Dickenson and Manigault's "impact has been monumental," said Reginald Springfield, a 12th-grade English teacher at the high school who worked closely with them. "They are tireless in their efforts. What they've done is unbelievable."
How did the two, employees of a federally funded program with the unwieldy name of Pennsylvania College Access Challenge Grant, do it?
The road to success began last fall, they said, when, after interviewing every student in the senior class, they began to craft college admissions plans for all who showed even the slightest interest. Manigault and Dickenson had been at Chester High since 2009, but this was the first year they had had free rein to work with all the students, they said.
The Pennsylvania College Access Challenge Grant program provides academic support and a broad range of "college access services" to eight low-performing Pennsylvania high schools selected by the state Education Department. Its signature slogan, said Carol Welsh, vice president for college access for Project GRAD USA, one of the groups involved in the program, is "whatever it takes" to get students into college.
The college access center Dickenson and Manigault presided over, a large room near the Chester High library equipped with computers and a bookcase full of college catalogs, became a popular destination for students looking for information and positive feedback. Manigault, a Lincoln University physics and math major, also tutored dozens of students.
Said Dickenson: "The majority were not thinking of college — that it could happen for them. … We dealt with the real — we'd ask: ‘What are your plans? What do you want to do, and can you do it without going to college?' We'd tell them ‘This is what it takes.' "
One beneficiary was Brishonna Palmer, who could not hold back tears last week as she talked about the road she traveled to admission at a Pennsylvania State University-affiliated technical college in Williamsport. Last fall, she said, "I was being young and stupid; college wasn't even in my top five" list. She was helped, she said, with everything from SAT prep classes to campus visits, college essays, and scholarship applications. "They took me from rock bottom to the top of the mountain."
"This is my family right here — my second home. They're like my sister and my second mom," said college-bound senior Cornealler Burton last week, as she sat in the center. "If you think you're not going to make it, they change that around immediately. They give you the boost you need — you can do this, you will do this, there's no other option."
Negative thinking was not allowed, agreed senior Marisa Hollis. "When we were thinking, `Look at my grades, or look at my family, or this or that,' they would say, ‘Stop talking negative; instead, look at the outcome you can make for yourself by being positive.' "
It took much more than a positive attitude and rapport to see the students through, though those were vital ingredients, Manigault and Dickenson said.
Many students' parents did not attend college, so navigating the complexities of admissions deadlines, figuring out what schools were a good academic and financial fit, and figuring out what careers were viable options were all new to them.
Last year, for example, Manigault, said, final high school transcripts were mailed in June to many graduates' homes, and they did not realize that they had to forward them to their colleges.
Many lost admission or financial aid as a result.
Last week, Dickenson and Manigault were at the high school as seniors picked up their caps and gowns, getting them to fill out forms so the school could mail the transcripts directly to the colleges.
Also, many Chester High seniors don't have a driver's license and need an official state ID to receive federal aid; the two women handed out cards telling them how to get the cards.
Earlier this year, they took students on campus visits and scheduled them for placement tests to help them figure out what courses to take. And Manigault and Dickenson kept admissions application essays and student profiles on flash drives, ready to crank out an application or scholarship request on a moment's notice. Several students got hefty last-minute financial awards, as organizations looking for scholarship applicants turned to the two women and they helped make the match.
More than half this year's college-bound Chester High graduates will attend two-year programs, most at Delaware County Community College, because of low SAT scores and financial constraints. But that is just the first step, Manigault said.
She and Dickenson worked with all to lay out long-term career paths, carefully picking courses that would let them get associate's degrees as quickly as possible, then move on to four-year programs. They are also helping students at four-year schools pick appropriate fall courses that will help them maintain a high-enough average to keep the scholarship money coming.
So, will they miss the Class of 2012? Manigault laughed and said that though their formal responsibility for the students will soon end, it won't stop there.
"I'm sure they will stay in touch, to share their successes and talk about their problems," she said. "And we want to hear from them; after all, they're our kids."
Contact Dan Hardy at 610-313-8134, email@example.com, or on Twitter @DanInq.