The students, all in the growing Admission Possible college preparatory program, are in the final days before a Saturday bout with their ACT. The program is accepting sophomore applicants for next year through mid-April.
Armstrong's class of 71 is among 1,200 low-income students in Admission Possible at 15 schools across the metro area. They have spent the past seven months getting ready to take the test, and for seniors, applying to colleges and exploring financial aid options.
Admission Possible was begun in 2001 by Jim McCorkell, himself a first-generation college graduate, who saw a need for programs to give promising low-income students the guidance many of their higher-income peers often take for granted, such as preparing for admission tests, looking for colleges, navigating the wilds of financial aid.
McCorkell, now the program's CEO, notes that each year there are about 200,000 graduating high school seniors who could succeed in college, but who don't go for one reason or another.
"That's really an amazing loss of potential, both for those students who could have a much more fulfilling life, but also for our economy, which needs well-trained workers," he said.
Students need to have a good attendance record and a GPA of at least 2.0. Students in the program have an average family income of $25,000.
"Before joining Admission Possible, I felt like I 'had' to go to college for everyone's sake, but by joining Admission Possible I began to develop the desire and motivation to want to go to college for myself," wrote Song Yang, 16, a junior from Armstrong, who would like to study occupational therapy. "Admission Possible helps encourage and support you. It expanded my knowledge in everything, especially my future."
In eight years, 1,175 students have completed the program; 98 percent have been admitted to college, and 95 percent enrolled. About 80 percent are working toward their degrees or have graduated.
The program, which costs about $1,500 per student per year, is funded mostly by individual and corporate donations, with assistance from the federally funded service agency AmeriCorps.
As this year's class of 36 juniors takes the last practice tests and bones up on grammar and math for Saturday's ACT, about 35 seniors are collecting acceptance letters, working out finances and deciding where to take their success.
Once students start college, Admission Possible tracks how things are going. Students' retention and graduation numbers are comparable to those of their higher-income peers.
"Despite the tremendous support that I receive from family, I sometimes feel like none of them have been in my situation, so it makes it more difficult whenever I am discouraged," wrote Adonius Lewis, a 2007 graduate of Arlington High School in St. Paul, in his first year at Carleton College. "I'm not exactly sure what I want to do when I graduate, however I want to find some way to help give more underprivileged youth the same opportunity I was given and inform them that a higher education is both important and attainable."
Last week, McCorkel and his staff were interviewing the 150 recent college graduates in the AmeriCorps program who applied for about 50 yearlong coaching positions. They work upward of 60 hours a week, for a stipend of about $11,000.
"I can't believe that," McCorkel said, chuckling. "It's really a testament to their desire to give back to the community. This generation loves community service; they love trying to change the world one student at a time."
Muellenberg, 22, graduated a year ago from Bethel College, hoping to become a high school teacher.
"The kids are why you do this job, and this is an inspiring group of kids," he said. "It's certainly a challenge, especially preparing them for the ACT. ... They've been working so hard, and the payoff is right around the corner."
"They say that graduating from high school is a great thing, but it's not as great as the ultimate goal of graduating from college," wrote Jaida Belmer, a graduating senior at North High School in Minneapolis.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409