Tri-City high schoolers face crunch time for college

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldDecember 17, 2012 

A student in Connell High School's Class of 2013 recently came into Marcie Koch's office to talk about his future.

Koch, one of the school's two counselors, said the student talked about continuing his education, a few subjects he was interested in and schools he might apply to -- including the University of Washington.

"I realized he had a lot of ideas, but the deadline for (University of) Washington was Dec. 1," Koch said. "You can't talk about it on Dec. 3."

High school graduation is months away, but it's the 11th hour for seniors deciding what they'll do once they have that diploma in hand.

For many Mid-Columbia students that means continuing education.

However, it's a full-time effort on the part of counselors, teachers and administrators to remind students of application deadlines and to finish out their high school career in good standing.

"This is about helping students decide what to do with their life," said Becky Wilson, coordinator for the college readiness program GEAR UP in the Kiona-Benton City School District.

There are many things for students and their families to consider when pursuing college, high school counselors said. Beyond considering a field of study, students need to decide where they want to go, take the SAT or ACT, pursue financial aid and apply to schools of their choices.

The process doesn't allow for procrastination. As Koch pointed out, UW's priority admission deadline has passed. Washington State University's deadline isn't until the new year, but many universities and colleges already have closed the door on admissions.

"If anyone wants to talk to me about schools in California, their cutoff dates are Nov. 1," said Sharon Fontana, a counselor at Kamiakin High School.

Wilson said it's not an easy process, even for a family with experience navigating it. It can be more daunting for families unfamiliar with higher education.

That's how it is for Jesus Rivera, a 17-year-old senior at Kiona-Benton City High School. He said he wants to enter law enforcement, but he's trying to determine the best path, which could include Columbia Basin College or Yakima Valley Community College.

"That's what makes it a challenge for me, because I'm just blank on college stuff," he said Wednesday during Ki-Be High's College Information Night.

GEAR UP has helped remove some of the mystique of a college education for Ki-Be students, Wilson said. She began working with the Class of 2013 when the students were in middle school, introducing the idea of college to many and even taking them on visits to college campuses.

In 2010, only 44 percent of the graduating class at Ki-Be High went on to college -- below the state average of 62 percent. Wilson said GEAR UP and other efforts have made strides at improving college enrollment among the district's 1,500 students.

"Even our kids taking the SAT has gone up 400 percent," Wilson said.

Many schools have college information nights akin to the one at Ki-Be High. They bring in college recruiters, particularly from CBC or WSU Tri-Cities, to talk to students about college and benefits of being able to live at home and attend college. They use social media such as Facebook to promote information sessions and deadlines.

At Hermiston High School, counselor Melody Bustillos and Liz Marvin, coordinator for the Project College Bound program, arranged application workshops throughout all of last week. Both said dozens of students attended the events, some coming multiple times to finish applications.

It's still a daily battle to make sure everything's done on time.

Fontana said the goal at Kamiakin, through a combination of small student mentoring groups and meetings with counselors, is for students to narrow their choices of schools to five before the start of their senior year.

Applications should be sent early in the fall so students get early consideration for admission and scholarship money. That isn't always how it goes, though.

"I had one girl in who's taking the (SAT) in January and her school's cutoff date is Feb. 15, so she should be OK," Fontana said. "But that's not the norm."

At Connell, Koch and fellow counselor Esther Daza-Bailie said part of the battle is reminding students of details such as filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Bound Scholarship. The scholarship program will cover college expenses for low-income students if they avoid trouble with the law and maintain good grades, but students must sign up for it while in middle school.

"We have to remind them they signed up for it," Daza-Bailie said.

Some students have anxiety about applying for college. Bustillos and other counselors said that some students, especially those who have little knowledge of the college experience, can be hesitant to come ask for help in attending college, either because they're ashamed at their lack of information or are overwhelmed by the uncertainty of what comes after high school.

"It's scary to do something you've not seen done," Bustillos said.

Fontana and Kamiakin Principal Chris Chelin also said some students must be reminded to keep applying themselves as they enter the homestretch toward graduation.

Colleges and universities want students who excel in rigorous academics, and while admissions are based on grades before the senior's spring semester, schools such as UW now rescind the admission of students who get too carefree during the spring.

"It used to be people asked what the minimum is to graduate," Fontana said. "People don't ask that anymore."

College isn't the only option for students to consider.

Chelin, Fontana and Wilson pointed out that many students consider the military and career and technical education programs and opportunities, all of which have their guidelines and requirements as well.

Overall, though, most students should have a clear idea of what they're going to do by January.

For Javier Avina, another 17-year-old senior at Ki-Be High, that means deciding how he's going to go to college so he can learn to own a business without it costing him too much money. But he's seen what it's like, having visited campuses and talked to others who made the leap.

"It makes you want to do it, to have a better life," Javier said.

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