12/27/2012 03:17 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

College Summit Prep Program Spreads To More Connecticut Schools

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

College-going boosters showed up at the city's biggest high school with a "secret sauce"--a real live New Haven public school grad who beat the odds to make it through her first semester in college.

That "secret sauce," Evelyn Folson, came Thursday morning to a press event at Wilbur Cross High School. She is now a freshman at Western Connecticut State University--and a poster child for the city's new college-going initiative, College Summit.

The program, run by a national not-for-profit of the same name, trains high school students to help their peers prepare for college. It also helps the school implement a college readiness curriculum.

New Haven hired College Summit in 2010 to run a pilot program at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. The program has since spread to five other city high schools.
Officials announced Thursday that College Summit will spread to three more high schools next summer: Wilbur Cross, Sound School and High School in the Community.

Only 17 percent of New Haven public school students obtain a college degree within four years of finishing high school, Mayor John DeStefano said Thursday. The school district didn't used to track that data. Now it has hired College Summit to help track that information and boost the number of kids who persist in, and graduate from, college.

Officials turned to Folson to shine the way.

Folson, of Winthrop Avenue, took the microphone before a crowd of juniors in Cross's auditorium. Folson went to James Hillhouse High School. She said no one in her family had ever finished college. Her mom and dad started out in college, then dropped out. Her brother dropped out, too, to join the U.S. military. She said as she looked towards college, she had no idea where to start. She had never heard of a personal statement, a key component to the college application process. In the spring of her junior year, she signed up as a "peer leader" at College Summit.

Through College Summit, she enrolled in a four-day summer "boot camp" at Yale University. She ate and slept on campus and learned all the nuts and bolts of applying to college, from financial aid applications to those pesky essays. She returned to Hillhouse in the fall of 2011 and spread the college-going gospel to her peers.

Folson graduated from Hillhouse in 2012 and went on to college. An honors student who took AP classes at Hillhouse, she found the transition difficult. She said mid-way through her freshman year at Western, she was hit with Ds and Fs on her exams. A lot was riding on her shoulders.

To go to college, Folson got a small sum of money from New Haven Promise, the city's new college scholarship program for city kids who keep up good behavior and grades in public New Haven high schools. Promise paid 34.5 percent of her tuition, she said. That's $740 per semester. Her family still had to pay the remaining tuition, plus some $2,000 in fees, plus room, board and books. To make the payments, Folson took out two student loans and a "parent plus" loan, which is in her father's name, but which she aims to pay back on his behalf.

"My mom's always saying it's a lot of money," Folson later elaborated. "I just hope you finish," her mom told her.

Folson didn't look back. "I finish what I start," she replied.

To renew her Promise scholarship, Folson has to keep up a 2.0 grade point average each semester freshman year. (The bar used to be set at 2.5, but the Promise board lowered it after only 62 percent of recipients made that threshold in the inaugural year.) With the GPA goal in mind, she worked hard to pull her grades up. She did all the extra credit work she could get her hands on. She said staff at College Summit supported her along the way. She hasn't gotten her final grades back, but she expects to easily meet the 2.0 threshold.

"I pulled through," she said.

As she persevered through her own academic struggles, Folson made time in her freshman year to return to Hillhouse and help a handful of kids apply to college. She said she went to the library every weekend to work with them. She also served on a panel of College Summit alumni encouraging other kids to follow her footsteps.

College Summit helps schools implement a 33-week college-going seminar, which gets woven into the high school curriculum.

Connecticut College Summit Director Veronica DeLandro said students like Folson, who motivate their peers and help them prepare for college, comprise the "most powerful component" of College Summit's approach.

She called Folson "our secret sauce."

Students also heard from James Doss-Gollin, a 2011 Wilbur Cross graduate now in his sophomore year at Yale. Doss-Gollin wasn't involved in College Summit. He has since launched his own not-for-profit called New Haven Reach, which pairs Yale undergraduates with high school seniors to help them apply to college.

College Summit serves 50,000 students in grades 9 to 12 in 11 regions of the country, including Oakland, L.A., Miami, D.C. and New York. The program launched at Coop in 2010; spread to Metropolitan Business Academy and James Hillhouse High in 2011; then to New Haven Academy, Hyde Leadership School and Hill Regional Career High School in 2012. The program is funded by private dollars: $2 million from Yale-New Haven Hospital and $300,000 from Wells Fargo Bank.

So far, there is little data on whether the program is working.

The only data available is from the Class of 2011 at Coop, the first school to pilot the program. A report compiled by College Summit showed that in the first year the program took off at the school, four more kids enrolled in college than had the previous year. The rate of college enrollment rose from 46 to 57 percent. To count as enrolling in college, kids have to finish their first semester of college without dropping out. So the new data is not yet available for the Class of 2012, nor for those students in the Class of 2011 now in their sophomore year, said DeLandro.

College Summit reported that last school year, 79 percent of seniors enrolled in College Summit high schools submitted at least one college application; 87 percent took the ACT or SAT; and 78 percent submitted the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). (Click here to read the report.)

There is no baseline data to compare that to, however, because the school district didn't collect it before College Summit came to town.

Schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo told Wilbur Cross juniors about how when he was in high school, college wasn't on his radar.

"The only thing I thought about was getting out of high school," Mayo said. A guidance counselor ended up inspiring him to apply.

"I'm hoping most of you are not going to be like me," he told the students. With the help of College Summit, "we're going to get 99 percent of kids in your class enrolled in college next year."