Originally published Dec. 14, 2008.
Walter Jonathan Pinder, a senior at Overbrook High in Philadelphia, rushed into the guidance office last month, seeking help.
No one had reminded the high-achieving student to retake the SATs and he'd missed the deadline. Nor was anyone helping him to launch his college essays and applications.
At the undermanned guidance office, where college counseling often takes a back seat to student crises, he found himself third in line.
"I just need to figure out where I'm trying to go to school," Walter told his counselor, letting out a long sigh.
By contrast, at William Penn Charter in East Falls, another senior was learning the finances of college admissions in her morning seminar class. Call it College 101, just one aspect of the private school's arsenal of courses, prep sessions, assemblies, and counseling aimed at getting all students into the right school.
By November, Kirby Dixon had taken her SATs twice, finished her college essay, visited nine schools, and applied early action to three.
Witness the world of college admissions at perhaps its greatest point of divergence.
Students in urban districts like Philadelphia often lack guidance at home and need the most support at school. They typically get the least.
It's an issue that Mayor Nutter must confront if he wants to meet his goal of doubling the percentage of Philadelphians with college degrees, now 18 percent.
Overbrook has the most overburdened counselors of six area high schools where The Inquirer is following seniors through the college admissions process. The sprawling, four-story school has one counselor for every 550 students.
Ocean City High School, in Ocean City, N.J., has the second highest counselor-student ratio - 1 to 270.
Kirby's school, the $23,000-a-year Penn Charter, has the best rate - one counselor for 45 students.
That far surpasses the "ideal" ratio of one to 100, cited by both the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the American School Counselor Association. No counselor, the groups assert, should handle more than 300 students.
"Therein lies the tale of two cities," said Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.
"The haves are getting armed to the teeth . . . and the have nots are doing without - at home with parents who do not know how to navigate a fairly complex system and at their high schools where budgetary shortfalls and lack of resources have resulted in very minimal student services being available to them."
In Philadelphia, former school district CEO Paul Vallas tried to give students a fairer shake by covering the cost for them to take on-line and face-to-face SAT classes from private companies.
But the classroom SAT prep was halted in 2006 as a budget deficit opened, and the online course was dropped this year, also for lack of money.
Top city and school district officials said last week that, despite budget restraints, they would restore funding for SAT prep classes. They are also planning a call-in center for students to get help on college admissions.
"We have a lot of resources in the city around getting first generation college students to college. This is the connection piece," said Lori Shorr, Nutter's education adviser.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said last week she was stunned upon arriving in June to find how little time counselors spend on college and career guidance and is redirecting their priorities.
The dearth of services is painfully apparent to Philadelphia Futures and White-Williams Scholars, nonprofits that help promising district students get to college.
"Students in the comprehensive high schools must badger their overworked counselors for everything they need in the college admission process," said Joan Mazzotti, executive director of Philadelphia Futures.
"They do not have the luxury of being badgered by their counselors."
Overbrook High Principal Ethelyn Payne Young said the outcome was obvious.
"Some of them end up maybe not going anywhere [to college] or not going to where we know they really could go. . . . When you don't have enough resources, enough manpower to touch every kid, you lose some. You lose many."
Struggling with boredom
Walter, one of six siblings, spent his first five years in foster care, then kept switching schools as his family moved around. He's attended 11 schools in as many years and for the last 11/2 years - since his father died and his mother left him - he's lived with his uncle. He and his sister share a one-bedroom apartment.
From the beginning, Walter was a child of promise, identified as gifted in elementary school.
But he had to repeat eighth grade.
"There was no reason for me to fail," he said. "I was bored, and I ended up failing because I didn't do the work."
He landed at Overbrook High in 2006, by then an avid poet. Teachers quickly recognized his smarts and moved him into a scholars program for top students, where he earned a 3.8 GPA.
"He's intuitive, he's a thinker, his writing is just so outstanding," said Nancy Beener, scholars program coordinator.
On the SAT last June, he scored 640 out of 800 on the verbal section, far above the national mean and hundreds of points higher than most from his racial and economic background. But he got only a 470 in math; he'd never taken Algebra II or geometry, critical to the test.
Last year, his GPA dropped to 3.4 after his father died in jail, four days before Walter's birthday.
"I'd probably get straight A's if I always did my homework," said Walter, who also plays on the drumline and is about to try out for the school's winning mock trial team.
School, he said, is sometimes boring, especially math.
In calculus recently, he began to nod off. He got a C in the subject last quarter, while acing subjects he likes.
He did so well in chemistry that he spent last summer in a chemistry internship at the University of Pennsylvania.
A glimpse of the motivated Walter came through in drama class, where he played a "bad guy" who turns around his life.
Wearing black school T-shirt and jeans, Walter lectures a student playing a slacker:
"I decided that I wanted to go to college. . . . In order for me to do that, I had to go to class. I had to start reading and studying and make up for all the time I wasted when I was running with you."
"Man, you ain't getting into no college," the slacker taunts.
"Now, that's where you're wrong," Walter says, slapping a college acceptance letter on his chest. "I made it! I made it!"
Walter, 19, said he's largely been on his own for his college search, partly because he hasn't reached out for much help. At Overbrook, Villanova University students offer SAT tutoring, but Walter thought he didn't need it.
