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Aim high - and early - for college

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Teenage girl studying

You can’t start too early to prepare your child for college. In fact, elementary school is the ideal time, says Phara Lissade-Latour, guidance coordinator for Village Academy in Delray Beach.

The public school is pre-K through 12th grade with 99 percent minority students, including many immigrants. The same percentage receive free or reduced-price meals. Unfortunately, these are the types of students some people would write off as having little hope of reaching college.

Experts say opportunity is always there for those who have a plan.

This year, one of Lissade-Latour's seniors received a full scholarship to Cornell University, an accomplishment that would make any private school counselor weep with pride. Others have won the Gates Millennium and other prestigious scholarships.

“When you think about college, you have to think about instilling the foundation in reading and math in elementary school,” Lissade-Latour says.

The next step: Some students start taking aptitude and interest tests in middle school and even developing a major, says Robin Johnson-Blake, director of recruitment and dual enrollment at Palm Beach State College.

At the end of high school freshman year, students can apply for dual enrollment as sophomores. Dual enrollment awards both high school and college credits, at low or no cost.

“With the high school sophomores, we pretty much focus on dual enrollment. That’s what they ask me about,” says Kimberly Richardson, a Palm Beach State student ambassador. As a nursing student with a 3.9 grade-point average, she squeezes in lunchtime visits at seven high schools in the Belle Glade area, where she lives.

Believe you can

Aim higher than you might think you can achieve, Lissade-Latour advises. “When you believe in something and know your strengths, life circumstance does not determine your future. If the child is smart, the sky is the limit. Why am I only looking at FAU [Florida Atlantic University] and FIU [Florida International University]? Why not Harvard? Why not Columbia? Why not Cornell?”

Lissade-Latour recalls when she identified students who had the skills to attend universities. “Everybody doubted me.” That changed when the Cornell news arrived. “One of the mentors said, ‘I have to salute you.’ ”

The Cornell-bound 17-year-old plans to study psychology, possibly focusing on children of adversity. Her father died when she was eight, leaving her mother to provide for four children.

“Getting into a good college is what he instilled in me. Getting accepted to Cornell, it’s like I am honoring his memory,” the student says.

Among the many pressures is the need to be well rounded for college applications. The result can lead to overload as students juggle advanced placement classes, sports, clubs and volunteering.

“The hardest thing is deciding which academic path you’re going to take,” says Maggie Moran-Eagen, whose son, who attends Jupiter High School, chose the Advanced International Certificate of Education program, which equates to AP classes. If he completes the program successfully, he will be eligible for Florida’s Bright Futures financial aid. Other options include International Baccalaureate and various academies offered by high schools in Palm Beach County.

Moran-Eagen’s daughter, who attends Jupiter Middle School, has been accepted by Jupiter High’s environmental program and also will enroll in the certificate program.

“But they can really get overburdened,” Moran-Eagen says. “You have to judge your own kid.”

Moran-Eagen's son has played football and volleyball and was chided for not holding an office in a club. “But you know, there are only so many hours in the day,” his mother says.

If you think mistakes will bar you from college, talk to R.D. Chapman of Boynton Beach. He was selling drugs at 13 and had stopped attending school by 15 — about to be sentenced as an adult to prison for 20 years for felonies, including firearms.

With a strong will to change his life and the help of tough-talking mentors, Chapman got his high school diploma. He likes to point out: “A real diploma, not a GED.” He’s became a business major at Palm Beach State, about to take the state real estate licensing test.

Getting in is half the battle

Getting into college may seem to ease your anxiety, but obstacles still might be waiting.

The first year of college can be a surprising wake-up call for high school achievers who aren’t prepared for new demands.

“I didn’t know anything about college. I was just going with the flow,” says Jessika Auguste of Delray Beach. During her first semester at Palm Beach State, her grades in algebra and biology dropped — very low.

A guidance counselor pointed Auguste to free tutors at the student learning center. She eventually retook the classes and improved her grades.

College teaches you self-discipline and how to make mature decisions, Richardson says.

“I do get discouraged sometimes,” she says. She has learned to “always be consistent. If I have a test tomorrow, I have to start studying two weeks before.”

Dual-enrollment tips

• Take advantage of dual enrollment so you can graduate from high school with 40 college credits, Lissade-Latour says. It establishes a platform for graduate studies and professional degrees.

• Dual enrollment requires the signature of the student, the parent or guardian and the high school counselor. All must be confident in the student’s ability to handle a heavier academic load. “It’s a commitment,” Johnson-Blake says. “Without a vehicle or other transportation, they can’t commit.”

• Even with good grades, not every student is mature enough for dual enrollment, Johnson-Blake says. This is another reason why parents and the counselor must sign off.

• Assess your family, school and job obligations before committing to dual enrollment. College professors have higher expectations and standards.

“It is wonderful that you want to be in all these activities, but if you are not committed to staying in your college class for two hours and 45 minutes, you’re not ready,” Johnson-Blake says. “If you have an audition or a rehearsal, it’s not the college’s responsibility to give you permission to miss an assignment or a class that may be a third of your grade.”

• One way to try dual enrollment is to take the Introduction to the College Experience class, available at all Palm Beach State campuses.

“I love it, I used to teach it,” Johnson-Blake says. “It enhances the success of students. They do a mindful self-assessment and career exploration.”

• Early college admission is available for seniors who have earned enough credits to graduate high school.

• Regularly communicate with your counselor or mentor, says Lissade-Latour, who meets with her dual-enrollment students twice a week.

“I need to see you, to make eye contact. If there is an issue, I need to be aware of it in time to help,” she says.

Other tips for college-bound students

• Lissade-Latour recommends applying to at least three schools: your dream school, one that’s a stretch and one likely to accept you.

• Get your high school counselor on your team, particularly if you’re the first in your family to attend college.  They will guide you through the unfamiliar steps to succeed.

“The students say, really, can I do this? And I say, yes, I’m going to walk with you,” says Lissade-Latour, who calls and visits her counterparts at local colleges to solve problems.

• If you’re a minority, don’t worry you’ll be the only one at a prestigious college, Lissade-Latour says. Minority students conducted a Cornell presentation she attended, and many of the professors were foreign-born.

• Ask an experienced person to help you prepare for the lifestyle changes that occur during college, says Lissade-Latour, who uses checklists to help students.

• “Remember to have fun too — clean fun,” Lissade-Latour says.

• If you start struggling with a class, visit your college’s learning lab to get free tutoring.

“They are more than willing to help,” Richardson says.

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