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There are few lonelier spots on earth than the place Iyabo Akinadewo found herself last May. She was halfway through the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT)—the key that unlocks the door to colleges and universities—and she realized she was blowing it.

The then-junior at H.D. Woodson Senior High School was baffled. She figured the SAT was just another in the long line of standardized tests that teachers plop down to measure achievement. She had entered the test confident that her success in school would extend to the SATs—a hope that turned out to be cruelly mistaken.

“I was sitting there, like, ‘I can’t believe I have 15 minutes to read this whole thing,’” Akinadewo, now a senior, says. “I was stuck on questions for more than five minutes. You’re only supposed to take 40 seconds on a question. I didn’t know how to pace myself. I didn’t know how to read and comprehend what I was reading. I was so unprepared for that test.”

An honors-level student who has wanted to study psychology since she was 12, Akinadewo says she knew a good SAT score was her ticket to a respected university in her desired field of study. But her belly-flop on the test dimmed those chances considerably.

A promising, college-bound student should never enter the SAT clueless. But failing to prepare its students is not the only way the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) foil the already tricky escape from a troubled inner-city school system. It’s scary enough that only six out of every 10 DCPS pupils who begin 10th grade graduate, but the ones who survive find themselves undereducated, undercounseled, and underinformed.

In a train wreck of a school system, the high-school counseling system is the blocked fire door. Former D.C. Board of Education member Nate Bush says not offering a viable exit arrangement for students who have done their part to make it to graduation is a violation of trust.

“It is important that those youngsters who survived and made it through understand that we support them,” says Bush. “We have to tell them, ‘We have counselors who can help you make career choices.’”

Would that it were true.

AJanuary evening—a key one in her journey to college—plays out at Akinadewo’s apartment at the little desk that she has long since outgrown. She hums along with Janis Joplin’s “Get It While You Can,” plotting the final words of the essay she hopes will catch the eye of an admissions officer at New York University. She knows that the academic rigors of NYU are a world away from DCPS, but that’s a big part of the attraction.

The music keeps her focused. “If it’s too quiet, my mind starts wandering,” she says. Distractions certainly abound in her box of a room. The trappings of a worldly, curious young woman dangle from walls, ceiling, and shelves—the Anarchy Club flier from Greece, provocative clippings from fashion magazines, a piece of jade swinging in the doorway for good luck. The collection hints at the zigs and zags of Akinadewo’s interests, from Bobby Kennedy to the music of Marley, Hendrix, and Aretha (“I like her back then. She’s too glossy for me now”).

Prominent, too, among the distractions in Akinadewo’s room are the stacks of brochures, letters, and catalogs from colleges and universities. The 17-year-old has labeled, organized, and ordered the information. She is a girl who knows what she wants and believes she is ready to get it.

“I don’t want to be stuck in a very one-dimensional setting, in just an African-American school, or a white school, or an Asian-American school,” she says. “I want to have a really diverse, urban, melting-pot setting.”

That would be a far cry from a half-year earlier, when, at a critical juncture late in her junior year, Akinadewo was pointed squarely in the wrong direction. She had not investigated her options for college, she was sitting on a far-below-average SAT score of 620 out of 1600, and she was unsure about what to do next. Her dad, a cabdriver in the District, and her mother, who works at a restaurant, were in no position to give her advice because they knew next to nothing about today’s complicated college-application runaround.

That’s usually where a high-school guidance counselor steps in to nudge students along the proper path, telling them to retake the SAT, to compare their interests with the offerings at different schools, to inquire about the academic requirements at the ones they like. But at the time, college was not much on the mind of Akinadewo’s counselor at Woodson.

“She never officially sat me down and said, ‘Iyabo, if you’re looking at colleges, what are your choices? What are you going to major in? If not college, do you want to go to trade school or the military? What are your options after high school?’” says Akinadewo. “She came in and said, ‘OK, you need these and these credits to graduate.’”

