DETROIT — Taisha Fountain was welcoming her students back on the first day of classes in the fall when she saw someone at her high school who didn’t belong there.
Anthony Gentry had already graduated and was supposed to be studying engineering at a college in Ohio.
“I’m, like, what are you doing here?” Fountain recalled asking Gentry. He told her he’d quit college after a few weeks of summer classes when his roommate was robbed.
She responded that he needed to apply somewhere else. And she hasn’t dropped it since — texting, calling and summoning Gentry back to his old high school, the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, to update forms and fill out college applications.
She’s pushy, yes. But staying on top of Gentry is Fountain’s job, as is offering support to the other 93 alumni from Edison’s first graduating class last year, including 88 who Fountain said are still in college.
Fountain serves a role that’s slowly becoming more common in American high schools as the nation confronts high college drop-out rates.
With the odds of a poor, first-generation student earning a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation at about one in 10, Edison is among a small but growing number of schools that are trying to help alumni avoid the crippling debt and dim prospects that come with dropping out.
“In order for you to be a success, you have to finish college. You have to graduate,” Fountain said.
It’s no surprise that this kind of outreach remains rare. Public and charter high schools are measured mostly by the performance of their current students, not their former ones, and those that serve low-income students are often underfunded.
It’s supposed to be the college’s job to help students earn degrees. But while there are signs that some are improving their support services, only 55 percent of students graduate within even six years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
So, despite stretched resources, some high schools are taking action, assigning counselors like Fountain to offer their support.
These alumni advisors send reminders about scholarship deadlines, connect students with campus resources such as writing centers and help them understand quirks that may not be obvious to kids whose parents never went to college, including the importance of withdrawing from a class before the deadline to avoid a failing grade and a tuition bill.
“More and more high schools are feeling a responsibility beyond high school graduation,” said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network.
They can’t simply hand off their graduates to college and move on, the way runners in a relay race pass the baton, Cook said. “We’ve had some wake-up calls … that make us scratch our heads and think, hmm, maybe the baton pass wasn’t really working.”
YES Prep, a chain of charter schools based in Houston, boasted for years about its high college enrollment — until its leaders realized that more than half of its alumni never actually earned degrees.
The chain, which graduated 450 mostly low-income seniors last year, has begun a program called College Initiatives, with three full-time counselors devoted to supporting its grads.
YES Prep also sends groups of alumni to college together to support each other. And the chain uses their feedback about how well-prepared they were to tweak its curriculum for juniors and seniors. Early returns have been promising, with the charter network now reporting that 72 percent of its alumni are still in college or have graduated.
Another large charter chain, KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, hires dozens of staffers around the country for its KIPP Through College campaign. They work with kids starting in the eighth grade and send groups of students to support each other at 60 colleges and universities — programs KIPP credits with boosting its six-year bachelor’s degree rate from 28 percent a few years ago to 45 percent today.
This type of program is expensive and takes resources away from existing students , but Trisha Cornwell, YES Prep’s spokeswoman, said it’s worth it.
“We have to cut in other areas. We don’t have football teams or the nicest buildings you’ve seen, but it’s about where you prioritize your dollars,” Cornwell said. “We can’t just send them off and not provide support, because we know what happens.”
The idea is now spreading to traditional public schools, said Alexandra Bernadotte, the founder and CEO of Beyond 12, a nonprofit that makes software to help high schools and colleges keep tabs on their graduates.
“For too long, there was a lot of finger-pointing,” Bernadotte said. “Colleges were saying ‘You’re not sending us students who are college-ready,’ and high schools were saying, ‘No, it’s because you’re not creating an environment that allows our students to succeed.’ But now we’re starting to see it’s a joint responsibility.”
Edison, a charter school just northeast of downtown Detroit that serves mostly low-income students, doesn’t have the resources of big chains like KIPP or YES Prep, said Ralph Bland, superintendent of New Paradigm for Education, which manages the school. But as his first graduates prepared to head to college, he asked Fountain, who had been the school’s college advisor, to look after them. She had been planning to take time off, but agreed to come back as alumni advisor two days a week to make sure her “babies” are treated right on campus.
“They get lost in the shuffle,” she said. “Most of [the colleges] don’t even say anything to you until you are flunking out. Then all they say is, ‘You’re on probation.’”
Her students say Fountain is a great resource.
Malik Jarvis, 19, said he has faculty and peer advisors he can turn to at Brown University, where he’s a freshman. But “they don’t know who I am or where I’m coming from.”
Fountain reminds him to submit financial aid forms, he said, and wrote him a recommendation letter on short notice when he applied for a campus job.
As for Gentry, he may have re-applied to college even without Fountain’s persistence, but her constant calls got his attention, he said.
“I know I wanted to say, ‘Bump school,’ but she was, like, ‘No.’ … She kept calling,” Gentry said. “It showed me I need to take advantage of my resources. … I need to get back in school as soon as possible.”