By Anna Winer

Parent volunteers are a valued asset at any school, but it is the rare parent that is so committed to their work that they keep volunteering even after their children have graduated. For Susan Muntzing and Jenny Buyens, co-founders of Grady High School’s College and Career Connection (CCC), helping students navigate the increasingly complex passage to college has become something of a calling.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, public school guidance counselors have on average only 20 minutes a year for each student who needs college counseling. When Susan and Jenny had students at Grady, they saw how painfully overtaxed the counselors were.

In 2006, Susan was president of the Grady PTSA, and Jenny was a parent volunteer. They didn’t yet know each other but independently recognized an aching need at Grady to facilitate visiting college recruiters. Frankly, there weren’t many – under 40 a year. Overburdened guidance counselors often didn’t have time to coordinate the visits, and when recruiters did come, there was no quiet and consistent place for them to meet with students. Über-organized Jenny quickly stepped up and offered to assume responsibility for scheduling recruiter visits. At the same time, Susan – then Grady’s PTSA chair – was trying to establish a devoted space for such visits to occur. In the spring of 2007, the PTSA received a $1,000 grant from Atlanta Families Foundation to start a college center, and, with the support of Grady principal Vincent Murray, the CCC was born. Their first space was shared with math teachers in a vacant room furnished with only two computers and two file cabinets.

The CCC has grown enormously in just a few years. They now have their own devoted space with furniture and computers provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an extensive library of catalogues, brochures, test-prep books, and on-line resources with information not only about colleges, but also about summer internships, the military, and vocational/technical schools. The CCC offers workshops on financial aid and scholarships, essay writing, and interviewing skills, and their impressive website is visited by students from all over the country. And those once-thorny college recruiter visits have increased to more than 150 per year. Recruiters know that Grady is a great school; the student body is diverse, hard working, and motivated – in short, desirable. Jenny gives credit to the students when she says,  “Good things come to Grady kids, but they go get them.”

Aided by an enthusiastic staff of over 30 volunteers who help out with daily tasks, Jenny, Susan, and another former parent and CCC director, Sarah Bryant, make complementary contributions to the CCC. Susan works with Dr. Murray to maintain a good relationship with the administration. Jenny manages the organization of website and online communications. And Sarah puts together reports with valuable information for students (for example, a list of colleges on a MARTA line).

Grady students recognize what a valuable gem they have in the CCC, and they logged over 4,100 individual visits last year. Jasmine Burnett, now a freshman at Harvard, says the CCC “helped me most when it came to having my college essays edited. [The volunteers] helped me choose what I should write the essays about, and gave me great advice on ways to improve them.”

Current Grady senior Rachel Citrin, who has already used the CCC to research summer internships and scholarships, says, “I think that Grady is extremely lucky to have such a great resource at the tip of our fingers.”

The CCC welcomes volunteers from the community; having a Grady student is optional. When the Grady stadium was being renovated a couple of years ago, a retired educator was impressed by the look of the school and just walked in and asked how she could help. The CCC was happy to put her to work. Other volunteers include a retired counselor from Decatur High School and a financial planner. Having a broad range of volunteers strengthens Grady’s relationship to the wider community, which can point proudly to a neighborhood school that turns out impressive, college-bound graduates. If you would like to help, please e-mail the CCC at gradycccvolunteers@gmail.com.

Photo by Ciena Leshley

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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