It didn’t help that the counselor, Saxon Graham, has a few hundred other students who combine to form a mind-bending caseload of problems, questions, and crises. Sometimes getting a kid into the right college seems like small potatoes in a system struggling to ensure basics like security and literacy.

“You need a discussion between the guidance counselor and student that should be happening every time, but it’s not,” says Julia Baer-Cooper, the director of development at D.C.-based

Mentors Inc., a program that tutors about 400 DCPS students. “That’s what I think is happening to a lot of these kids. They could be college-bound. But you can fall through the cracks.”

The cracks are huge. Many soon-to-graduate kids have no idea what their college options are.

“There are seniors who haven’t taken the SAT yet,” says Baer-Cooper. “They don’t have any [college] applications.”

Recruiters who show up at D.C. high schools looking for a diamond in the rough are chronically disappointed.

“I’ve found that students don’t know what kinds of courses they should be taking,” says Sammie T. Robinson, a D.C.-area recruiter for George Washington University. “Students are taking orchestra or student government in lieu of core academic subjects. And they find out too late.”

And kids can’t be expected to take responsibility for their own futures when the adults who are charged with assisting them are nowhere to be found.

“I’ve had counselors themselves miss scheduled appointments,” says Mark Hatcher about visits to District high schools—among the scores he makes during eight weeks on the road for Atlanta’s Morehouse College. “Or I get there and I find out that someone forgot to announce the visit, so instead of 20 to 30 students as I had planned for, I get two or three.”

Sometimes the bereft school system can’t be trusted to perform the tiniest parts of its portfolio. Michele Booth Cole, the executive director at Mentors Inc. and an alumni recruiter for Harvard University, recalls that a fellow recruiter visiting a D.C. high school happened to notice transcripts sitting on a counselor’s desk just before Harvard’s deadline for early admission. She discovered that they were unmailed because the office did not have stamps. Cole says the recruiter reached into her pocket and mailed the transcripts herself.

The collapse of the high-school counseling program did not begin with the current DCPS budget crisis—it is the product of long-term systematic neglect. Counseling has been a low priority at DCPS for years. Back when the system’s payroll swelled to obscene levels in the late 1980s, the counseling corps stayed slim. Never mind that school system policy long endorsed a load of 350 students for each high-school counselor—the official allocation in school budgets remains at 400:1. The national average is about 300:1 in public schools, a level the Alexandria-based National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) recommends as an absolute maximum.

“We’ve always been short of counselors,” says former D.C. school board member Erika Landberg. She recalls that the school board earmarked funds in 1989 to hire 25 new high-school counselors—only to have most of the money spent on unrelated positions.

Robinson can vouch for the history of impotence of the DCPS counseling program. As a senior at Roosevelt High in 1971, he was sitting in his English class bored stiff one day, when he heard that a Bowdoin College recruiter was visiting at that moment. Using the opportunity to sneak out of class, Robinson ended up in an unexpectedly fruitful one-on-one meeting, which introduced him to his future alma mater.

He wonders where he would have ended up had he not been bored.

“It was a fluke,” Robinson says. “I found that happened too often at my school. My counselor had so many things she had to deal with. She was not as knowledgeable as she should have been about the college application process.”

Even when post-high school plans do not involve college, students like Gwendolyn Robertson of Ballou High encounter snafus. Robertson’s hopes of enlisting in the Navy in August are in doubt because her counselor didn’t tell her until last December that she needed more credits to graduate than she could complete by this June—even though the school’s principal had assured Robertson she would graduate in 1997.

Not every kid at DCPS is stuck in limbo. Eastern High junior Christina McLean is already deeply involved in the task of preparing for the SAT and has been researching potential colleges. She credits her counselors with getting her on the ball early. McLean’s good fortune at Eastern is due in part to the school’s low 175:1 student-counselor ratio—an area on which the school administration has put emphasis. There is no such emphasis in DCPS as a whole, however, which allows counseling programs to drift unattended, according to Woodrow Wilson High counselor Georgia Arrington-Booker.

