For Gabrielle Wyatt, a key ingredient was missing from the official conversations about high schools with low test scores - the voices of her peers. As the student representative to the school board in Baltimore County, Md., she made it her job to talk with students about what motivates them or what holds them back when it comes to academics and planning for college.
The comments were candid and eye-opening, she says, and superintendent Joe Hairston was listening right alongside her. At some schools, the two were shocked to hear students say they hadn't been counseled about the SAT before 12th grade. In other parts of the county, it's routine to start prepping much earlier.
That delay "cheats the student out of an opportunity they could have had for college," Gabrielle says. "We'd meet afterward for a debrief with principals, and [Dr. Hairston] would say, 'Look, you need to get this back on track.'... We were able to begin to put a dent in that issue."
Gabrielle, a vivacious teen tucked into a businesslike navy blazer, is quick to poke fun at herself as an "overachiever." After all, how many 12th-graders have voting power on the school board and a fax machine in their bedroom? But having attended county magnet schools, which draw highly motivated students into competitive programs, she's eager to see all students benefit just as much from the school system's resources.
"[The tour has] definitely given me a lot of knowledge to share with the board.... I was thinking I'd hear the same responses, like, 'Oh, I don't feel like going to school.' But it's not that," Gabrielle says.
Students in neighborhoods that used to rely on factory jobs don't have many people urging them to prepare for college, she says, despite the fact that the educational demands of jobs have increased dramatically. And teens are frustrated by adults stereotyping them if they go to so-called "bad schools."
After finishing her visits to 10 schools recently, Gabrielle led a conversation at her own, the Carver Center for Arts and Technology. But rather than the superintendent listening in, this time it was a Monitor reporter.
At Carver, a magnet school in Towson, Md., students apply for a particular "prime" - a concentration ranging from dance or acting to cosmetology or culinary arts. The students say that often what pushes them to do well in their demanding academic classes is the opportunity to spend 90 minutes every day on what they love. Because of that culture, says senior Phylicia Ghee, "we have high expectations of ourselves.... We're so disciplined."
The peer pressure is not as positive at the schools in their neighborhoods, several of the Carver students say. If they attended those schools, where there are more distractions, such as fights and teen pregnancies, they don't think they'd be as likely to stay on track for college.
"A lot of boys I know, the thing that motivates them is fast money," says 10th-grader Reggie Hilton. "A lot of people are like, 'I'm not going to college anyway ... so why do I need to get a high school diploma?' "
With two college-educated parents, Reggie thinks more long term than some of his friends. "I stress to them, why don't you make this same amount of money, even more, legally, without having to worry about ... being killed? Isn't that less stressful - to just sit down and do your homework for a couple more years?"
But the Carver students also know that not all their peers have teachers and counselors who push them to plan for college.
Tiffany Cheek, an 11th-grader studying culinary arts, says she's happy her teachers early on showed the link between career paths and higher education. "I came into the program thinking ... most people will [work at] a restaurant. But I never realized the amount of money you can make once you've studied at a higher level."
That's a point Gabrielle tried to drive home with students on her tour. So many young people today see rap stars as instant entrepreneurs, she says, but they don't understand the work it takes for most people to succeed.
"What about that person from poverty who went all the way through school and is now a brain surgeon? That's what students need to see right now."
Students also told Gabrielle they wanted more role models their own age. So she's planning a leadership conference at one of the high schools.
Even though she'll graduate this spring, she says she'll follow up on the project this fall. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, it will count toward a service-learning requirement for her public affairs scholarship.
While Gabrielle's not sure where her college experience will lead her, she's keeping one eye on the superintendent's chair.