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St. Mary's Builds New Path To College

Just before Christmas in 2000, Layla Wynn's college dreams evaporated. A philanthropist broke a promise to support higher education for her sixth-grade class. She had become a top student at Cardozo High School in the District, but her parents -- neither of whom had gotten past high school -- had 13 other children and could not afford the colleges on her list.

Yet eight years later, Wynn has a bachelor's degree and will soon have a master's degree in city and regional planning, all because of a spur-of-the-moment commitment from a small public college she had never heard of. What St. Mary's College of Maryland has done so far for Wynn and 21 other Cardozo students is so unusual, and so successful, it could become a model for President Obama's plan for the United States to lead the world again in the share of people who have finished college.

St. Mary's marketing official Marc Apter was drawn to the Cardozo story that Christmas week because his father had attended the school in the 1930s, when it was known as Central High. Within hours, college President Jane Margaret "Maggie" O'Brien was promising a free education to dozens of Cardozo seniors who had been betrayed. Other colleges joined in. The crisis passed. But as O'Brien saw how much the five Cardozo students who accepted her offer were adding to the college, she went back to the high school again and again, donating books, organizing bus trips to her campus and admitting more students tuition-free.

"We learned that you don't have to have a 1200 SAT and a 3.9 GPA to be successful in college," O'Brien said. Then-Principal Reginald Ballard, English teacher Frazier O'Leary and counselor Gwendolyn Hoover had helped create a core of college-level courses at Cardozo that laid the foundation for the pipeline from the crumbling school on Clifton Street NW to the fashionable St. Mary's campus near Chesapeake Bay.

The more Cardozo students who joined the college's boat-racing, oyster-shucking and archaeological-digging culture, the faster the next group from Cardozo adjusted. "It was great having other people who knew your background and could relate to what you were seeing and feeling," Wynn said. Katrice Pitts said she had to get used to "no sirens at night, no streetlights on Route 5, no Metro," as well as a heavy academic load. But with help from upperclassmen like Wynn, "I was able to really involve myself on campus," she said. Well-known colleges and high schools have bonded like this for years. Some D.C. private schools send three or four kids a year to Harvard University. But schools like Cardozo rarely develop such relationships with selective colleges, like St. Mary's.

To build that trust, O'Brien appointed herself personal adviser to the Cardozo crew, asking about their classes, organizing trips, suggesting graduate school options and coming up with cash in distracting emergencies, like an unpaid electric bill back home. That first year, there were five Cardozo students -- Wynn, Elizabeth Dada, James Vines, Thu-An Trinh and Lee Alderman. Four graduated. Trinh also did well but transferred to Trinity Washington University so she could help care for her younger siblings. Of the 22 Cardozo students who have attended 2,000-student St. Mary's, two have been dismissed for academic reasons and one had to leave the country.

In his recent speech to Congress, Obama made a moon-shot pledge to "provide the support necessary for all young Americans to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." The Cardozo-St. Mary's story, and a New York-based program called Posse, suggest a way to do that.

Deborah Bial founded Posse nearly 20 years ago after encountering a college dropout in New York who said he would have had a better chance of graduating if he had had his posse -- his closest friends -- with him. Bial's team has found 33 colleges willing to admit students tuition-free each year in groups of about a dozen, all from the same area, all brought together for eight months of once-a-week training and bonding before they head off to the same college. Under that program, Washington area students are attending Grinnell and Lafayette colleges, Bucknell University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Sewanee: The University of the South. The overall graduate rate so far is 90 percent.

It helps if the students had demanding high school teachers, which is why St. Mary's is awarding honorary degrees this year to Ballard and O'Leary, who have been keeping track of their graduates. It is expensive to provide such support. But Obama's education team wants to try new ways to make college work. A few words from Wynn, and the people who got her to and through college, might give them some ideas.

-- Jay Mathews


By Washington Post Editors  | March 9, 2009; 11:56 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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