“It’s, like, helter-skelter,” she says. “There’s no systemwide approach to it.”

Counseling insiders will tell you that not even a half-dozen other District high schools have programs worth maintaining.

“Once you get out of the schools with the strong academic backgrounds, you’ll find that the counselors are focusing on too many different areas,” Robinson says diplomatically.

Ralph Neal, the assistant superintendent for high schools, says he hopes to adapt the methods of the few successful units to all 18 D.C. senior high schools. Among the models that Neal cites are Wilson, the School Without Walls, and Banneker—three of the four schools that send more than 70 percent of their students to a two- or four-year college or university, according to a DCPS survey of 1994 graduates.

But shy of cloning exemplary counselors like Arrington-Booker (see sidebar), college-bound students may have little luck getting results from the counselors at other District high schools. Most are overwhelmed. Many are undertrained. And some are in over their heads.

Akinadewo thought she had all the bases covered last November, when she gave her counselor three applications to fill out, two months before the deadlines. Akinadewo had already squared away the required teacher recommendation letters and was gearing up to start her essays as soon as her counselor filled out the school’s portion of the documents.

“She said, ‘OK, no problem. I’ll get them to you,’” Akinadewo remembers. “When I went back to her, like, a week later, I said, ‘Are you finished with my applications?’ She said, ‘What are you talking about? What applications?’”

Unfortunately for Akinadewo, she hadn’t copied what she gave the counselor.

“I’m naive about some things, you know,” she says wryly. “I’m 17. And I learned the hard way: Never give away anything unless you’ve filled out your part or have it Xeroxed or have a backup.”

When Graham told Akinadewo she had never received the forms, the student didn’t protest, but Akinadewo insists even today that the counselor had taken the items, tucked them into a folder, and put them on a desk awash in papers. “I don’t lose anything,” says Akinadewo. “Especially when it comes to those college applications. I keep all those things together.” She and her father ended up having to call each school to request new applications, which did not arrive until right before the winter break.

Even if the application process runs smoothly, students at Woodson who need help wading through the cryptic 12-page federal financial-aid booklet have to wait until Thursday, says Akinadewo, when a counselor with that expertise visits the school. The rest of the time, she and her classmates are on their own.

“I have a notebook in my purse,” she says. “Every time I see a scholarship program listing, I scribble down the address. I don’t care if it’s for a dollar, I apply for it.”

Even with that kind of enterprise, Akinadewo could still use those inside tips a counselor often provides. It was only in late January that she found out that students could request waivers from the stinging $35 to $50 application fees universities charge.

“I should have known that last year,” she says.

Not every kid in DCPS has been sentenced to solitary wandering in pursuit of his or her academic destiny. Many students walk into guidance offices and find a face that’s not only friendly but well informed about how to get would-be scholars situated in the right colleges. Time and knowledge are precious commodities in any DCPS high-school counseling program.

“One of the reasons we’re able to keep our heads above water here is because we do not have a problem taking it beyond the school day,” says Dunbar High counselor Sheila Mills-Harris, who puts in late evenings and weekends to manage her load of 300 students.

Counselors in the District are supposed to have fingers in all sorts of dikes. They have to arrange parent consultations, counsel individual students, and develop “conflict resolution” programs. But on top of that, the counselors at senior high schools have to perform intricate course scheduling, student evaluation, and career planning—when they can get around to it.

Some schools have made a conscious effort to dedicate more of their available funding to counselors—Bell Multicultural High School maintains a ratio of 110 students to each counselor. Other schools carry much higher burdens, such as Wilson, which for much of the year had a 350:1 ratio because one counselor had been on long-term sick leave, or Coolidge High, which DCPS records show has a whopping 460:1 ratio.

With only so much time and attention to go around, the harder cases among potential collegians can easily get left behind. Former school board member Bush says that overburdened counselors naturally tilt more toward the academic stars.

