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With Help From Pembroke Hill, Kansas City's University Academy Aims Higher

Kyle Palmer
KCUR 89.3
Jazmyne Smith is the first University Academy student to be admitted to an Ivy League school. UA officials hope she's the start of a bigger trend.

The wall outside the college counseling classroom at Kansas City's University Academy is adorned with dozens of college acceptance letters. Several of them are addressed to Jazmyne Smith. 

"Well, I’ve been accepted at KU, K-State, Missouri S&T, Coe College," Smith says, a smile playing across her face. "And I’m still waiting to hear back from some other places: Duke, Penn, Stanford. You know, shooting for the stars."

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
University Academy proudly displays the pennants of schools its graduates are attending.

Smith is the Class of 2016’s top student. She has stellar grades and high test scores. She's senior class president and participates in Hot 103 Jamz's Generation Rap radio program. It's a resume seemingly ready-made for those elite schools on her list. 

But to hear her tell it, when the counselor at UA pushed her to apply to schools like Penn and Stanford, she hesitated. 

“He always told me, ‘You should apply.' And I was like, ‘Ok, yeah, I’ll apply.’ But I kind of, I don't know...didn’t get my hopes up," she says. 

Funnily enough, that counselor Josh Burdette also had doubts. Not about Smith, but about himself. After all, he'd never counseled a student onto such rarified college terrain. He says UA, which perennially  has some of the highest graduation rates and test scores in Kansas City, has long-standing relationships with nearby state schools and even small liberal arts colleges. But the Ivy League? That was a different conversation. One, he says, he was not prepared to have. 

“They [students] can read into hesitation and trepidation in your voice. And they get unsettled when you are giving them advice if you’re nervous about it," Burdette says. 

"Stealing Liberally" From Pembroke Hill

Burdette and other UA officials say their brightest students like Jazmyne Smith deserve a shot at the country’s best colleges. But he admits the school needs help giving better advice to students shooting for this top tier. Enter: David Burke.

“This all started, for me, last June. I got a call from my head of school, who had been called by UA about possibly partnering with them, and would I want to help out," Burke says.

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
David Burke has been a college counselor at Pembroke Hill for more than 15 years and was eager to help his colleague at UA.

For 17 years, Burke has been a college counselor at the Pembroke Hill School, one of Kansas City’s most prestigious private prep schools. With some grant money last summer, UA and Pembroke formed a partnership in which Burdette would learn Burke’s tricks on how to better counsel students who wanted an elite college search. At Pembroke, Burke had plenty of experience doing this and was eager to help. After all, he says, he was once like Burdette. 

“We all steal liberally from each other [in college counseling]. So anything I do, I’ve stolen from my mentors either around the city or around the country," he says. 

One of the first things the pair did was perfect UA’s "school profile," a document schools send to college admissions offices. Burke says it’s a must-have for an up-and-comer like UA. 

“So that when an admissions person is reading an app from a school that, frankly, they’ve never heard of, they can get a glimpse of the demographics of the student body, demographics of parents, average test scores and test score ranges," he says. 

Getting Face Time At Yale

Next, the two spent a week together this winter touring several of Burke’s East Coast haunts—Princeton, Columbia, Yale, among other places. They met admissions officers, and Burke got Burdette face time with some old friends. 

“The Dean of Admissions at Yale, 15 years ago, he was fresh out of college and was the Kansas City Yale rep," Burke says. "He knows our city and our schools. And he was very eager to chat with us and very helpful.”

Meeting people like that, Burdette says, paid immediate dividends back in Kansas City.  

"The next week when I was meeting with students, there were things I was talking with them, saying 'You know, these are the things you need to be doing now so that a year from now, or two years from now, you can be competitive," he says. 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Josh Burdette, left, talking with UA Upper School Principal Clem Ukaoma. Both hope the school gets more competitive in schools like Penn.

Burdette says he calls or emails Burke on a near-weekly basis. He says some of his students now know the Pembroke counselor by name. That includes a girl who, last fall, asked whether she should apply early decision, which is a common tactic when gunning for a competitive school like those in the Ivy League.

“I could say to that student, ‘This is a good idea. I’ve talked with other people. I’ve talked with Mr. Burke.’ I mention him by name.  She no longer thinks this is some random decision I’ve made, but that I have others' opinions," he says. 

Already Paying Off? 

Burke shies away from taking any credit. He says he "admires" the work Burdette and UA have done getting kids to college. Yet, Burdette says he feels "way more comfortable" now talking to students about applying to elite schools.

And there may be more proof that this partnership is already paying dividends. Remember Jazmyne Smith? Earlier this month, she found out she was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania. 

"I visited the school, and I liked what I saw. The support they have for students was just great. I am definitely committed."

She's UA's first ever Ivy Leaguer. And if things between UA and Pembroke continue to work out, school officials hope she’s only the beginning. 

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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