Senior Abu Bhonapha showcases his posters on Kent State and Chicago State universities at John O'Connell's lunchtime College Fair.

The palm tree-lined atrium of John O’Connell High was buzzing with nervous energy as students gathered to see and hear what their peers pitched about college.

“They have a great sports program. They’re kicking UCLA’s butt!” Senior Hendricks Erhahon said, using every tactic he knew to entice college fair-goers to linger at his poster of the University of Southern California.

College application season has begun for high schoolers across the country. While the quality of sports programs and fear of not having good enough grades continue to be a concern for many students, the availability of financial aid was most important to O’Connell seniors.

At another table, Abu Bhonapha touted Kent State University’s support system in Upward Bound programs. “I like small colleges because it’s easier to stay focused on your work there,” Bhonapha said of the school’s size of about 18,000 students. But when asked if he planned on applying to the school, his excitement dwindled. “I would go if I had the money.”

Nearby, a teacher monitoring the fair could be overheard telling another student that “financial aid doesn’t just fall into your lap; you have to apply early.”

Senior Melissa Ng showcased the Massachusetts Institute of Techology and University of Virginia, which is one of the best public universities in the United States according to Forbes, she said. The school “has a really good business program for undergrads,” which is rare for universities, she said. Her family still wants her to apply to good schools regardless of the economy; they are hoping financial aid will help her attend.

Students peruse the boards prepared by O’Connell’s senior Advanced Placement students.

Two floors above the atrium, Courtney Willing of Seven Tepees, a local nonprofit that helps at-risk youth make lifelong positive choices, was busy preparing signs for the week’s upcoming events that included an assembly with current college students, a lunchtime job fair, application and scholarship workshops, and college gear dress up day on Friday.

The Assistant College and Career Program Director agreed that financial aid and scholarships are students’ number one worry. “Even $1,000 makes a difference,” she said.

The year-old college center run by Seven Tepees at O’Connell has started “a big push on campus to create a college-going culture,” Willing said. “Many students will be the first generation to go to college.”

Last year, 60 students applied to a California State University campus. She said 30 went. “That’s over a quarter of the class!”

In 2006, only 56 percent of district graduating seniors completed all courses required for admission to University of California and California State University schools, according to the Department of Children Youth and Their Families. But that gave San Francisco a ranking of third out of 57 school districts reporting.

Veronica Lightfoot, the school’s 12th grade counselor, has also been instrumental in getting more students to prepare for and attend college. “I want every kid going to some kind of school when they leave,” she said, a blue scarf slung around her neck and tortoise frames sitting low on her nose.

In the 2007-2008 school year, only 29 percent of the senior O’Connell class, or 39 students, took the SAT test. This year, every one of Lightfoot’s seniors must sign up for the test that is a large component of most college applications. “I won’t let them go outside the school for lunch if they don’t sign up,” she said. And with fee waivers provided to any student in need, they have no excuse.

Now every student in the lower grades takes the PSAT as well.

Attendance Liaison Judson Steele agreed that “college may not be for everyone, but they should at least have the option.” He mentors a small population of black males at the school to prepare them for a special Meritus College Fund scholarship.

O’Connell senior Erhahon may be evidence of this new college-going culture. He will be applying to 12 colleges, using application waivers for all of them. “A lot of African American kids don’t care, but I want to make a difference,” he said. “If I get in, this will make a big statement: If I can do it, you can too.”

It was not long before the bell’s ring echoed through the open atrium, and the seniors shuffled off with their college boards in hand. The hall monitors’ whistles and shouts of “let’s go!” coaxed the students to class. Except for empty lunch trays and juice boxes, within minutes the atrium was deserted and the college fair was over.

But back in front of Lightfoot’s office, it was apparent some had gotten the message.

A young man with cornrows walked up holding a diploma from John Muir Charter School. Charles Gulley had been one of her students at George Washington Carver Elementary School. As a senior, he failed the California High School Exit Exam and therefore could not graduate despite fulfilling all of his high school’s requirements. The diploma inside the purple leather case he carried proved he had finally done it. For this, Lightfoot thought he deserved a hug.

“I’m proud of you. I love you,” Lightfoot yelled after Gulley as he proudly sauntered out of O’Connell’s counseling center.

Sade McDougal

Born in the Sunshine State of Florida (but raised in Philly), Sade is happy to now be living and reporting in the sunniest neighborhood in San Francisco. When the high school education beat is not keeping...

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