He doesn't have money to visit schools outside the area. He had wanted to see Millersville University, but didn't hear about the trip run by Penn's Talent Search program, based at Overbrook.
"Most of the time, I don't find out about the trips until it's too late," he said.
Overbrook also has a center, funded by the Philadelphia Youth Network, that helps students with their college search. Walter said he has been there a few times.
He had planned to take the SAT a second time in October to improve his score, but discovered days before the test that he'd forgotten to register.
Early planning pays off
"Here are some terms you absolutely need to understand," college counseling director Dan Evans told his class at Penn Charter.
"The EFC, your expected family contribution, is determined by . . . your income, your assets, size of your family. . . . The financial aid package is cost minus your expected contribution."
Kirby sat among her classmates, taking notes. It was one of 20 required classes on college planning.
At Penn Charter - as at most private schools and affluent suburban high schools - the college admissions process starts early. Meetings with students and parents begin in ninth grade and kick into high gear mid-junior year.
Students do a "self audit" to identify colleges best suited to them. There are family meetings, one-on-one sessions with counselors and summer homework, such as visiting schools and drafting essays. Students get interview tips from college admissions officers. Alumni tell how they got into college.
The school also offers extensive online resources. One program lets students plug in their GPA and other data to see how they compare to Penn Charter graduates who went to colleges they are interested in.
Admission officers from more than 100 colleges visit each year and the school sends e-mail reminders if a college on a student's list is coming.
Virtually all Penn Charter students go on to college, with 94 percent of the class of 2008 entering one of their top choices, Evans said. More than a quarter got into the Ivy League.
Kirby, an honor roll student and captain of the track team, said the intensive process helped her.
It also doesn't hurt that Kirby's mother, Gwendolyn Dixon, knows the college admission drill. She is a counselor at Germantown High, where the student-counselor ratio is 1 to 300, and she wishes she had more time to help her students prepare for college.
Germantown was thrust into the spotlight in 2007 after a teacher's neck was broken when he was assaulted by two students. Last month, another teacher was beaten in his classroom by students.
"I have a lot of crises coming into play," Dixon said.
Little time for counseling
By the time Walter had lined up at his counselor's office at Overbrook High that Thursday afternoon, she had already had a long week.
On Monday, Lorraine Battle shelved everything to counsel traumatized students after 10th-grader Muhammad Davis was shot to death on the street. On Tuesday, she did what she'd planned for Monday: work with other counselors on a plan to raise attendance, which hovers around 80 percent.
College counseling, again, had to wait.
Battle told a student ahead of Walter that she'd get back to her about SAT testing. The next student asked Battle about her college recommendation letter. Battle promised: "I'm going to take a day off to do the letter."
When Walter's turn came, Battle told him that several firms were offering him free SAT tutoring after reading about his low math score in The Inquirer. She told him to think about it and pick one.
Battle later explained that "in between parents, social workers, probation officers, mental health assessors and outside support workers coming in," her college counseling work often falls to nights and weekends.
Philadelphia Futures has seen the impact on students who don't get enough attention from counselors. It ranges from "administrative annoyance to a critical barrier to success," Mazzotti said.
The group, which mentors students from the neighborhood high schools, has seen "little evidence of meaningful one-on-one [college] counseling."
College selection should take into account academic preparation, interests and financial aid, she said. Instead, students are directed to prestigious schools for which they may not be prepared or steered to local schools.
Mazzotti said letters of recommendation often fall short because a counselor doesn't know a student well enough or is too pressed for time.
"In some instances the letters are hastily and unprofessionally prepared." Other problems, she said, include delays in registering for the SAT, completing essays and organizing admissions materials.
Karen Campbell, program director for White-Williams Scholars, which serves 1,500 city students, also sees gaps.
"Our kids are coming out in the top quintiles of their classes, but it's amazing how much they don't know about what they need to get to and through college."
Students fall through the cracks. She cited the case of a senior who walked through her door recently. She had never been on a college visit, hadn't taken her SATs, and hadn't sent out any applications. She wanted to be a doctor, but didn't have a strong science background and failed to see the connection, Campbell said.
Another shot at the SAT
In recent weeks, Walter took buses to Chestnut Hill for four SAT tutoring sessions. Then he took the test again.
"He was incredibly quick to pick up the math," said his coaches at Chestnut Hill Educational Services. "Walter has genuine intellectual curiosity. It wasn't just a matter of 'how can I get my scores up?'"
Walter, whose career interests range from engineering to journalism to law, had his hopes raised last summer after Harvard, noticing his high verbal score and background, sent him a letter asking him to apply. He knows it would be a stretch.
"If you look at Harvard students, they're really above and beyond. . ." he said.
He's also eyeing Clark Atlanta, New York University and Howard.
This month, he applied to Bloomsburg, Millersville and Kutztown - state schools.
He doesn't want a lot of debt. But he wonders if he would be challenged enough.
"I'm more likely to do better," he said, "if I'm challenged than if I'm just sliding through."
For videos of students and staff and previous stories go to http://go.philly.com/gettingin
At noon Monday, the site will host a chat with admissions officers at Rutgers and Villanova Universities.EndText
Coming In January
Writing an essay that gets at the core of who you are.