Meriden students get head start on college applications in weeklong academy

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MERIDEN — Daniel Lobner stood in front of a group of 15 Maloney High School students in a classroom Thursday morning. All are entering their senior year.  

Lobner pointed to a list with bullet points he had written on the whiteboard. The first bullet point was “complete common application.” The next, “letters of recommendation.” They were followed by “brag sheet”, “college list” and “college essay.” 

The students who sat in front of Lobner, with open laptops, were among more than 50 rising seniors at Maloney and another 50 at Platt High School who attended similar college prep academies, with the start of school still a few weeks away. The goal was simple: get a jump on college applications in an environment free of
distractions. They started on Monday and wrapped up on Friday. 

The list on the white board was of items Lobner sought to have students tackle during the week. For one, the brag sheet, students compiled a list of accomplishments during high school to help teachers write recommendation letters.  

“The idea is at the end of the week we’ll have all five of these components finished and ready to send these off to colleges,” Lobner said. 

Many students from Maloney and Platt would be first generation college students. So the weeklong academy also offered a chance to learn about the process of applying for college.

For the past six years, both Maloney and Platt have been partner schools in the Connecticut RISE Network, which strives to support the schools in efforts to ensure students leave high school college ready. 

Earlier this year, RISE released separate reports that highlighted the academic struggles students faced as a result of a changed learning environment spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students were either attending school in-person part-time, or completely remotely. The first report, from last winter, found high numbers of students were academically at-risk of staying back a grade. A follow up report highlighted the efforts of educators, including those in Meriden, to help students make academic strides. Those efforts, which included after school and Saturday academic sessions, yielded success for the majority of students who participated.  

State data on college entry and persistence showed Meriden had made strides increasing the number of students who pursued post secondary education and complete those programs. 

The last full year reported by the State Department of Education was for the 2017-2018 school year. Close to 53% of students who graduated from Meriden schools that year went on to a two or four year school. Roughly three out of four students who enrolled stayed in those programs for subsequent years. 

RISE’s leaders attended Thursday’s session along with Meriden educators. Across RISE’s network of 10 schools close to 300 entering high school seniors are participating in similar programs. 

Emily Pallin, RISE’s executive director, pointed out the need for such programs — college enrollment in two and four year schools was down as a result of the pandemic. 

Across the state’s four-year schools it was down more than 3% this past year. For community colleges, it was down 15%, Pallin said. 

“That definitely underscores the urgency of programs like this,” Pallin said. “... We know students have big dreams. How do we make sure we’re providing them with the support they need to make those a reality?”

So educators are hopeful programs like the weeklong session held at Maloney and Platt will help students think about their post high school careers. 

Sherry McLaughlin, RISE’s deputy director for Postsecondary Success, noted that a large factor in students’ decisions last year on whether and where to apply was whether campuses would be open or classes would be virtual. Another factor was affordability. Many students opted to start at two year schools because of finances and because they wouldn’t have access to a residential campus. 

McLaughlin expects this year to be different. 

“More campuses are opening and students are applying and getting themselves prepared for decisions that might reflect more in person than virtual, as it was last year,” McLaughlin said. 

At Maloney and Platt, college affordability is a frequent discussion point. 

Pallin noted both schools have teams of counselors to work with students on financial aid. Their job was to help students and their families work through the financial obstacles and develop affordable plans for college. 

Educators also want to help students achieve success in college should they go that route. That is partly why they chose to run a summer program. 

“The concept of bringing seniors back to school to get a head start on their busy fall, just has been tremendous,” said Jennifer Straub, Maloney’s principal. “The students will tell you how beneficial it is to get started on the resume, their brag sheet, to get letters of recommendation from their teachers, to start working on that college essay, even just the brainstorming of ideas — to kind of sketch it out. 

“They’re busy kids anyway, involved in sports and other extracurricular activities, so for them to feel the value in carving out some time to really dedicate to getting ready for that application process that happens when they get back is incredible,” Straub added. 

Students appear to agree: the summer session has been helpful.

Havi Nguyen, 17, noted educators helped to make the process of applying for college manageable. 

“The whole process is lengthy and complicated. But they simplified it for us, by having us do a set of tasks, so it’s really easy,” Nguyen said. 

Classmates Tomas Maldonado and Miguel Cardona Jr. agreed. 

“For me, I felt like I was way behind,” Maldonado said. “But to see everyone doing the same exact thing I am I don’t feel like I’m behind or slow in the process.”

Cardona said it is motivating to see 15 of his peers in the same room completing the same task he is working on. It was also helpful to have a counselor available to help and answer questions in real time.

“I can ask a question, have a teacher respond in a couple of seconds. Whereas at home, you might send an email, and not get a reply for a couple of days,” Cardona said. 

Down the hall, in Lobner’s classroom, he asked students for a show of hands for how many completed different tasks. He asked how many students have sent out messages to teachers seeking a letter of recommendation. The entire class raised their hands. 

“Excellent, everybody,” Lobner said. Then it was onto the brag sheet. “How are we doing on a brag sheet?”

Lobner continued, stressing the importance: “that’s really an integral part for the recommendation process for a teacher.” . 


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