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Getting on the College Track Early

A counselor tries to close the gap between achievers and dropouts.


As the college counselor at North Hollywood High School for many years, Susan Bonoff took pride in the fact that about 85% of her graduating classes went on to college.

But another statistic dampened that satisfaction: Of the roughly 1,000 students who started ninth grade, only slightly more than half would make it through graduation, she said.

To narrow the gap between North Hollywood's high achievers and its dropouts, Bonoff has started a new program that aims to put the class of 2005 on the college track even before it arrives at the high school next year.

The idea is to start talking up college to seventh-graders and then to stick with them for five years to make sure they stay on track.

"My goal is to raise the number of kids who walk across the stage and get a diploma," Bonoff said.

She believes that many of them would then go to college.

The program at Walter Reed Middle School is one of 237 across the nation funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education.

The federal program targets low-income students with little or no college in their family histories, the group least likely to obtain college educations.

Reed is one of eight middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District that has joined the $200-million federal program, which is called Gear Up.

Bonoff kicked off the program last year by taking the entire seventh grade class to UCLA for a day.

"It was mind-boggling, taking 700 kids on a field trip to UCLA," she said. "It just really created a much-heightened awareness."

More field trips followed, to Pepperdine and Occidental; there will be another next week, to USC. Cal State Northridge put on a college fair for Reed students and parents in February and will repeat it this year.

Other program services include a private interview with a college counselor, a summer college prep program at Cal State Northridge and tutoring by college students.

Two nonprofit groups are also pitching in. The Parent Institute for Quality Education conducted a nine-week parent education class. The Fulfillment Fund is providing mentors who will follow 40 Reed students through high school and will then award those students $5,000 scholarships.

This fall Bonoff started a mother-daughter program.

Twenty mothers and their daughters meet, either together or in separate groups. They try to improve communication with each other, focusing on academics and college.

"We just talk about the college and how to get a scholarship and how to help our kids to get into college easier," said Blanca Gesell, one of the mothers in the group.

Gesell, a waitress, and her husband, a truck driver, both received their schooling in Guatemala. They hoped their daughter, Jennifer, would be the first in the family to enter college, but had no plan until they got into the program.

"I didn't have any idea how to help her out a little bit," Blanca Gesell said.

Now, she says, she knows what classes Jennifer must take and how to go about seeking scholarship money.

At a session for the girls last week, Bonoff and program assistant Sonia Hernandez talked about opening lines of communication.

Hernandez pressed the 11 girls to say more than "Fine" when their mothers ask how their day was.

"What does saying 'Fine' mean?" she asked.

"You just end it there, and she doesn't say anything after that," student Nancy Garcia observed.

"What's your mom's motivation?" Hernandez asked.

"To see if we have any problems in school," Jennifer Gesell answered.

Although it is too early to say how well the program is working, Bonoff is collecting data that should provide answers by the time the students reach their senior year in high school.

There are encouraging signs. Students in the program have better attendance than those who are not, she said. And a survey of the seventh-graders last year showed they were more likely to know by the end of the year what classes they needed for college than they were at its start. Also, students were less likely to believe they would need to work immediately after high school.

"A lot of people turn it around in their life after 10 and 11," Bonoff said. "Kids are motivated and sparked. There are life-changing experiences."

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