Baltimore — The first time Kolby Farrar took the SAT, he didn’t have a graphing calculator to use on the math portion of the exam.

He scored 900 out of a possible 1600 points. That’s above the average Baltimore student’s score, but a couple hundred more points could make the difference on whether he earns the scholarships he’s eyeing.

So Farrar, 17, has participated in a free summer class aimed at better preparing him for the college entrance exam. Eleven other students joined Farrar in Baltimore Polytechnic Institute’s library.

The program, a partnership with the city’s teen jobs initiative, YouthWorks, not only provides the students with a free SAT and ACT crash course, but pays them minimum wage to be there 25 hours a week.

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For years, YouthWorks has matched thousands of kids with summer jobs at local nonprofit organizations, government agencies and other businesses. For the first time this summer, the organization teamed up with the CollegeBound Foundation and Streamline Tutors to give Farrar and other Baltimore public school students what they see as a fairer shake on the high-stakes exam.

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Without the program, students and officials say, it’s unlikely these teenagers could access the kind of one-on-one, intensive tutoring they’re getting this summer — the kind that has long been accessible to those from more well-off families.

Private SAT prep with companies like Baltimore-based Streamline can cost thousands of dollars and take dozens of hours, pulling kids away from jobs they may need to support their families.

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Farrar, who plans to be the first in his family to go to college, has worked every summer since he turned 14.

“Our students don’t have the luxury of being able to take the summer off. They can’t do SAT prep instead of a job — it needs to be their job,” said Cassie Motz, director of the Baltimore-based CollegeBound Foundation. “With this program, we’re hoping, in one small way, to level the playing field.”

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Streamline more often works with kids enrolled at local private schools where tuition rivals the cost of college. Farrar goes to Carver Vocational-Technical High School, on the city’s west side, where more than half the students come from poverty.

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A national conversation

As Baltimore officials prepared to roll out this program, they watched the unfolding scandal involving a ring of wealthy parents accused of using bribery and fraud to get their children into elite colleges.

Throughout the country, discussions quickly turned not just to the dozens of indictments stemming from the federal “Varsity Blues” operation, but also the myriad ways the college admissions system favors those who come from money.

This national conversation shed light on a truth many in Baltimore see every day: The doors to educational opportunities swing open more freely for the children of wealthy parents.

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Data shows a student’s SAT score is highly correlated with family income. Even among the well-off, there’s a significant jump between the average score of a student whose parents are in the $140,000 to $160,000 bracket and a student whose parents earn more than $200,000.

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The people involved in the YouthWorks partnership hope to disrupt the patterns, at least for the 12 teenagers, most of them black, spending their summer studying in Poly’s dim library.

“Wealthy families pay for prep all the time,” Motz said. “Why shouldn’t all students get the chance?”

To be part of the program, students needed to be a rising high school senior with at least a 900 combined score on a previous test attempt. They had to apply through YouthWorks and be recommended by their guidance counselor.

If they can boost their SAT scores, Motz says, they will have a better chance of getting into more selective colleges and collecting more financial aid. The program is based on the belief that all these Baltimore kids have the potential to score higher, if only they’re provided guidance.

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CollegeBound hopes to see the summer students’ scores go up 200 points after they’re done with the innovative program, officially dubbed “SmartyScholars.”

That kind of bump could be a game-changer.

Overcoming gaps

Farrar wakes up at 6 a.m. for a nearly hour-long commute across town. As he leaves his Jonestown rowhome each morning, his thick textbooks tucked into his backpack, he passes the poster his mother hung on their front door: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

He sometimes does practice problems as he rides the metro and then a bus. A few times, he has gotten so immersed in the work he missed his stop.

He typically arrives an hour before class begins to focus on his homework. He likes the quiet in the library, so different from what it’s like at home — he’s one-half of one of three sets of twins.

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Farrar has held a job for as long as he has been able, knowing his single mom counts on him to help pay the bills and buy his four younger siblings new school supplies. He has been a busboy, a camp counselor, a masonry apprentice. For eight weeks though, his primary job is raising his SAT score.

“I would’ve tried to come here even if I wasn’t getting paid,” he said. “But since I’m getting paid to come here and learn, it’s a win-win situation. I get to help my mother out and better myself.”

The first hour of YouthWorks time is for group instruction. A rotating cast of Streamline Tutoring representatives leads the students through exercises each day.

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Ian Siegel, the company’s CEO, directed the class one recent morning, demonstrating strategies for answering vocabulary questions and hammering the difference between “its” and “it’s,” “they’re” and “their,” “affect” and “effect.”

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Later, the teenagers break out into one-on-one tutoring sessions based on which skills they need to strengthen.

Test-prep specialist Tom Stanton works with Farrar on a computer in the corner of the library. They drill down on multiplying fractions and algebraic equations. The city schoolteacher who was supposed to teach him this stuff was pretty hands-off, Farrar tells Stanton, and much of that class was spent playing Uno.

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The tutors know they must overcome gaps from the teens’ earlier education. About 9 percent of Baltimore students passed the state standardized test for Algebra I in 2018.

The city school system is working to improve access to college entrance exams, too. Two years ago, the district started providing every 11th-grader the chance to take the SAT at no cost on a school day. Teachers are encouraged to point students toward Khan Academy’s free online SAT prep tool, developed in partnership with the College Board, which they say is associated with big score increases.

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The SmartyScholars course takes this work further.

Farrar struggled at first on the SAT questions testing a student’s knowledge of commas, semicolons and apostrophes. Sometimes, when he’s doing practice questions, he feels like the test is written for “someone in England.” The words that sound right to him aren’t always correct. Some SAT critics argue the test is culturally biased.

Some of his friends ribbed him for wanting to spend most of his summer in a library, drilling vocabulary words and learning to solve for X. No one else from Carver signed up. But he couldn’t pass on the chance.

“This could open a lot of doors for me,” Farrar said.

His goal is to break 1000 points. A month in, he was confident he’ll see some kind of bump.

Baltimore students in last year’s graduating class scored an average of 890 on the SAT. The statewide average for public school students was 1066.

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Like many teenagers in the city, Farrar wants to get away from the cycles of violence and poverty he’s seen up close. He has set his sights on a few colleges in West Virginia. A higher SAT score would mean better access to scholarships to help with out-of-state tuition.

He’s thinking of majoring in kinesiology, maybe becoming a physical trainer or a firefighter one day.

As the first person in his family destined for college, he wants to set an example for his younger brothers and sisters, to keep them on the right path.

His mother, Keyonna Starkes-Green, says she couldn’t be more proud as she watches her son spend his summer focused on academics while still working hard to help support their family.

She has decorated their home with symbols of her children’s successes. Farrar’s wrestling medals hang by the staircase. A trophy celebrating his stellar middle-school grades is on the coffee table. A living room wall is covered with certificates earned by him and his siblings. Perhaps one day, Starkes-Green will add her son’s diploma to the collection.

“My son will be the first to go to college,” she said. “I can’t believe it — it’s just awesome.”

The class ends Aug. 23. Farrar is scheduled to retake the SAT the next morning.

Last time, he studied just a couple of days in advance, using review materials he found after a quick Google search. He didn’t eat breakfast the morning of the test and didn’t walk in feeling prepared.

This time, he’ll be armed with test strategies and mnemonic devices and the voice of his tutors telling him that he’s got this. He says he’ll be confident — and he’ll know to have that graphing calculator with him.

— Baltimore Sun