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Group Aims to Demystify College for At-Risk Youth

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by Mara Rose Williams, Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Corrie Mills doesn’t usually run through the halls of Central High School, waving a piece of paper over her head. But this wasn’t a usual day.

“I got a scholarship!” she blurted, out of breath, to her college adviser.

It didn’t matter that the letter was from a university the 19-year-old senior isn’t planning to attend. Just knowing that a college wanted to help pay her way was reason enough for elation, and for a race to the Missouri College Advising Corps office.

A year ago Mills, like plenty of other students in urban and rural high schools across the state, didn’t have a clue about college. She didn’t know a thing about applying for admission, much less for scholarships. She found the whole process intimidating. She pushed the idea out of her mind.

Then she met Gerald McLemore, a graduate of Westport High School and the University of Missouri who for almost two years has worked with the Missouri College Advising Corps.

His office at Central High occupies a room that previously was the school’s candy store, and Mills had heard students praising him for helping seniors bag sweet college deals.

“Central was my rival school back in high school,” said McLemore, 24. “I see my work here as giving back to my school district.”

The Missouri College Advising Corps was launched in 2008 with a $1 million grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

The advisers are recent college graduates who get training and set up shop in high schools with large percentages of low-income students. The advisers connect with students who have the potential to succeed in college and help them take the steps to get there.

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The corps’ goal: close the college-going gap between students from low-income households and those from middle- and upper-income homes.

The National College Advising Corps now has 18 corps in 14 states. This school year, the national corps counted advisers serving 368 high schools.

Missouri’s corps has 25 advisers serving 26 high schools in Kansas City, St. Louis and rural south-central Missouri. Last year, advisers helped graduates win $16 million in scholarships.

The program, which spends $45,000 a year for each adviser, gets support from about a dozen private foundations, including the H&R Block, William T. Kemper, Kauffman, Sprint and Greater Kansas City Community foundations.

In Kansas City, the corps has advisers in 11 high schools in the Kansas City, Grandview, Raytown, North Kansas City, Hickman Mills and Independence districts.

“This truly is a solution to the challenge of helping our young people attain an education that will lead to personal success, economic development and innovation,” said Beth Tankersley-Bankhead, director of the Missouri corps.

That challenge gained urgency in 2010 when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, following President Barack Obama’s lead, called on state education leaders to increase the percentage of adults with some college from 37 percent to 60 percent by 2025.

The National Bureau of Economic Research last month released a report that found “the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low income do not apply to any selective college or university.”

The report said that if those students did apply, the selective schools would most often pay their cost through scholarships.

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“Moreover, high-achieving, low-income students who do apply to selective institutions are admitted and graduate at high rates,” the report said.

No one in Adrianna Reyes’ Kansas City home could tell her what it’s like to go to college or how to pay the bills.

“I didn’t know I needed so much money to pay for college,” she said.

McLemore did. He helped Reyes apply for an all-tuition-paid ticket to Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan.

“For a lot of students, you have to hold their hand through the process because the college-going experience is so new to them,” he said. “They are not having the conversation at home. If the parent doesn’t know, how can they inform the student?”

The impact on the students guided by corps advisers has been dramatic.

The average college-going rate in the last three years from all Missouri high schools has increased less than 1 percent. From schools with Missouri corps advisers: up more than 10 percent.

Since the fall, when Mills first poked her head into McLemore’s office, she has stopped by seeking his help with college plans nearly every day.

“Before I met Mr. McLemore, I really wasn’t thinking about college,” Mills said. “I think it did change the course of my life.”

She is pretty set on attending the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, one of four schools that have accepted her.

Since McLemore opened his office at Central High, its students’ college-going rate has increased by more than 6 percentage points.

He has covered the cafeteria wall outside his office with college acceptance letters that his 2013 seniors have received.

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“Every student passes through here every day,” McLemore said. “I want them all to see that our seniors are going off to college and they can, too. That’s what developing a college-going culture is about.”

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