Slightly more Chicago Public Schools graduates enrolled in college over the past two years, and a dozen high schools with so-called college coaches have done a bit better than most.

Of the 12 schools with coaches, whose sole goal is to encourage college attendance, seven had a higher-than-average percentage of graduates who went to college. Five showed gains that exceeded 9 points in the percent of college-goers enrolling in four-year programs.

Districtwide, the college-going rate climbed two points a year, from 44 percent in 2004 to 48 percent in 2006. District officials concede the increase is boosted by the addition, for the first time, of students who matriculated to Robert Morris College. The college admitted some 200 students from CPS high schools.

Without Robert Morris, the percentage of students enrolling in college inched up less than 1 point in the last year.

“It is a long road to change attitudes about college-going,” says Greg Darnieder, the director of the four-year-old Department of Postsecondary Education.

Initially, some educators and counselors questioned whether college coaches, who had less experience and fewer academic credentials than high school guidance counselors, would make much difference. But preliminary results show the effort is beginning to pay off, especially by getting a higher rate of students at pilot schools admitted into four-year colleges. And a recent report, which includes interviews with nine of the 12 coaches, was complimentary about the coaches’ work.


“Even with a small budget, disadvantaged schools can develop useful college-planning activities which can successfully engage students,” wrote James Rosenbaum, an education and social policy professor at Northwestern University.

Darnieder, who has been in charge of the district’s Department of Postsecondary Education since it was created in 2003, notes that coaches were hired because the district didn’t have enough money to pay for more guidance counselors. “The question is, ‘Can I put a little bit of money on the table and make a difference?'” Darnieder asks.

The district’s student-counselor ratio is roughly 350 to 1; the nationally recommended ratio is 250 to 1. Darnieder says he would like to see the ratio at 150 to one.

Ann Coles, director of the Boston-based Pathways to College Network, says that in private schools the ratio is 75 students to 1 counselor, and the counselors’ sole focus is on getting the students into college. For that type of investment in public schools, there would have to be a change in attitude for people to recognize that college should be a universal goal.

“People still think that college is for some and not for others,” she says.

Coles notes that districts across the country are trying different approaches to increase college attendance. In some, outside organizations come in and help students. One program has recent university graduates spending a year in urban schools encouraging college attendance. “You can train someone to do college guidance if they are enthusiastic and committed,” Coles says.

In Chicago, guidance counselors must earn graduate degrees and teaching certificates, and they are paid on the same scale as CPS teachers. The teacher pay scale ranges from $43,233 to $79,206 for a traditional school calendar. Postsecondary coaches are paid about $41,000 and need only a bachelor’s degree.

Coaches are supposed to complement guidance counselors’ work. While guidance counselors help students schedule classes, deal with behavior problems and arrange testing, postsecondary coaches focus solely on motivating high school students to go to college. Young people, many of them recent college graduates, with experience working with teenagers through churches and social service groups are tapped for coaching posts.

“We are careful who we hire as coaches,” Darnieder says. “We believe in their potential to work with counselors and to work with resources.”

A challenging task

The district set a goal that it would reach by 2010 the national average college-going rate of 64 percent, requiring annual 5-point increases. To get there, they recommended that high schools require every graduating senior to apply to five colleges and fill out five scholarship applications.

But since then, the total number of graduates has decreased, a byproduct of the district’s declining enrollment. In 23 of the 76 high schools in the district’s report, there were decreases in the number of graduates and the percentage of college enrollees.

(Because a number of high schools opened or closed over the past three years, some schools did not have graduation data for 2004 and 2006. Also, schools that had fewer than 20 graduates were not listed in the district’s report.)

But Darnieder explains a change in attitude is also necessary to raise those numbers. Peers and parents influence students’ decisions about going to college. If they don’t see college as an option, neither will the student, he says. By relating to students on a different level than counselors and teachers, coaches can remove some of those mental barriers, he adds.

Chicago’s approach—hiring coaches as part of a total postsecondary initiative—is unique, Coles says. However, expectations should be tempered, she says, because progress may be slow in schools without a college-going culture.

Still, coaches can make a significant impact in these schools. Coles notes that middle-class parents lean on their children to get them to follow through on college applications.

Coaches can play this role in urban schools where parents have not been to college themselves and are unfamiliar with the application process.

The postsecondary coach at Marshall High School has done “a wonderful job” getting students to apply to college and holding their hands as they fill out the financial-aid forms, says senior counselor Tiffany Watkins. Over spring break, the coach conducted a tour of historically black colleges for 35 students, she adds.

Yet fewer students graduated from Marshall in 2006 than in 2004, and the college-going rate fell slightly, from 35 percent to 34 percent.

While Watkins values the coach’s help, she notes that his efforts only begin to scratch the surface of what students need. A recent outbreak of fighting among girls has tied up the time and resources of all four of Marshall’s guidance counselors, and postsecondary coaches cannot pitch in.

“A postsecondary coach can’t help with all the other issues we are dealing with,” she says.

Still, having someone on staff who can pitch in is worth it, says Stacye Howard-Nance, the college counselor at Kelvyn Park High School. Her school’s coach left at the end of the last semester, and the school has not yet found a replacement. Howard-Nance had worked with the coach to take students on road trips to visit schools, hold workshops on essay writing and financial aid, give presentations to parents and work with college-bound athletes. She continues to do these things, but now without help.

“We had a fabulous relationship,” Howard-Nance says.

To contact Sarah Karp, call (312) 673-3882 or e-mail

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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