When their sons were students at East Hampton High School, Christopher Kelley and his late wife, Nancy, counted themselves lucky to have the wherewithal to hire private counselors to coach the boys on the college admissions process. Both sons wound up at excellent schools, Mr. Kelley said this week, but he knows that not every family can pay for such help.
That’s just one reason why he and a group of like-minded friends and colleagues have launched the East Hampton Level Playing Field Foundation, which will provide scholarships to students for help with applications, essay coaching, test preparation, and other aspects of college admissions.
“I thought it was a big advantage, and I’ve seen it as an advantage for a lot of other kids,” Mr. Kelley, the group’s president, said. “It’s nice to give that same advantage to kids who otherwise couldn’t afford it.”
Students are likely to first hear advice about college admissions from their school guidance counselors, but in New York State, guidance offices are often understaffed. An April 2022 audit by the state comptroller’s office found that two-thirds of school districts did not meet the recommended caseload ratio of one guidance counselor for every 250 students.
State data for the East Hampton School District shows that in 2019-20 — just as the pandemic multiplied the need for mental health support and related services — there were eight guidance counselors serving 1,780 students, or a ratio of about one for every 223 students, which meets the state’s recommendations.
But in East Hampton, Mr. Kelley said, wealth inequity often comes into play. There are many high-achieving students who come from economically disadvantaged families, and “given a little assistance,” he said, “they could get into elite colleges, and this organization is there to help them with the counseling.”
In fact, the stories of two 2018 East Hampton graduates were what inspired Mr. Kelley to start the new group. Alexander Sigua Pintado (known as Nick Sigua) was the valedictorian that year, and Jonathan Gomez Barrientos was the salutatorian. Both came from families who’d immigrated here from Central and South America. When Mr. Kelley contacted them to tell them about the Level Playing Field Foundation, they both said having such assistance would have been welcome.
“During the college admissions process, I often found myself lost, confused, and unprepared,” Mr. Sigua, who recently graduated from Harvard University, said in a statement. “I believe this program can help guide and support other students like me, who may be first generation or just lacking resources, who might feel the same way.”
Mr. Barrientos, a recent Cornell University graduate, agreed with his former classmate. “I know firsthand how impactful programs like these can be,” he stated. “Navigating the college application process as a first-generation student was challenging. I am delighted to hear that the [foundation] will assist students with similar backgrounds to help remove obstacles associated with applying to college.”
Mr. Kelley’s goal, he said, is to partner with East Hampton High School’s guidance department to encourage kids to apply for scholarships through the Level Playing Field Foundation. A first round of scholarships has already been awarded, and applications will soon be accepted for future grants. The foundation also has plans to fund-raise, so that the awards can be sustained for years to come.
More information can be found online at ehlpff.org.