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Inner-city advisers show kids college is an option

(ran CI, TP editions)

By most standards, Lestie Gonzalez wasn't supposed to go to college.

As a 19-year-old high school senior studying in New York's impoverished south Bronx, Gonzalez struggled in school with dyslexia. Living with his single mother and two younger brothers, he was a frequent truant. His mom begged him just to graduate from high school. "I told him, even to clean toilets you need a diploma nowadays," said Awilda Gonzalez.

Yet this September, Lestie Gonzalez will enroll at Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. For that, he thanks Byron Womack, his college guidance counselor at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom School.

Womack, who worked for months to persuade Gonzalez to apply for college, is one of a few tenacious young college guidance counselors who arrived at some of the toughest New York high schools in September. The counselors are part of a fledgling philanthropic effort led by Ann Rubenstein Tisch, whose family owns Loews Corp. Their mission is to combat one of the most persistent problems in low-income schools: a lack of guidance counselors and the resulting low aspirations for college.

This year, students at the four schools with Tisch's counselors won scholarships totaling almost $2-million. At Brooklyn's Middle College High School _ an institution where secretaries work behind a Plexiglas wall for safety from flying objects _ a record 125 seniors out of 131 have applied and been accepted to colleges, most of them four-year institutions. One earned a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University.

In New York, the average guidance counselor has a caseload of 450 students, well above the 150 to 300 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association. Even when there are counselors at schools, they often aren't trained to help students apply to college.

In the case of Fannie Lou Hamer, where the 400-member student body is 75 percent Hispanic and 25 percent black, there was no official college guidance counselor until Womack arrived. Duties were left to either a teacher or a school vice principal. This year, 40 seniors graduated, and 39 of them are going to college. At the three other schools, more than 90 percent of the graduating seniors are going to college next year. No one kept a record of who did or didn't go to college previously.

Tisch's program, called College Bound, finds and pays for counselors to work in public schools that can't afford their own advisers. "There are hundreds if not thousands of college-capable kids out there who won't go to college because of the daunting process of college admissions," Tisch said. College Bound spends about $100,000 annually at each school, which pays for counselors' salaries, training, a computer, phone line and student trips to colleges.

Other philanthropists and businesses around the country are also using guidance counselors to address the problem. The DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund has invested nearly $17-million in programs to improve the skills of school counselors, particularly in the inner cities. And last year, the Metropolitan Life Foundation awarded a similar grant.

The challenge isn't just getting kids to believe they are college material. The counselors must help parents fill out the cumbersome and complex financial aid forms, teach kids to write coherent essays and help them boost low SAT scores even when they can't afford test-prep classes. The good news for the students is, with these tasks completed, many colleges and universities seek out such "educationally disadvantaged" students to diversify their ranks.

Although minorities are attending college in record numbers, African Americans in 1998 continued to trail whites _ 15.8 percent vs. 28.4 percent _ in the number of 25- to 29-year-olds who have completed four years of college, according to the American Council on Education.

Those numbers trouble some business leaders, who worry that the gap will hurt their competitiveness. In January, a report by the Business-Higher Education Forum, a coalition of top chief executives and university presidents, warned that the nation is headed for a crisis in work force skills and knowledge.

The group, made up of executives from companies such as KPMG, State Farm Insurance and Pfizer, argues that while the nation's minority population is steadily increasing, members of most racial and ethnic groups are not making sufficient educational strides.

And while a multitude of federal, state and private-sector programs have sprouted during the past decades to help minorities enter and pay for college, needy students often don't know about them. "There's this big black hole of financial aid and scholarships that is nearly impossible to navigate for the inexperienced," said Tisch. That's why a strong college guidance counselor is an absolute must, she says.

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