Charter School Makes Getting into College Its Mission

By Brody, Leslie | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), May 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

Charter School Makes Getting into College Its Mission


Brody, Leslie, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


A young Paterson charter school says its push toward higher education is paying off. Though most of its students come from poor, fractured families, nearly all of its seniors in the fall are heading to college or further training.

In a district where about half of ninth-graders fail to get high school diplomas, Olcay Yavuz, the energetic head of guidance at the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology, tells families that "not applying to college is not an option."

Three years ago, only 15 of the school's seniors took SAT tests typically required for college applications; this year all 80 seniors took the test. At a time when President Obama and Governor Christie are pushing the mantra of getting all students "college and career ready" to boost Americans' ability to compete abroad, the charter's methods are instructive.

"If you provide the support, you can have 100 percent college acceptance," Yavuz said. "We have evidence."

The charter's success is not unique in Paterson. Several small academies and magnet programs in the district, such as HARP Academy for health professions and Rosa L. Parks High School for Fine and Performing Arts, say that 90 percent of their seniors went to two- or four-year colleges last year. For the Paterson district as a whole, 56 percent of seniors did so, according to officials' informal surveys. The state plans to start tracking the college completion rate of each high school so that taxpayers can check how well students are being prepared to thrive long term.

The story of the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology, opened in 2003, is noteworthy because it improved its rate of sending students to college quickly in the past three years with a mix of cajoling, tutoring and easy access to admissions officers.

Persuading parents

A bespectacled 31-year-old from Turkey, Yavuz shuttles around the city in a slightly beat-up beige Mitsubishi, meeting every senior's family at least once, usually at their homes, and urging them to aim high.

Other guidance counselors make home visits to younger students, too. Most of the charter's students are black or Hispanic, and only 6 percent had a parent who attended college.

Yavuz said some parents balk at the application process. Some worry about sharing tax documents for financial aid forms because they are undocumented, and others worry that signing paperwork will commit them to huge tuition bills. Some, he said, want their teenagers to get paychecks as soon as possible.

He points to a chart of federal data showing that the median weekly pay of workers with a bachelor's degree last year was $1,053, almost double the $638 for those with only high school diplomas.

Some parents "don't have a vision for the future," Yavuz said. "I tell them it will help your family in the long term."

At Yavuz's office in a building that once housed Paterson Catholic High School, the shelves are crammed with college brochures and test preparation books. Colorful college pennants and motivational posters line the walls.

One recent afternoon, he clicked through a detailed PowerPoint presentation on his strategy for increasing college enrollment. He took charge of the guidance department three years ago.

First, he realized few of the kids were taking the SAT, so he made all the juniors and seniors spend a gym period in the computer lab registering for the test and fee waiver. …

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