|Despite only a few hours a week to get students off to college, Valerie Armstrong helps hundreds of kids make it to the next educational level.|
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Local Hero Valerie Armstrong -- A Part Time College Counselor at San Pedro High --- Guides Hundreds of Students To A Higher Education Despite Severe Budget Cuts
She Is A Woman You and Your College Bound Child Want to Meet
By Diana L. Chapman
My son burst through our door a few weeks back and shouted: "Mom. Mom. You won't believe what Mrs. Armstrong did. She helped me with everything, getting my transcripts, just everything."
I wasn't surprised having come to know Valerie Armstrong over the past few years and witnessing her sturdy dedication to numerous students going through the gauntlet of competitive college applications.
With only two hours a day slotted to the once full-time college and career counseling post, she somehow manages to aid dozens of students while also juggling two other part time jobs at San Pedro High. She also serves as a work experience coordinator and a Title One Coordinator.
She sums her college counseling job up this way:
"The job is either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat during college acceptances in March, "she said. "You'll see a kid who only wants to go to UCLA and doesn't get in. And that's the hardest part. Sometimes it's heart wrenching."
Filled with advice for students and parents (who are also welcome to meet with Armstrong) she starts out with this important suggestion: Ninth graders should step into her office as soon as possible to understand all the requirements needed to go to university. Otherwise, it may be too late and they are at risk for not making the A-G requirements -- what classes are required by colleges.
Often seniors and juniors show up having dropped math after two years -- all that's needed to graduate from high school. However, four years of math are required or recommended by many universities, including the UC system.
In addition, students often forget they received a D or F in their ninth grade or sophomore years. Those grades have to be made up in order to get into most four year colleges and by then, there's little time for make-ups.
Students in all grade levels, should come and meet with her as soon as possible.
"It starts from the moment they get here," Armstrong says. "I recommend to them to get all As and Bs. What I'm noticing is a lack of interest in the 9th grade. So I'll ask them if they want to go to a four-year college. Parents can call me or make an appointment or e-mail me anytime."
Armstrong advises students on timelines, scholarships, applications, letters of reference, financial aid, what classes are necessary (called A-G) to become competitive and encourages them not to just be participants in clubs, but to find a leadership roles in the programs they're involved in.
"Don't be a stranger," she often tells kids once they drop in for information. To get an appointment with her, all students have to do is sign up on a sheet hanging on her office door so she can summon them from the classroom.
Her frequent student visitors rave about the efforts she put in for them and others.
"During the time I spent applying for college, I was in her room everyday with a different question," said 17-year-old Jazmin Ruiz, who received a full ride to UC Berkeley. "Her experience with the process made it astronomically easier, bearable and less stressful. I am truly grateful for the time she dedicated to helping me."
Armstrong inspired her, said 17-year-old Rita Marquez who will be attending Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
"I can truly say that I owe a lot of my success to Ms. Armstrong," Marquez explained who became a college peer college counselor under Armstrong's tutelage. "She is really a wonderful person...who dedicates so much her time to our students and she's always there whenever I need anything."
But she's also there for parents.
When my husband and I realized we couldn't financially afford the schools Ryan got into, we steered him toward community colleges . The choice was narrowed between El Camino and Santa Monica.
It was the same financial plight Jeanine Eldar found herself in after her son, Korey, was accepted to seven universities.
"Valerie Armstrong is an unsung hero, who really deserves some public recognition," the older Eldar explained who added she frequently consulted with the counselor. "It was Valerie's assistance that helped guide our very difficult decision to turn down numerous University of California and California state schools in favor of going to El Camino since it made more financial sense to attend there for two years."
The solution: Armstrong encouraged both teens to enroll in the Honors Transfer Program at El Camino. This set of students receive a priority in getting classes, the counselor said. Some consider it like attending a mini-UC on the crowded campus.
Both were accepted. Transferring to the honors program, she said, avoids "excessive student loans" and cuts college expenses in half, she said.
"I first met her during the second semester of 11th grade and ever since she has always kept me up to date on the variety of opportunities," said 17-year-old Elizabeth Do who became a peer college counselor and will attend UCLA. "She definitely knows her information, but if she doesn't she'll call and ask. I've been able to observe her dedication in inspiring seniors to seek a higher education."
Armstrong said she enjoys her job and even when she knows a student is unlikely to get to their "dream school," she encourages them to apply anyway.