By William Harms

The students in Woodlawn High School’s Class of 2010 are off to college now, but they still have a strong connection to the school through an innovative program that provides them continued support.

As part of its “6to16” approach to education, the University of Chicago Charter School campus includes a college transition counselor to help students prepare for and succeed in college. This gives graduates a “13th-year counselor,” reflecting UCW’s uncommon commitment to fostering success even after high school.

“This is something new for us and something unusual for a high school,” says Shayne Evans, director of the Woodlawn campus. “Our counselor, Kamilah Dowell, is building relationships with alumni, giving us data on how they’re doing, and helping us build a network of mentors for our current 12th-graders.”

Dowell checks in regularly with alumni and offers suggestions should they need help. She posts envelopes with their names on the wall opposite her desk, which allows UCW staff and students the opportunity to drop notes to graduates.

“I keep track of the students and the conversations that I have with them on a form that I created and keep in a folder. The form allows me to take notes on the discussion that I have with the student, keep track of any challenges they are facing, and make a note on whether or not a follow-up step needs to be taken,” Dowell says.

Social Media Creates Online Community

As a new staff member at Woodlawn, Dowell did not know the graduates before they went to college, so she sometimes connects students with their former teachers. She also gets assistance from last year’s valedictorian, Dejerea Calhoun, a freshman in the honors program at Chicago State University who helps manage the school Facebook page.

The page provides a chance to give shout-outs to the graduates—congratulating one for starting a radio program, for instance, or recognizing another for joining the college choir.

Getting words of encouragement from Woodlawn makes all the difference to students who are away, says Mecca Wilkerson, a Woodlawn graduate who is now a freshman at the University of Missouri.

“When they tell me I’m going to make it, I’m doing well, that’s like the icing on the cake,” she says.

Providing Support Through Tough Times

Not all the experiences in college are happy ones, however, Dowell says. Some students don’t like the schools they chose and want to transfer, she says.

“I encourage them to stay and suggest things they might do, groups they might join that would make them feel more connected. I just know how difficult it is to transfer and I want them to take that seriously,” says Dowell, who has worked as an admissions counselor at the University of California, Berkeley.

She also asks students about their academic work and suggests how to get through difficult classes.

“The students who didn’t like science and mathematics in high school don’t like it any better in college,” she says. “When they need help, I suggest they sign up for tutoring or connect with another student who is good at the subject and be part of a study group.”

Dowell also works with the school’s current senior class and has arranged a mentoring network that connects them with people in the community who can give advice and encouragement on colleges and careers.

Originally published on January 24, 2011.