Walker employed two college counselors, but they had their hands full helping caseloads of hundreds. Laurie wanted someone to create a comprehensive data system so the school knew, at any given moment, how many of its students had taken the ACT, been accepted into colleges, and qualified for the state's main college scholarship program, known as TOPS.
Data had not always been Walker's strongest suit. More intangibly, Laurie hoped to do a better job ensuring "everyone was speaking the same language" when it came to college admissions and financial aid.
She hired Andrea Smith Bailey, the wife of assistant principal Mark Bailey, to help with these new tasks. Andrea, who was finishing a master's degree in counseling psychology, began working at Walker part-time. But her job could have kept a team of full-time employees busy.
Creating a data system was the easy part, even though new information about college acceptances, ACT scores, and grade point averages poured in daily. Translating the "language of college" proved far more difficult. The labyrinthine rules and processes surrounding scholarships, loans, and financial aid did not account for the messy realities of poor families' lives.
One senior, for instance, qualified for a state scholarship that provided full tuition at a two-year technical or community college. The student couldn't access the money, however, because he lived on his own and had no parent or guardian to sign for him. Bailey tried to register him as "homeless" so he could sign his own forms.
She discovered it took mountains of paperwork even to qualify as homeless--particularly since one of the boy's grandmothers had falsely claimed him as a dependent on recent tax forms. "We have a lot of kids who just don't fit in the federal government parameters of what's a family, what's a parent," Bailey said.
The scholarship parameters also weren't designed with a thorough understanding of what low-income students are up against. TOPS promises qualifying students a free ride if they earn a 2.5 grade point average and score at least a 20 on the ACT. But the scholarship fails to cover numerous expenses, and this keeps many low-income students from even starting college.
One Walker student planned to attend Louisiana State University through a state scholarship. But the grant did not cover the $150 he needed to get on a wait list for a dorm room, or the housing deposit. Bailey delved into the student's financials, trying to figure out when his next paycheck from Taco Bell would clear so he would not miss the deposit deadline and find himself homeless in Baton Rouge.
The communication barriers extend in all directions: The federal and state government bureaucrats little fathom the complexities of low-income students' home lives. But the students, most of them first-generation college aspirants, often do not understand what a "loan" or "interest rate" means--much less how to make sure they maximize their TOPS and Pell Grant payouts if they qualify for both. (For reasons that were nebulous to Bailey, some students receive full payments from both while others do not.)