bring College Transitions to the city.

Students said the class format is ideal for procrastinators and gave them the feet-to-the-fire motivation they needed.

Last week in Room 309 at Spingarn, teacher Vernon Williams issued orders to 10 students on how their final group project should be prepared, his baritone voice booming against the bare floor and block walls.

Since September, the students have met two or three times a week to take aptitude tests to identify their talents and hear lectures on the importance of selecting a school that offers the best program for their interest, instead of the one that throws the best parties.

They have worked on exercises to help them prepare for the SAT and visited colleges and universities in the Northeast and South, and they have labored to improve their writing.

"I learned to use synonyms and not the same word more than once in a paragraph," said Reginald Williams, 17, who serves as the student representative on the D.C. Board of Education and was accepted to five schools.

College Transitions organizers said they want to expand the program next year if they can get the funding.

"We're aiming to double the number of schools next year," said Deborah Insel, founder and director of Helping Teens Succeed.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company