“There is a tendency to want to focus on the 3.7 and 3.8 [grade point average] kids, the easy marks, maybe,” he says. “Schools are recruiting for them, looking for them. The flip side are the 2.5 students. There’s more of them. There’s more work involved. They’re not going to get the kind of assistance [to] help them choose the right college or university.”

Being short-handed also leaves counselors vulnerable when the college counseling process gets into full swing. The more short-handed the program, the worse the process becomes. Each application season, counselors handle hundreds and sometimes thousands of college forms, usually two- to four-page requests for information about the student and school.

“It’s a big job,” says Mary Levy of Parents United, a school-reform advocacy group. “It comes in a rush. It’s important.”

But just saying it’s so doesn’t make it a priority at DCPS.

“It’s nobody’s job!” Levy says. “Principals take who they can find—who’s available and can do the job. Not everybody would be good at this job. You have to have an orientation to detail. You’re handling official documents.”

In a system that can’t fix leaky buildings, that kind of attentiveness is hard to come by. At Wilson last fall, the PTA had to help bail the school out when its principal announced there were not enough funds to keep the staffer who mailed out transcripts.

More counselors alone won’t fix the problem. Many counselors in the DCPS system have gone years without upgrading their college admissions know-how, and they are hardly encouraged to do so, says Arrington-Booker.

“In a master’s program, they do very little in training you for college counseling,” says Arrington-Booker. “A lot of counselors don’t really feel comfortable because they don’t know the colleges well enough. But the school system has not provided the in-service [training] that we need to do the job.”

Arrington-Booker has taken dozens of college counseling courses over her 20-plus years, some rather expensive, and has never had a penny reimbursed to her by DCPS. She also foots her own bill to attend the annual NACAC conference, which she says is invaluable for the information it provides and the contacts it fosters. While neighboring jurisdictions send their counselors to the conference at least every few years, Wilson is the only DCPS high school that even pays dues to NACAC.

A lack of training and broader professional experience leaves many counselors in the predominantly black school system in the rut of steering kids to the same historically black colleges year after year, even though many institutions throughout the country are looking to diversify their student populations. Bush says he argued when he was a school board member that DCPS students were not hearing about other higher education options.

“A lot of these counselors tend not to encourage students to apply to predominantly white schools,” says Cole, who believes the counselors do not know enough about the alternatives. “They are afraid those schools are not going to treat their kids right, or think that their students won’t get in,” she adds.

Counselors are also more effective when they stay atop trends in college admissions. A counselor who maintains strong year-to-year contacts with admissions officials will have an edge, says Edward T. Custard, a former NYU admissions officer who now writes college guides for Princeton Review.

“[Admission offices] might be somewhat more inclined to go with a recommendation from a trusted counselor who says, ‘Take a shot on this kid’—especially with a borderline case,” says Custard.

The counselor’s intervention can especially boost individual applicants who have stumbled along the way but still have the potential to succeed in college.

“We are interested in students who have faced challenging circumstances and succeeded,” says Al Newell, the dean of admissions at North Carolina’s Guilford College. “We’re intrigued about what that can add to our enrolling class. But we’re not clairvoyant. We need the counselor to help us understand what situation the student has faced.”

Newell says a “supplemental portfolio”—an unsolicited smorgasbord of additional information—often boosts the chances for acceptance simply by coloring in the applicant’s personality outside the classroom. But since fewer than 10 percent of students submit such forms, the advice is practically an insider’s tip of college counseling.

Akinadewo is a particularly ripe candidate for a supplemental boost from a counselor. Her academic career includes a set of skid marks where she nearly took an early exit from high school.

Coming from her status as a star pupil at nurturing, communal Hardy Middle School—which has since closed—Akinadewo says she was bowled over by the comparatively fast-paced scene at Wilson.

