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Educators Discuss College Access for Inner-City Students (Part I)

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In 2006 Joshua Steckel left his job as the college guidance counselor at Birch Wathen Lenox, a private school on New York City's Upper East Side, to become the first college guidance counselor at the Secondary School for Research, a public school in Brooklyn, N.Y.  His recent book with his wife and co-author Beth Zasloff, Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty (The New Press, 2014) explores how he helped 10 students confront and overcome their fears and anxieties to move on to college, economic independence, and success.

I interviewed Mr. Steckel and Ms. Zasloff via email about how high school educators can understand students' situations and how students and parents can overcome the fear of attending a residential college away from home. The second installment covering the authors' suggestions for teaching high school students time management and finance skills and helping incoming college students locate on-campus health and medical resources will be posted Thursday May 29. 

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Some students had difficulty talking about their home and family situations with their high school teachers. What tips do you have for educators to help them better understand where their students are coming from?

Joshua Steckel: All students need to feel that their teachers care about them and believe in their potential. So often students receive the opposite message. One of the students in the book, Nkese, starts her college essay with the words of one of her middle school teachers, whom she remembers saying to her 8th grade class, "All you kids are going to do is drop out and get pregnant or get hooked on drugs."

It isn't always easy, but consistently sending a message of belief--and staying on guard against biases about what's possible for different students--is incredibly important.

Another story we tell in the book is about a student named Dwight, a disengaged, low-achieving student who was not planning to go to college. Dwight usually kept his head down on his desk during my College Exploratory Seminar, and I was unsure how to reach him. I was stunned when I learned later that Dwight finished his first year at a community college with a 4.0 GPA. Dwight attributed his success, in part, to the message he had absorbed, though he hadn't shown it, that "I can't dwell in the past." He told me, "You made me focus on what was in front of me, which was college."

Many of your students said that their families were financially dependent on them and as a result, expressed ambivalence about applying to and attending colleges outside of their hometowns. What advice can you share with both students and parents about the benefits for students of attending residential colleges and universities?

Beth Zasloff: Having a dedicated college counselor and advocate who knows students well means, for some of the students in the book, that they have the choice to attend a residential liberal arts college.  Most low-income public school students, even the most highly qualified and highly motivated, don't have this choice. When they do, the idea of going away can often seem risky, financially and personally.

The most important way to address this fear is by helping students and families to find the right college match. This means identifying colleges that offer robust support structures and adequate funding for low-income students.

Mike, who completed his college applications from a homeless shelter, attends Skidmore College, where the college's Opportunity Programs provide a powerful community of social and academic support. Though the separation from his family continues to be very hard for Mike, he is able to discover his talent for filmmaking, form relationships with professors, and graduate with strong professional options. This kind of transformative opportunity should be made available to all students.

Photo Credit: The New Press

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