Michael Brett Wexler

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories looking at the programs and people involved in helping local students prepare for college.

James Hart School eighth grader Kelsey West has at least eight years of education ahead of her. After she graduates from Homewood-Flossmoor High School, Kelsey will be going to college. She and her parents have been talking about her attending college since she was in fifth grade.

“College is vital for a good future and success,” Kelsey says.

Guidance Department Chair Jim
Schmidt, left, with college counselors 
Kevin Coy, center, and Brad Kain,
right, are helping Homewood-Flossmoor
High students make sound decisions
in their college choices.
(Photo by 
Marilyn Thomas/HF Chronicle)

Kelsey, like other eighth graders at Hart School in Homewood and Parker Junior High in Flossmoor, will be hearing from H-F High counselors in February at the first of many college orientation presentations. Over the next five years, the Class of 2020 will learn the importance colleges place on grades, extracurricular activities and test scores. Their college searches may lead them near or far.

H-F works to prepare them for the transition to college with assistance from dedicated college counselors Brad Kain, who has been at H-F for 12 years, and Kevin Coy, on staff for four years. They both previously worked as college admission representatives. On average, H-F has at least 90 percent of its graduating class admitted to either a two-year or four-year college. H-F is one of the few high schools in the Chicago area to have two dedicated college counselors.

“We’re starting more with eighth graders than we have in the past,” said Kain. “In November we had Parker and Hart (students) for a full day. One of first things we talk about is preparing for college and being successful here at H-F.”

In February when the students register as incoming freshmen, they will immediately have access to Naviance, an online tool that helps students plan their futures by considering their strengths, weaknesses and career interests. Students enter personal and academic interests and Noviance can help with college and scholarship searches. The program is available to H-F students throughout their high school years.

Kain and Coy work hard to dispel the idea that students have nothing to worry about until their junior year. It may have been so in their parents’ day, but the counselors stress the importance of the grade point average (GPA) from freshman year on. A low GPA can be difficult to improve upon, whereas a great GPA from freshman year on is something a student can build on.

Because the high school uses a weighted grading system, top students , such as those in the International Baccalaureate degree program, are given 6 or 7 points for an A, in college prep curriculum an A is worth 5 points, and the general curriculum A is 4 points.

“We also provide two class ranks. The 4.0 rank and the weighted scale rank,” explained Guidance Department Chairman Jim Schmidt. “The 4.0 is the equal playing field, but we often use that weighted one to determine a truer ranking. It separates those kids out more by the rigor of the courses and the success in the courses,” but dual ranking gives everyone the opportunity to do their best based on their ability.

Parents are included in informational programs during the four years a student is at H-F. They get to hear from college representatives at information sessions and professionals at career fairs. Speakers and Illinois Student Assistance Commission representatives give advice on filing for financial aid. The annual College Night brings representatives from across the country to the H-F campus.

In January, juniors will have two days of presentations. The counselors start the discussion and are followed by talks from college representatives. Then there is a panel discussion in which H-F alumni in their first year of college share their experiences. Current H-F seniors join the panel talking about things they’ve done right or things they should have done in selecting and applying to colleges.

The program is meant to “give the juniors a heads-up on what’s coming down the pipeline,” Kain said. “I think at that point it really hits the juniors. Our calendars start filling in.”

Kain and Coy make it a point to take freshmen and sophomores on college visits to schools in the Chicago area, including Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. For some students, it is their first time on a college campus and it’s an eye-opening experience.

“We’re not promoting those schools,” Coy said. “It’s getting students to think about what kind of campus is important to them so when we meet with them down the line they have some idea of what kind of characteristics are important to them.”

The counselors say the biggest decision for a student is a career plan. Kain said that although all students aren’t college bound “what we emphasize is making sure there’s some kind of plan for when we look ahead. That means we’ve prepared them academically. They’re going to be successful.”

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