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Article of Interest - College

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Dorchester School's Seniors All Accepted to College
Tracy Jan, Boston Globe, June 20, 2005
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One ninth-grader read at the third-grade level. A few struggled to multiply or divide. One girl's father had been slain. Another student was homeless.

Most students who entered the new Codman Academy charter high school four years ago never expected to get into college. Some simply did not want to try.

But they had no choice at Codman. Each had to apply to college before they would be allowed to graduate.

Meg Campbell, principal and cofounder of the Dorchester school, wanted to give the students the same advantages they would have gotten had they grown up in middle-class or upper-income families with college-educated parents.

''It's about having a dream and having a plan," said Campbell, a Harvard-Radcliffe graduate whose two daughters graduated from Barnard and Wellesley. ''And with the plans come the preparations and this whole strategy. This is what upper-middle-class families do all the time."

Last week, Campbell and the school's six teachers succeeded. Codman graduated 19 students, all of whom had been admitted to four-year colleges, including Bowdoin College, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Another student needs to complete coursework and an internship and will not graduate until August, but he has a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

In large, urban public high schools, it is rare for 100 percent of a graduating class to go to college, let alone four-year schools. But Codman, which has only 100 students in grades 9 through 12, and several other charter high schools in the state have been able to get all of their students into four-year colleges.

At Codman, the principal and teachers were determined to prove that they could beat the odds stacked against low-income minority youth. They would get the students, all minorities except one, not just to enter college, but to finish.

Less than 60 percent of black and Hispanic students enter college, compared with 66 percent of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Poor students are even less likely to attend; nationally, just 53 percent of low-income high school graduates go on to college immediately after high school.

Codman's class of 2005 started as 32 freshmen in the makeshift schoolhouse attached to a neighborhood health center. The students saw the names of colleges everywhere at Codman -- on posters, wall pennants, and catalogs in a basket in the bathroom.

''It's not 'Are you going to college?' " said Campbell, whom students liken to a nagging mother. ''It's 'Which college?' College, college, college, they're just pounded with it."

Barely into the start of their freshman year, Codman students had to fill out sample applications and write several drafts of college essays. Teachers took them on monthly college visits and filled students' summers with academic opportunities at Harvard, MIT, and prep schools. The students learned to play tennis and lacrosse, traveled to South Africa, and went on camping trips to mirror the experiences of more privileged college-bound students.

But first, the teachers had to get students to pass the English and math MCAS tests, a state graduation requirement. The students were so far behind academically that teachers did not know where to begin teaching them. ''We'd planned x, y, and z and we did x -- half of x," said Thabiti Brown, the school's humanities teacher for four years and incoming academic dean. ''At the beginning, we were all just going on faith that this was going to happen."

Some students cursed at teachers and threw books at classmates. Still, the teachers tutored them until dinnertime and handed out their cellphone numbers, willing to field calls for help even at 3 a.m.

''They stuck through with us even though we're like, 'Can you leave me alone?' " said Ronesha Herron, who was suspended from Codman three times during her freshman year for disrupting class, threatening another student, and damaging school property. ''They'd say 'No, we can't leave you alone. We're here for you. You need us, and we need you. I realized I can't go to college and talk to a professor like this."

Herron's father was stabbed to death two weeks after she was born. She was raised in Dorchester by her mother, Lisa Mitchell, who dropped out of high school and gave birth to her daughter at age 19. Mitchell got a GED and worked full time to get off welfare. She never tried college.

''So I said, 'Well, if I can't do it, she's going to do it,' " said Mitchell, a human resources coordinator at a nonprofit agency. ''I'm going to be there for her, but in the long run she's got to feed herself, and $10 an hour is not going to do it."

Herron, 18, will attend the historically black North Carolina A&T State University and hopes to become a judge.

Four of her original Codman classmates were held back because they did not earn at least a C-minus in every class, the school's passing grade. Eight left the school within two years, never adapting to its 9-to-5 school day, mandatory Saturday classes, and the constant pressure to consider college.

For two days in December, from morning until evening in the science lab, the teachers forced all seniors to type multiple revisions of college essays and finish their applications. Brown made some students write 20 drafts; they got so frustrated that they threw down their papers and walked out of the room in a huff, the teacher said.

San Tran said he grew tired of being harassed by teachers about college. He had already enlisted in the Army, and only applied to college so he could graduate. Tran, 19, said he didn't want to burden his parents with more bills.

''They have five other kids to feed, and I just can't ask them to put their whole lives on hold just for me to go to school," he said. Tran got into Salem State College, but leaves for Fort Benning, Ga., next month.

Codman teachers worry the school's first graduates may falter in college. They wonder at times whether they've done too much for their students, including mailing out their college applications and getting each an internship.

''They came a phenomenal distance, but their skills by and large are still not super strong, and they're going to struggle academically," Brown said. ''So the question is, are they going to meet those challenges head on?"

Campbell hopes Codman's first graduating class will earn college degrees in five years, six at the most. The school will help the students make contacts at their colleges so they won't get lost and will check up on them next year.

''Our jobs are not done," Campbell said. ''It's only just begun."    

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