These next two weeks at the National Alliance we will feature a compilation of blogs and stories from charter school students, teachers, and leaders from across the country going back to school. Check back between Monday, August 28 and Friday, September 8 to see new features in our #Back2School Series. Or follow us at @charteralliance to keep up with the latest in the series!
All college counselors get a little frantic towards May 1, when their students need to commit to the college they will attend in the fall. However, last April I couldn’t sleep and came to work feeling like I was holding my breath waiting for important news. City on a Hill Charter Public School's valedictorian Valeria, a Colombian immigrant, had been waitlisted for the prestigious Boston Valedictorian Scholarship from Northeastern University. If she did not get the scholarship covering tuition, room, and board she could not attend a four-year college due to complications with financial aid stemming from her immigration status.
On April 30, Valeria and I received an email from our admissions counselor at Northeastern—a request to call him as soon as possible. I bolted to room 201, taking stairs two at a time. I motored through the half open door and grabbed Valeria’s belongings, signaling at her to come with me. Given the closeness of our community, everyone knew Valeria’s story and supported her whole-heartedly as she left the room. The history teacher wished Valeria luck as we whizzed out of the room and down to the principal’s office.
Valeria put us all on speakerphone. The admissions counselor talked about how there were so many qualified nominees this year and, therefore, needed to ask her a few more questions. They talked about Valeria’s journey to the United States and what gaining access to a Northeastern education would mean to her. Valeria was poised as she answered questions with honesty and sincerity. I, on the other hand, felt like I was going to throw up, screaming in my mind, “What is going on? Just give her the scholarship, she is amazing!” But, all I could do was smile and nod with encouragement. At the end of the conversation, the Northeastern counselor took a breath and told Valeria that he was very pleased to offer her the scholarship. We burst into some animalistic form of sobbing, screaming, and gasping for air, all while still on speakerphone. It was an incredible day!
What motivates me to go to work at City on a Hill each day is not the fact that 100 percent of our students have had a post-secondary choice of either a two or four-year college, or that over the past four years, an average of 71 percent of recent graduates matriculated to a four-year college—16 percent higher than the national average for immediate college enrollment of black students. It’s that each year, students from City on a Hill win prestigious merit scholarships which provide them with the opportunity to extend their education and reach their full potential. This is all possible thanks to the autonomy that my charter school gives our staff to build a school culture focused on relationships, community, and college prep.
It is working for a charter school like City on a Hill that allows me to prioritize relationships, give individualized attention, and build a robust college access program that keeps me invested in my work. This is not to say that at district schools' guidance counselors do not have these relationships, but with large caseloads, fewer resources for college access, and shorter school days, it is harder to support each student’s journey to college.
As a teenager, I was fortunate enough to attend a small, independent high school. My teachers knew me, cared about me, and put me on the path to reach my potential. I attended Hamilton College thanks to my college counselor and teachers who always pushed me to be successful. When looking for jobs as a school counselor, I felt strongly about working at a place where I could pay forward my experience to students who could not afford or access the opportunity I had.
City on a Hill is that place. I have the flexibility to teach a Junior and Senior Seminar—classes designed to educate students on and support them through the college process. Outside of class, I can tailor the college process for every one of my students because I have a manageable caseload. Not only do all of our students have classes with a college counselor, they also each meet with a financial aid advisor, participate in an internship, attend career days, and visit college campuses during their time in high school. Our college process looks at the needs of each student to ensure we give all our students the tools to be successful in college and beyond.
Valeria is just one of the students in the City on a Hill community that I am proud to know and blessed to have worked with. I look forward to supporting this upcoming senior class as we navigate the college process together and see where they deposit in May. Every year there are new challenges, but the tireless work public charter school educators do each day, and the joy we bring to our community, is why we are successful at teaching the future leaders of our country.
Diana Mastrocola is a College and Career Counselor at City on a Hill Public Charter School in Boston, Massachusetts.