JAcksonville counselor with students after PARCA data

Jacksonville High School Counselor Marcia Stallings talks to students about their future plans.   Left to right:  Kevin Bavajas, Anna Pollard, Marcia Stallings (counseler), Kalyn Laster and Kahlil Jackson (foreground).    

When it comes to placing students in college, area school systems experience widely varying levels of success.

According to the latest data compiled by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, 82 percent of Jacksonville City Schools’ 2014 graduates went straight to college, a mark exceeded by just seven of the state’s 134 public school districts. Anniston City Schools stands at the opposite end of those rankings; one system’s college-going rate in 2014 was lower than Anniston High School’s 43 percent.

PARCA’s data ranked Piedmont City Schools not far from Anniston, with 50 percent of Piedmont High School graduates seeking a post-secondary education. Only six systems rated lower.

According to the data, 65 percent of Alabama students left high school for college in 2014. Oxford City Schools and Calhoun County Schools hovered near that average. Sixty-four percent of Oxford High’s graduates went on to college while 58 percent of graduates from the county system’s seven high schools did so.

The five systems combined for 59 percent of Calhoun County students going off to college.

Leaders at Jacksonville High School credit their success to a long-standing tradition.

Marcia Stallings, into her 10th year as a guidance counselor at the school, recalled a college-going expectation existing in JHS’s hallways when she attended in the 1980s. Having Jacksonville State University in town has a lot to do with those expectations, she said.

“We always grew up knowing we were going to college,” Stallings said. “I think that’s continued.”

It’s the kind of culture that leaders at Anniston and Piedmont schools aim to create.

Work or school

At Piedmont, guidance counselor Sandra Akin said she started a mission three years ago to get every senior admitted to at least one college. Last month, she hosted students and their parents for a “work session” in which they filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form by the U.S. Department of Education that students nationwide fill out to qualify for many grants and loans. Education advocates have blamed FAFSA paperwork for being a barrier to college attendance.

The system earlier this week updated graduation policies that promote students enrolling in classes at Gadsden State Community College.

“They can gain some confidence” through dual enrollment, Akin said. “They can think, ‘Maybe I am a college student. Maybe I am college material.’”

Anniston Superintendent Darren Douthitt said he meets students not so unlike his younger self; he grew up poor in Ohatchee. In a system with nearly 80 percent of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch, Douthitt, like Akin, is often told by teens that they’re opting for work over college after high school.

“People have to be sold on the idea that going to college is a sacrifice that will change your life,” said Douthitt, a JSU grad. “Of course, that’s what happened to me, and that’s what I tell students when I sit down with them.”

Holly Box, an administrator in Calhoun County Schools, said the system takes pride in a figure not represented in PARCA’s college-going rates: the number of students graduating and entering the workforce. She referred to the state Department of Education’s ongoing strategic plan calling for high school graduates to be both college- and career-ready.

“One doesn’t outweigh the other,” Box said. “They are equally important.”

She said the system’s career tech program has grown “vastly” in recent years, with “more children in career tech classes than we’ve ever had.” According to Calhoun County Technical School director Kevin Lockridge, 25 percent of the system’s 10th- to 12th-graders enroll in classes offered by the 11 programs at the technical school.

“In the past, we might’ve encouraged more students to go to higher education,” Box said. “But for some students, that’s not the path they want to take.”

‘Lack of awareness’

While credentials from technical programs might grant higher immediate income for high school graduates, a recent study on the middle class by the Pew Research Center found that Americans without a post-secondary education have experienced “a substantial loss in economic status” over the years.

Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, said schools should sense urgency to promote college attendance in the face of a changing economic environment. More than ever, he said, employers are requiring college diplomas.

“There’s a lack of awareness that two-thirds of our jobs are requiring some type of preparation beyond high school,” Bottoms said. “We’re preparing two-thirds of our students for one-third of jobs that require a high school education or less. We’re preparing two-thirds to compete for less jobs on the lower end of the ladder.”

Systems that involve parents and the community are likely to see more students graduating and going to college, Bottoms said. Expectations, he said, have to be instilled.

“It has to start early,” said Stallings, the Jacksonville High counselor. “It can’t be senior year, it can’t be junior year. It’s got to be earlier.”

That notion recently put Douthitt in a Constantine Elementary classroom. There were 25 children in the class, and he asked if they had ever been to a college campus, like Jacksonville State, just up the highway.

“Two or three raised their hand,” Douthitt said. “That bothered me.”

Staff writer Seth Boster: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @SethBoster_Star.