Omni Swinton was sitting in the library at Southwest High School, listening to a talk about the importance of going to college when she got a tap on the shoulder from a visitor.
“I was wondering if I was in trouble,” she said. “I was thinking what had I done wrong.”
She and two friends, Kiz-Juan Sherrell and Shkenna Collins, were asked to sit together at the back of a room.
That’s where the girls got the stunning news — after a review of their transcripts, all three had been accepted on the spot to Harris-Stowe State University, a St. Louis school with an undergraduate enrollment of about 1,300 and one of the country’s 40 public historically black four-year colleges and universities.
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While many graduating seniors across the country are still waiting for college acceptances and financial aid packages, the Southwest girls know they have a place at a college that wants them.
“Inside I’m jumping up and down, but on the outside I’m trying to be cool,” said Collins.
In an unusual recruiting trip, Harris-Stowe officials, along with several of its current students, visited several inner-city public schools in Kansas City earlier this spring to talk to students about going to college, and about what their campus has to offer. It’s the first time the university has tried this approach.
“I wanted to do something outside the box,” said Dwaun Warmack, 39, who’s been president at Harris-Stowe for two years.
Over three days, the university stopped at seven schools, received 118 applications and delivered 90 acceptances. Warmack awarded eight presidential scholarships, which are four-year, full rides valued at about $64,000. He also handed out three board of regents scholarships valued at $32,000 and seven dean’s scholarships that carry awards of $16,500.
The university did not disclose which students received scholarship offers.
Warmack decided on this scholar search, knowing that some college-capable minority and low-income students might not apply to college thinking they wouldn’t have a chance at acceptance because of low test scores or out-of-range costs.
Many historically black colleges and universities have suffered from shrinking enrollment as predominantly white institutions have beefed up their recruitment of minority students.
CNN Money reported that while the numbers for Asian, white and Hispanic college enrollment has been relatively flat in the last few years, there’s been a significant leap among black high school graduates pursuing college degrees.
In 2013, 59.3 percent of black graduates enrolled in college. In 2014 that figure was 70 percent.
At Southwest, where 95 percent of the students in the senior class of more than 100 are African-American, Warmack found Collins, Swinton and Sherrell.
All had good grades and the desire to attend college.
On his high school tour, Warmack said, “there were some students who other universities might say they are not college ready.”
But Harris-Stowe, he said, wants to give them a chance.
“GPA and test scores are not always the best indicator of whether a student can make it or not,” Warmack said.
Some of these students had to overcome obstacles just to get where they are, Warmack said, and if you meet them and talk to them rather than judge them on paper you see something more in them.
“I was that student,” Warmack said.
Visiting these inner-city schools “allows me to share my personal story,” raised in poverty by a single mother in a rough neighborhood in Detroit. “To me the reward is the ability to connect with students on an intimate level,” he said.
It worked for Sherrell, who is considering attending Harris-Stowe. She’s the oldest of nine children and would be the first in her family to go to college. Before Warmack’s visit to Southwest, Sherrell didn’t know that Harris-Stowe was even an option.
Meeting the university president, his staff and students, and seeing success that looked like her, she said, was a powerful persuader.
And when students see their classmates getting tapped for college admission, said Southwest principal Earl Williams, “it shows the others that if you work hard college is available to you.”
Sherrell, Swinton and Collins are not the only students principal Williams is bragging about.
A fourth classmate, Wasiba Hamad, received an estimated $42,000 Bloch scholarship, which fully covers tuition for her to get a two-year degree from Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan. It also will pay for the remainder of the undergraduate degree she plans to get at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
When she got the scholarship email announcement, “I had to read it twice,” Hamad said. “I had been thinking why would they choose me, you know.” When they did, “I was so happy because I knew I wanted to go to college but in the back of my mind I was like, how am I going to pay for it?”
Such successes are a good way for Southwest to go out, Williams said. The high school will graduate its final class in May. At the end of this school year the Kansas City district will shutter the doors at Southwest, which has suffered shrinking enrollment. It has capacity for about 1,600 students but enrollment dwindled to about 350.
Elizabeth Mounteer, college adviser at Southwest, said that Harris-Stowe’s experience shows the community that good things are happening inside the giant, historic brick school building at 6512 Wornall Road.
She’s hoping the college successes this year will carry over to next year.
“They have set an example for their own siblings and for other students,” Mounteer said. “I’m hoping it creates a ripple effect of going to college.”