Students need a village to get into college. He created one for them

Sam Aleinikoff (second from left standing), who was a Towers High School math teacher, founded College Aim in 2013 to help DeKalb high school students navigate the college application process.  (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Sam Aleinikoff (second from left standing), who was a Towers High School math teacher, founded College Aim in 2013 to help DeKalb high school students navigate the college application process. (Courtesy photo)

Despite being valedictorian at Stone Mountain High School, senior Matthew Kedir didn’t view himself as a candidate for Emory University.

“Even at the level I am academically, I did not believe I was anywhere near Emory’s radar,” he said. That changed when Kedir began to work with Amy Stokes, a counselor with College Aim, a Decatur-based nonprofit that supports students at three DeKalb high schools in navigating the complex college admissions journey from ninth grade to postsecondary programs.

“Miss Amy made me see that I was just as capable as any student from any school all over the United States. A lot of us at my school are first-generation students whose parents, like mine, are from countries where college wasn’t even an option for them,” said the 17-year-old Kedir, who will double major in history and applied mathematics and statistics. (His older sister, Sojat Kedir, the salutatorian at Stone Mountain, is also Emory bound.)

Matthew and Sojat Kedir are seniors at Stone Mountain High School headed to Emory next year. College Aim helped them in their college application process. (Courtesy photo)

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Credit: Contributed

The Kedir siblings were among several hundred seniors from Stone Mountain, Towers and McNair high schools honored at a college signing day at Agnes Scott College this month. At a combination graduation ceremony and pep rally, students were feted and cheered as their names and future campuses were announced in Gaines Chapel.

Among the speakers was Agnes Scott admission director Miya Walker, who reminded students, “No one is self-made. It takes a village.”

College Aim has become that village for DeKalb students since its founding in 2013 by Towers math teacher Sam Aleinikoff. A Teach for America teacher who became Towers math chair, Aleinikoff saw too few of his promising students aiming for college. He and other teachers decided to take students to campuses to expose them to higher ed opportunities.

“We thought the trip would fire up the kids and let them see what is possible,” said Aleinikoff, known to students as Mr. A.

One of those students was junior Jodian Grant, the oldest of six daughters of a single father from Jamaica. “We had just migrated to the United States and were unfamiliar with America and the school system,” said Grant, now 28. “If you went to my high school, your chances of going to college were slim to none. I didn’t want that to be the reality for me, and Mr. A didn’t want that to be reality for most of the students. He started taking us on college tours on his own time and his own dime, I’m sure.”

The visits let Grant envision herself on a campus. Aleinikoff can still remember the day a year later when Grant came to his classroom door. “She was holding up a sheet of paper with a Spelman (College) logo. And she was absolutely beaming,” he said, “Later, we found out the acceptance came with a full-tuition scholarship.”

After graduating from Spelman — an experience Grant says transformed her life — she worked for College Aim before earning an Emory nursing degree. She is now a neonatal ICU nurse in New York.

“College Aim sees the potential that you don’t see in yourself,” said Grant. “That is what our students need and still need in college.”

From its informal start, College Aim has expanded to a full-time staff of 10, five contract employees and dozens of community partners and hundreds of individual donors, many of whom are program alums. The organization has helped more than 800 students apply to and enroll in college. Aleinikoff left teaching in 2017 to concentrate on College Aim and plans to expand within DeKalb. He remained based at Towers, coaching students until 2022.

College Aim staffers hold information workshops for younger students and then provide individual advisement for seniors for admissions applications, Free Application for Federal Student Aid completion, scholarship applications and essay writing and editing.

Until College Aim staff sought him out at Towers High School, Alexander Henriquez wasn’t planning on college. In his junior year, he won a scholarship through College Aim that would guarantee he could graduate debt-free. “Before the scholarship, I didn’t even want to go to college, so with anything about going to college, I was lost,” he said. “I felt like someone was holding my hand through every hard step.”

Now, the 18-year-old is a first-year computer science major at Georgia State University and looking forward to a fall visit to Silicon Valley to meet with leaders in the tech field.

“No one in my family has gone to college,” said Henriquez. “I truly think I would have been working some random job now without College Aim.”

Several students said College Aim offered something their overburdened DeKalb high school counselors could not — constant availability and a single-minded devotion to getting them into college.

“We went from having no college counseling support to where we could walk in a room at any given time, at any given point, and get the help we need,” said Kedir. “To have this available on a daily basis is life changing.”

College Aim has expanded its reach to help students once they’re at college through coaching sessions, emergency shortfall funds and virtual check-ins.

“Our kids are smart enough to do well in college,” said Aleinikoff. “But they are surrounded by a whole host of real-life challenges that force them to stop — one kid became homeless and we helped her stay enrolled. The life obligations that exist beyond the classroom end up being the biggest factors. These problems are much easier to stave off for a wealthy kid who has two parents who went to college.”

Aleinikoff is trying to not only level a playing field that favors affluent children of college-educated parents but counter the message that students in his program pick up that college may not be worth it.

“When ‘college is not for everyone’ is repeated at the school level by teachers, administrators and parents, it is absorbed by our students,” he said. “But by the time it gets to our students, the message isn’t that college isn’t for everyone; it’s that college isn’t for me.”