Head of the class

The cliché of student-athletes is that they skate along on their physical rather intellectual abilities. But every school and community has a vested interest in educating kids, mind and body, particularly those students who are underserved.

Enter Destination: College, which helps prepare student-athletes at Mount Vernon High School and Greenburgh’s Woodlands High School in Hartsdale for higher education via The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, pizza and baked goods.

The pizza and baked goods aren’t really part of the 14-year-old nonprofit’s programs. They’re just designed to feed the body while more than 65 volunteers feed 200 eager minds, says Suzanne McCann, Destination: College’s executive director. As for The Times and Sports Illustrated, they’re there to help develop reading comprehension, vocabulary and general critical thinking skills, via subjects and issues of the day to engage the students, who are members of the boys’ and girls’ soccer and basketball teams, the girls’ volleyball team, the cheerleading squad and the football team at Mount Vernon High and the football team at Woodlands. Destination: College volunteers also help students with homework and preparation for taking the Regents exams. (According to the New York State Education Department’s website, you must have not only 22 units of credits to attain a Regents or local diploma but pass five Regents exams, or department-approved alternatives, in English language arts, math, science, social studies and what is called a “pathway” through one of the following — the arts, foreign languages, career and technical education, career development and occupational studies, the humanities or STEM.

Volunteers also help with SAT/ACT formal prep, essay and résumé writing, college and financial aid applications, sports/academic scholarship opportunities and athletic recruitment support. (Destination: College also provides financial support to student-athletes at the Charles E. Gorton High School in Yonkers.)

The organization’s role doesn’t end when students head off to college. The nonprofit follows up with them and maintains a connection through networking events. Pre-Covid, the organization’s Summer Program afforded Mount Vernon Middle and High School students day trips to the Westchester County Court House and ABC’s “The View” and the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

As with all educational organizations, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc with Destination: College’s vital in-person learning.

“How were we going to read over Zoom?” wondered McCann, a Bronxville resident and volunteer with a long track record, who in heading the organization since 2014 followed in the footsteps of founder Nancy McKenna, still an active member of the organization. But read, discuss, view and study is exactly what the students have been doing with such activities as “Team Reads,” using short Times’ videos. Meanwhile, 20 student volunteers from Bronxville, Hackley, Sacred Heart and Fieldston high schools tutor more than 40 peers online in everything from algebra to geometry, chemistry and AP history.

Persistence pays:  This year Destination: College has seen 35 of its 36 seniors enroll in college. While the vast majority of these students are in the SUNY (State University of New York) system, McCann says, DC is also represented by students at Barnard College, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and the United States Military Academy West Point as well as some 40 other institutions of higher learning.

More important, 84% of DC students — the majority of whom are black — return for their sophomore year. “It’s a notable average,” she adds, “because the national average for minority students is 66 percent.”

The reason for this disparity in DC’s favor is what McCann calls its “nudging and coaching.

“That contact directly correlates with a more positive outcome to keep them on track.”

For more, visit destinationcollegeny.org.

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