“I came from this small middle school, and Wilson was this big opportunity, like this big rose waiting to bloom,” Akinadewo says. Unfortunately, the flowers she stopped to smell weren’t in the class syllabus.

“At the time, I thought it was fun,” she says. “I was, like, ‘Wait a minute—these kids are having fun, not going to class. Why should I go to school?’”

As an out-of-boundary student at Wilson, Akinadewo had a very good reason: She had to maintain a C average to stay there. She didn’t make it, and by the end of her sophomore year she was not only booted from Wilson but in danger of having to repeat the grade.

“I said to myself, ‘Iyabo, are you really going to fail a grade?’” she recalls. “That’s when I woke up. I took my two and a half months of my summer vacation and worked my ass off—excuse me—to get my 10th-grade credits.” She transferred to Woodson as a bona fide junior with a renewed interest in academics. She is enrolled in Woodson’s literature and philosophy honors program, racking up A’s and B’s, and is programmed to graduate from Woodson in June—on time.

A college or university that appreciates the kind of maturity Akinadewo has shown might gladly overlook her past academic troubles. But Akinadewo was never told by Woodson’s counselors that it would be a good idea to explain why her grades took a nose dive and then shot back up. The matter of submitting a supplemental portfolio simply never came up.

Akinadewo says she believes that her counselor doesn’t lack concern but rather time and resources.

“She’s got this huge caseload of other people to look at,” Akinadewo says. “I know she wants to help us. She wants me to get into a good school. But you have tons of seniors running around: ‘Mrs. Graham, Mrs. Graham, I need a schedule. Mrs. Graham, Mrs. Graham, I need this. I need that.’ As a student, you need someone to spend time with you.”

Akinadewo managed to make a lot of the right decisions along the way. Even though the counseling resources at Woodson left Akinadewo high and dry, she is not without allies in her fight to claim a future. Mentors Inc.’s Baer-Cooper happens to serve directly as Akinadewo’s personal mentor—and she just happens to hold a master’s degree in guidance counseling.

A nudge from Baer-Cooper inspired Akinadewo to mail postcards to dozens of colleges and universities asking for information. And Baer-Cooper told Akinadewo not to panic over her original SAT flop.

“Julia was the one, when I told her my score, who said, ‘OK, take it over. When are the dates?’” says Akinadewo, who improved her score by nearly 200 points when she retook the exam in October.

It was Baer-Cooper, too, who told Akinadewo to spell out her academic history in the extra narrative and send it along with her college applications. And it will be Baer-Cooper who will warn Akinadewo that as a DCPS student she will arrive at college with a distinct disadvantage. Akinadewo’s original low hit on the SAT is telling: Excelling in a District public school doesn’t mean you’ve been prepared for college.

DCPS 1994 graduates responding to a follow-up survey appeared to agree, with fewer than 30 percent reporting that they were satisfied with their educational preparation from the District school system.

“In many cases, you will see students with very high grade point averages, but their performance on the SATs does not reflect the level of knowledge that would be expected correspondingly,” says Bush. “Students who get A’s and B’s but who are getting 300 or 400 on the math—that tells you something.”

From 1992 to 1996, DCPS students’ combined averages on the SATs were 180 to 190 points lower than the national average. Since the DCPS college placement rate is abysmal, it’s frightening to consider that the District’s low SAT average comes from its better students, who are applying to college—not the mediocre ones or the ones who drop out.

DCPS students’ scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, administered to the sixth, eighth and 11th grades, reflect an equally disturbing trend: The sixth grade hovers around the national norm, but the eighth-grade scores drop under, and the 11th-grade numbers sink even further below.

“I don’t think it’s just a question of test-taking skills,” says Bush, downplaying a popular theory that holds that students from minority backgrounds fare worse on standardized exams. “I think it’s a matter of content. The level of skills and learning that they have gained in the courses does not translate into the basic skills that are demanded by the SATs.”

