- - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

As a D.C. high school junior, Mikayla Hooks was overwhelmed by the prospect of going to college.

“The whole college thing — I was lost,” she says, glancing down at her hands. “I wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t even know where to start to think.”

An all-star athlete, Mikayla knew she wanted to continue her cheerleading career after graduation, but she lacked a clear academic direction.

Mikayla is one of 190 seniors at Ballou High School, where every graduating senior has applied to college this year — a first for the long-struggling school with one of the lowest graduation rates in the D.C. Public Schools system.

The percentage of students at D.C. schools who graduate from high school in four years is at a historic high of 69 percent, but the city’s graduation rate still falls significantly short of the national average — which is more than 80 percent.

Over the past year, the city has amped up its efforts to ensure more students like Mikayla not only graduate but also pursue their interests after graduation — whether by attending college, joining the military or entering the workforce.

DCPS directed $4 million of its budget for this year toward hiring “Pathways coordinators” — school-based advisers tasked with monitoring the progress of a small group of students and keeping them on track for graduation.

Nelson Greene became the Pathways coordinator at Ballou in August, after spending seven years as a D.C. College Access Program adviser. He meets with about 40 students on a regular basis and assists them with tasks such as drafting emails and filling out applications for college or workforce development programs.

His calm, collected demeanor lends itself to a high school advisory role — but in the hallways, his bond with his students is unmistakable.

“You find a common interest with students and develop a rapport around that,” Mr. Greene said. “You find out what the students really like to do and tie that into the workplace and into college.”

For college-bound students — particularly those at Ballou, located in a low-income Southeast neighborhood — “the major need is financial,” he said.

“Students are being accepted, but now it’s about how are they going to afford paying for college,” he said. “Those are some of the things I’m helping students with: finding scholarships, filling out forms for aid or other things they’re eligible for.”

Mikayla has spent hours in Mr. Greene’s office over the past few months weighing her options and exploring opportunities.

“I thought I’d have to pick which school I was going to based off the money they gave me,” she said. “That’s what I was going to do.”

Andre Murrell, another Ballou senior, said Mr. Greene has been helping him sift through career options. Although he applied to college with the rest of his class, he has since become more interested in becoming a D.C. firefighter.

“I wasn’t really planning on going to college,” he said, recalling his hesitation. But when he learned about the District’s firefighter cadet program, he felt a sense of resolve.

“For students who aren’t college-bound, some of the challenges are finding the right person to talk to,” Mr. Greene said. “Much like the college students who are trying to find the best college for them, they’re trying to find a program that’s the best fit for them and their needs.”

Others in Mr. Greene’s cohort are focused on a more short-term goal: getting through high school.

‘Everybody has the same goal’

The District has about 1,500 students it categorizes as overage and undercredited — those younger than 24 and more than two years behind in classwork.

A mixture of missing classes, family complications and societal influences can cause students to falter in school, Mr. Greene said.

Part of his job is to identify struggling students and counsel them toward postsecondary success.

“The challenges are different for each student,” he said.

Regardless of obstacles they may face, students at Ballou are determined, he said. For him, helping them flourish is more than worthwhile.

Mikayla isn’t the only student, Andre isn’t the only student — but I feel that joy that they feel when they get that college acceptance letter or an email from a career academy saying, ‘Hey, we’d love to talk to you,’” he said. “You get a sense of enjoyment when they accomplish something that they set out to do.”

Another aim of the Pathways program, DCPS officials say, is to ensure students are “meaningfully connected to at least one staff member” at the school.

For many students at Ballou, Mr. Greene is not simply another adult advising them on academics, he is there to listen to their struggles and celebrate their successes in and out of school.

Mr. Greene was quick to point out that other advisers at Ballou, including College and Career Coordinator Jamanda Porter, are equally as involved in making sure students feel ready to pursue their ambitions after high school.

“I can’t really say that I have a stronger relationship with the students than she does,” he said, referring to Ms. Porter, who usually begins working with students as soon as they enter high school in ninth grade. “We work as a team here at Ballou, so everybody has the same goal.”

So far, Ballou, H.D. Woodson and Anacostia High School are the only D.C. public schools with full-time college and career coordinators, but DCPS plans to hire six others starting next school year.

Pathways is active in all comprehensive and alternative D.C. public high schools — 13 in total — and will expand to include the Columbia Heights Education Campus next year.

“It’s a DCPS priority to make sure that our students are getting extra support no matter which path they’re going on,” said schools spokeswoman Janae Hinson.

But providing extra support to every one of Ballou’s 930-plus students is no small task, she said. Pathways coordinators like Mr. Greene make sure students don’t slip out of the system unnoticed.

Through the program, the group of students Mr. Greene monitors — “my 40,” as he calls them — receive more one-on-one attention than they might otherwise. And as they leave Ballou, students will be able to rely on Mr. Greene. He said he will continue to assist and be in contact with them as they navigate their chosen career paths.

For Mikayla, the next step is Virginia State University, where she will begin studying social work this fall.

She also was accepted to Bowie State, Delaware State and Morgan State. She joked that her decision came down to each school’s athletic department.

“It was an elimination process,” she said. “But it was also kind of between Morgan and VSU’s cheer teams.”

Right now, what excites her most about attending college is leaving her hometown.

“I’m over the whole D.C. thing,” she said. “I’m ready to go be exposed to new things and new people.”

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