About 100 high school seniors are packed into a corner of the library at Philadelphia's Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School. It's the third day of the new year, a bright, cold, January morning, and these kids are finding themselves face-to-face with the future: some 40 previous King graduates, all of them eager to expound on life after high school.
"Listen to them," pleads one English teacher, gesturing at the group of alums ready to step up to a microphone. "They are bringing you news of the real world."
This is the school's eighth annual Graduate Seminar and Luncheon - also known affectionately as "the Star Babies Lunch." It's a program intended to channel directly to high school seniors the collective wisdom of those who have passed before them into the world of adulthood.
But more specifically, at this urban school with an almost entirely African-American student body, the hope is that talk of the future will mobilize many of these students to get into - and stay in - college.
"College is cool, but it's so hard," warns Natasha Brown, a freshman at Penn State University in University Park, Pa., shaking a head covered with tidy corn-row braids and tugging at the collar of her white turtleneck sweater. "You've got to get up and go to class, study hard, and meet with your advisers. I studied really hard for one test and still got a D."
"Don't spend a lot of time socializing," warns Donald Simpson, a former high school track star. Mr. Simpson flunked out of Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) in Indiana, Pa., in his freshman year and is now taking classes at the Community College of Philadelphia. "[Freshman year] cost about $10,000," he adds sadly. "That's a lot of money to waste."
Much of what these King students are hearing is identical to the buzz high school seniors across the United States pick up from graduates who swing home during winter break full of tales of campus life. Many of the freshmen are stunned by how hard it is, while some upperclassmen stress better times to come. A few insist it's been smooth sailing all the way.
For minority students, such news is especially important. Over the past few decades, the number of black students both attending and graduating from college has increased steadily. Between 1977 and 1998, the number of bachelors' and associates' degrees granted to black students in the US jumped by 40 percent.
But too many of these students are still arriving at college with less academic preparation than many of their white colleagues. And help is not always at hand. Financial aid and scholarships may be readily available, but academic support doesn't necessarily come with these packages - or with warnings that other students may have an academic edge.
At the University of California in Berkeley, for instance, a recent study showed that more than 70 percent of the African-American students there - who had SAT scores 52 points higher than the national average, but 229 points below the average at Berkeley - failed to graduate.
For that reason, perhaps, the advice at today's lunch is straightforward and serious: Study hard. Don't party too much. Don't lose your head over a romance. Think about the future. Have a plan.
Some who stumbled at first suggest it might be good to take time off to ensure a more mature approach to college.
Not all the graduates went on to college. Former cheerleader Nadia Lash, who will be giving birth later this year instead of enrolling in art school, wistfully advises the women not to get pregnant. "The boys will still be there after college," she says.
But the bulk of the conversation, shared formally through the microphone and later over sandwiches, cookies, and cans of soda, is advice tailored specifically to the group at hand: minority teenagers who dream of college but may not fully grasp the realities involved.
King is located in a solid but cheerless inner-city neighborhood. Inside the school, students are surrounded by battered lockers and stained linoleum floors. Outside, broken glass crunches under foot in the parking lot, and clumps of stray garbage clutter the sidewalks. Most college campuses - particularly rural ones - represent a drastic change of scene.
And because many King students have lived mostly among other African-Americans, college means a dramatic demographic shift as well. "Suddenly you're surrounded by white people," says Tina Walton, a junior at IUP majoring in natural science and predentistry. "They seem to know a lot more. They make you feel like you don't know too much. And the truth is that you don't."
When it comes to basic academic skills, Ms. Walton warns her listeners, "You are being deprived right now. You're not getting what you need. The stuff I'm getting now in college, they had these things in junior high."
Lynn Keiner, chair of King's English department and a teacher at the school since 1972, sighs as she listens to Walton's comments. Ms. Keiner says that because of staffing difficulties at the high school, the young woman never had a single science class taught by a certified subject-area teacher. Most of the teachers who rotated in and out of the science classrooms were substitutes without science backgrounds.
Lack of sound academic preparation is a problem that haunts many minority students. "We don't prepare them as well as we should," says school psychologist Vivian Richardson.
Teachers at King are not permitted to group students by ability, and no advanced-placement courses are offered. Some faculty members complain that without higher-level classes it's impossible to adequately challenge the better students. But the problem goes back even further, Ms. Richardson says: "They weren't prepared well in elementary school."
Academic preparation isn't the only hurdle, though. Loneliness can take a toll. Recently, a large number of King students have gravitated toward IUP, partly because it's one of the least expensive state schools in Pennsylvania, but also because of the coterie of King graduates studying there. Still, in a total student population of 17,000, only several hundred are black.
"Get all the financial aid you can," says Lavada Santana, a freshman this year at IUP. "They'll give it to you." But once there, she recommends, "Pledge a black fraternity or sorority."
Some students insist their schools do offer a healthy measure of support. Granger Simmons is a freshman at Brown University in Providence, R.I. When he failed a midterm exam that others in the class aced, he says his professor was quick to help, and by semester's end he was back on solid ground.
Mr. Simmons stresses that he's thrilled to be at Brown. But in his first semester he faced some tough challenges. "Most people there are rich, white, and smart," he says. "I thought I was a little smart when I left here, but now I know I'm not, really."
Like many of his classmates, he also says it's hard to leave a largely black school like King and become a minority. "They're not used to black people [at Brown]," he says. "They sit next to me in class, and I feel like I have to teach them how to deal with me. And I think: Why do I have to do this?"
Bettye Winder, guidance counselor at King for 28 years, has heard many such stories. But she's far from discouraged. About 60 percent of the students who graduate from King now go on to college, and about two-thirds of them stay the course. "It only takes a semester or two for most of them to realize they can make it," she says, and that includes students who didn't shine in high school.
For Ms. Winder, today's program is a joy. Seeing graduates who are making it in college return to the school "is what it's all about," she says.
Ronald Gray, a senior at Cheyney University, a historically black college in Cheyney, Pa., places himself in the "didn't shine" category. "I was not a scholar in high school," he confesses. But now, looking chic in a butterscotch-colored suede shirt, he's thriving in school with a major in fashion design and a promising internship working for Roca Wear in New York City. "You don't have to be a mathematician or a rocket scientist to do it," he says.
Some of the seniors say the event was inspirational. Kia Alston, who hopes to attend Temple University in Philadelphia, says she came away feeling sober, yet hopeful. "It's going to be harder than I thought," she says. "You realize it's not going to come to you, you're going to have to work for it."
But at the same time, she says, seeing other King grads who have succeeded in college gave her a large measure of confidence - especially as she recalls that some of them were less-than-diligent students in high school. "I saw some of them up there," she says, "and I thought, 'If they can make it, I know I can.' "