Leah Singleton is determined to enroll at Wellesley College next August. But last fall, she almost missed the visit by the Wellesley admissions recruiter to Woodrow Wilson Senior High School.
As student government president, Singleton was so busy the morning of the recruiter’s visit that she missed the newsuntil her counselor, Georgia Arrington-Booker, hunted her down and made sure she met with the representative. Singleton says that while Arrington-Booker’s effort on her behalf sounds extraordinary, it’s the kind of routine excellence that students at Wilson have come to expect from the counselor.
“You’re talking about a person who knows 300 kids by namecan tell you what’s going on in their file, what colleges they want to apply to,” says Singleton, a graduating senior, who believes the meeting improved her chances for admittance.
In a guidance system that has been known to neglect mailing student transcripts, Arrington-Booker is a welcome departure. Her kids are routinely placed in the colleges they target, and no one who is really interested in continuing his or her education is left behind. It helps that Wilson is the kind of high school that competitive colleges like Wellesley want to visita strong academic program that prepares students for further study. Eighty percent of the 335-member Class of 1996 went on to college with acceptances from 180 institutions ranging from UDC to Yale University.
Admissions officers also love to visit Wilson because the school does things that stand apart in the District of Columbia Public Schoolsgiving them sufficient time, the right kind of information, and consistently well-prepared recommendations.
It isn’t a matter of resources. Wilson gets a raw deal for career counseling as do all DCPS high schoolsfunding for one counselor for every 400 students, limited computer equipment, no dedicated telephones to call colleges, and virtually no resources for professional training.
Wilson kids succeed because the staff there won’t have it any other way. Wilson administrators have long squeezed available resources to enable counselors to seek training and to maintain the school’s unique “College Bureau” office, which tames the paper-intensive college application process. But Wilson’s success in placing its graduates in college reflects just as much upon Arrington-Booker.
“Some counselors are able to overcome those problems remarkably,” says former New York University admissions officer Edward T. Custard about Arrington-Booker’s success in a broken system. “She impresses the hell out of me.”
“I would definitely see her as a role model and example,” echoes Vicki Green, assistant dean for admissions at Atlanta’s Emory College.
Students at Wilson had to do without Arrington-Booker for a few years, when she switched gears at one point in her career. After starting as a guidance counselor at Wilson in 1971, she left for four years in the mid-1970s to pursue her doctorate and work as a principal and assistant principal. She quickly realized that being a bureaucrat wasn’t where she belonged.
“[Counseling] was my first love,” she says. “I liked it better than anything else. I like the hands-on work that I get with the children.”
Arrington-Booker’s affinity for her work shows every day. Singleton says that despite counseling 120 seniors and 100 juniors, and fielding random appeals from other students, Arrington-Booker manages to do the little things that make a big difference when crunch time comes. Based on her advice, Singleton was ahead of the game even as a junior, preparing for the Scholastic Assessment [formerly Aptitude] Test, looking at colleges, and investigating financing options.
Unlike many District counselors, Arrington-Booker actually attends professional courses and conferences. Like any who do attend, Arrington-Booker pays for the programs out of her own pocket, but few sacrifice the way she does to go annually. As a result, she not only knows the latest techniquesthe latest innovation is filing college applications electronicallybut she also nurtures relationships with college admissions offices. Her array of contacts helps her attract up to 20 college representatives a week during peak periods, while other DCPS schools don’t get that many the whole recruiting season.
When recruiting visits trail off, Arrington-Booker says she and other Wilson counselors begin to place strategic “lobbying” calls to admissions offices, calling to explain a low grade on a transcript, give a description of requirements in a particular course, or simply to make the college see what the student offers beyond the paper record. Mary Levy, a local school activist and parent of a recent Wilson graduate, remembers how Arrington-Booker arranged for her daughter to get an interview at her first-choice school.
“She was not Rachel’s counselor,” says Levy. “She just did it.”
Arrington-Booker probably did not make that call from Wilson. DCPS procedures authorizing long-distance calls are so time-consuming that Arrington-Booker says Wilson counselors find it easier to do it from home and just eat the cost. Arrington-Booker also takes calls there.
“You won’t find a lot of counselors who will give out their home phone numbers,” says Green. “She goes the extra mile for her kids.”
Arrington-Booker has managed to build up a database on schools that kids can rely on for more than a snapshot. Every year she has recruiters fill out a detailed form to get current information about their colleges and she has made hundreds of visits to college campuses. Wilson’s principal budgets time for Arrington-Booker and the school’s other counselors to make those visits.
“It gives you a different picture that the book doesn’t,” says Arrington-Booker, who looks at the library, or the quality of the learning-disabled lab, or just at “how happy the children are on campus.”
Singleton says that type of input helped her make decisions.
“You look through the viewbook and see all the nice things, and you look through the college handbook and you see all the college write-ups, but you still go to your counselor for, you know, fact and fiction,” says Singleton. “‘How does that relate to me? Out of all these schools, which one do you think would be a better fit for me?’ Dr. Booker answers those questions.”T.S.