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‘College Success Centers’ introduce Buffalo students to higher education

For students at Bennett High School who feel college is out of reach or the process is too overwhelming to navigate, there’s a cozy room on the second floor of the Main Street school where they can find help filling out college applications, filing for financial aid or just getting answers about what life is like on campus.

It’s staffed by those who know best about college life – college students.

Known as the College Success Center, it serves as a prototype to help cultivate a college-going culture in the Buffalo Public Schools, tearing down barriers that keep students from pursuing a higher education.

“It’s helped me get through the application process,” said Bennett senior Shaniyah Crump, “because it’s kind of confusing.”

A second College Success Center operates out of the International Preparatory School on the West Side.

More modest versions are planned for other high schools around the city by October, while funding has been secured to start planting seeds about college among the city’s middle school students, said Nate Daun-Barnett, a University at Buffalo professor.

Daun-Barnett, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, spearheaded this project after shadowing counselors at Bennett for six months to understand the barriers students face getting into college.

He realized how much the counselors were relied upon to guide students through the college process.

“We wanted to free counselors up from administrative burdens to spend more time counseling kids. That was goal No. 1,” Daun-Barnett said.

“No. 2,” he said, “all the schools talked about creating a college-going culture. We could contribute something to that because we represent higher ed. This is our world.”

While those seeds were first planted several years ago, the initiative had to wait because of a lack of funding. Instead, Daun-Barnett started on a smaller scale by helping students tackle the all-important financial aid form known as FAFSA.

“It’s like a foreign language,” said Maureen England, a counselor at Bennett. “We don’t have any training on FAFSA, and I was only familiar with it because of my own children.”

What began as a few student volunteers from UB helping fill out financial aid forms at South Park High School has spread to more than 21 public and charter high schools across the city. In fact, Buffalo Public Schools and Say Yes Buffalo now help fund the FAFSA Completion Project.

Say Yes covers the balance of tuition for Buffalo students only after they’ve applied for state, federal and institutional aid, which is why the UB initiative is so important.

“It’s been a perfect complement,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. “I’m pretty confident in saying we wouldn’t have had the progress we’ve had without the partnership with the University at Buffalo and Nate.”

Daun-Barnett, meanwhile, received funding to start a full-service College Success Center four years ago at Bennett, a school being phased out and relaunched by 2017.

“I know we only have 220 students left in the building, but we have a thousand problems,” England said.

“We have a lot of students that have mental health problems, students that are pregnant, students that need one on one, so if this wasn’t here, I just can’t imagine what it would be like,” said England, the counselor.

The room housing the College Success Center has a collegiate feel: Tables and chairs are organized around a couple of big-screen monitors; a resource area with college brochures and applications is situated at the center of the room; and a few comfortable chairs are arranged in a corner.

Crump and a fellow senior, Eugene Steele, have been frequent visitors since November.

Steele didn’t realize the amount of time it took to apply to colleges.

“Some of my peers, they like to be the cool people and not going to college is cool to them,” said Steele, 17. “I don’t know why that is. I feel bad for them.”

Crump is applying to UB, Canisius College and St. Bonaventure University.

“There’s guidance here,” said Crump, 17. “I want to know more about college – the courses I should take, how to manage my time. It’s my next step in life and I need help.”

That help includes anything from registering for the SATs or filling out college applications to tweaking college essays. Filing financial aid forms started last month.

Daun-Barnett was intent on recruiting college staffers who can relate to the students. Most of the staffers are minorities, like the high school population they serve.

One is Cherrelle Collins, who graduated from Math, Science & Technology Preparatory School on East Delavan Avenue. She went on to earn her two-year degree at Niagara County Community College and is now a graduate student at UB.

Collins shares with the students her story of growing up in the Kenfield-Langfield public housing complex.

“They’ve never really had people they can relate to that actually went on to college,” said Collins, assistant director of the program. “I think a lot of them never thought about it, because they’ve never had people reinforcing the idea of going to college.”