PA-CAP brings 98 percent acceptance to Wilkinsburg

July 10, 2007 – 5:43 pm


by Deborah M. Todd
Staff Writer
New Pittsburgh Courier

What started off as a friend helping friends apply for school is, today, a non-profit organization that helped send 98 percent of Wilkinsburg High School seniors to a post-secondary institution.

“I was working at Westmoreland Community College in the financial aid office and so many people would come in wanting to go to school,” explained Jeffrey Woodard, executive director of the Pennsylvania College Access Program.

“They would get frustrated with the process of wanting to go to school. They would usually take the stuff and just read over it and look at it. Sometimes they might want to throw it away because they didn’t have a lot of people taking time out to help them fill out the paperwork.”

So Woodard took it upon himself to help individuals fill out college applications and financial aid forms. He also helped write essays, find scholarships and provided whatever support he could to get them into school. After officially establishing the Pennsylvania College Access Program in 2000, Woodard says he has helped more than 5,572 students continue their educations.

“I have a passion for education,” said Woodard. “Anyone and everyone I talk to if they’re not in school, by the end of that conversation, they’re in school.”

“Jeff is a great salesperson,” said Krsna “Carlos” Salazar, a PA-CAP alumnus who met Woodard through a mutual friend. Salazar, who said he had no college plans when he came to Pittsburgh in 1997, now has a Bachelors degree in Spanish from the University of Pittsburgh and a Masters in Science and Business from California University of Pennsylvania. He credits a great deal of his success to Woodard’s guidance.

“If it wasn’t for him helping me out, I’m sure I would have started college at a much later point than I had,” he said Salazar.

Woodard conducted a similar conversation with high school seniors from Wilkinsburg School District at the beginning of the previous school year. Thanks to his efforts, 98 percent of those students, all of them Black students, have been accepted to postsecondary institutions or programs.

Woodard uses a form that list questions commonly found on college and financial aid applications to gather information from students. He then uses the information to fill out applications for the colleges each student chooses.

“I met with all the seniors and did all the applications,” said Woodard. “On top of that, I filed by deadline all the FAFSA forms and completed NEED applications,” said Woodard.

“We did, for Wilkinsburg High School, 91 seniors, give or take a few. Each senior was asked for four schools, so we did about 364 applications. Some students sent us applications to 8 to 10 different schools.”

The program also went above and beyond for students that were not initially accepted to schools. Woodard personally called Lincoln University to lobby for Wilkinsburg graduate Martin Dietz’s acceptance.

“I didn’t take them seriously. I think I went to sleep that day,” said Dietz of the day PA-CAP came to Wilkinsburg. In spite of his initial disinterest, Dietz says Wilkinsburg wouldn’t have the exceptional acceptance rate it has without the program.

“It wouldn’t have been the case, especially not coming from my school,” he said. “At my school, a lot of people didn’t care.”

“It’s made a major difference,” said Wilkinsburg School District Superintendent Archie Perrin of the program’s impact.

“I think that with students nowadays, it doesn’t matter what school you’re from, just navigating through the acceptance process, given they have jobs after school and other responsibilities at home and outside of school itself, the fact that you have someone to personally guide them through the process and actually get them to the first stage (of) acceptance into college I think is a major milestone.”

While the ultimate goal of PA-CAP is to expand its reach to other schools, Woodard also hopes to raise funds to further assist the students it does reach.

“Right now, our number one goal is to raise funding for kids to go off to college,” he said. “We’re trying to raise funds for the time when kids go to school, because they have no way of getting there. They don’t have means to get to campus when class starts in the fall.”

But in the meanwhile Woodard will continue pushing young people, even those who have been to college, to continue their education. “Even people who have a Bachelors degree—that’s unacceptable to me. Go back and get your Masters,” he said.

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