Mary Johnson, director of the Ballou Mathematics Science Technology Academy, says the SAT scores conform to the reality she confronts with youngsters who arrive at her doorstep for the ninth grade after having qualified to enter her elite program.

“What we find is that some of the students, even with really good grades, when we test them, are not very strong,” she says. “Contentwise, they’re not sharp. They come here with very bad study habits, most of them.”

Bush says that once kids do make the jump to college, the real battle begins.

“Most of the youngsters who go away to school consistently come back with the criticism that they don’t know how to study,” he says. “They consistently felt underdeveloped in their writing skills. They felt they had not practiced it enough in high school. Those were factors that constantly came up. And don’t forget—these were the good students.”

Cole says she is struck when bright students she meets in recruiting interviews are shadowed by dismal SAT results.

“You get kids who have done their part all along, and they get there and find out that they’re not ready,” says Cole. “Hey, that’s a betrayal.”

By the time Woodson reopened after the winter break in early January, Akinadewo had the new copies of her applications in hand, photocopied this time. She gave her counselor the school portion of the NYU application early in the month. As the Jan. 15 deadline hurtled toward her she checked daily to find out if the counselor had completed the form. She found the door locked and the lights out in her counselor’s office.

“School was open, but for some reason her room was just deathly cold, so she would have to set up in the main office. And when I would go down to the main office, I would look for her. ‘Is Mrs. Graham here?’ She wasn’t there. I would go back to her room. She wasn’t there. ‘Where is Mrs. Graham?’ For one week, she was not there.”

Finally, one day before the application deadline—with her father in tow—Akinadewo got the form back and shipped her application via Federal Express.

(Akinadewo’s struggle to get time with her counselor parallels the runaround Washington City Paper faced trying to get a phone call through to the

Woodson counselor and her principal, who were perpetually unavailable. Graham finally refused to be interviewed after saying that she needed approval from the school system—which had granted it.)

Since then, things have gone much more smoothly, says Akinadewo. Graham was given an aide to help with the paperwork and has been able to re-inhabit her office.

The college counseling system as a whole may also see improvements in the coming months. Assistant superintendent Neal has planned monthly meetings of high-school guidance counselors to share ideas from the more successful offices—a sort of internal training program that constitutes a baby step toward rehabilitating the counseling capacity at D.C. high schools. The central administration’s guidance office, meanwhile, also planned for a staff-training day to help counselors use computers donated by the Department of Education that will allow them to manage financial-aid information electronically. And there is even talk—but only talk so far—about paying stipends to retired teachers and counselors to help bail out the overloaded DCPS counseling staff during peak college application periods.

Tinkering on the sidelines, however, will not offset the need to fix the counseling program’s deep problems of understaffing and undertraining. The FY ’98 school budget unveiled in January by schools chief Gen. Julius Becton contains several vague, million-dollar funding increases, including one that would add new staff positions and another for employee training. Becton’s proposed school budget is rather uninspiring from the perspective of the guidance counseling program, however. The staffing model used in the budget retains the current 400:1 student-to-counselor ratio at the high-school level.

With so many structural emergencies, it’s unlikely that the guidance system will be at the top of Becton’s list. But the stakes are higher than just determining whether DCPS sends a few dozen more kids to the Ivies or snags some extra scholarships. It’s a fight for all the kids in the middle, students who have been undereducated by a collapsed system that in turn offers no clear exit.

“It’s all about your environment,” Akinadewo says. “There’s a lot of kids who would want to work hard and get their A’s and B’s, but they just feel like, ‘What’s the use? Why should I work and get this diploma and get my education when I know when I get out in the real world the odds are stacked against me. Being a black male, being a black female, I’m not going to be able to get the opportunities that other kids are going to get…’”

Akinadewo finds out about her own future any day now, when she will read a letter from NYU and her other college choices telling her she was accepted or rejected. She’ll also learn whether her own efforts were enough to overcome the collapse of the DCPS counseling system.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.