College prep timeline: Experts say students should spend four years in high school laying groundwork

Preparation for the college admissions process should begin as soon as your child starts high school. Waiting until junior year can put your student behind.

During the past school year, Dahlonega Drummond dropped her then 13-year-old son off at school every morning.

Most days, the single mother of three from Greenville County was back at his school, teary-eyed, by 8:30 a.m. to pick him up.

"I dreaded that call," she said of the almost-daily alerts from school administrators that her son, Nyquan Brown, had gotten into fights, talked back to his teachers or stole. "I thought, 'What am I going to do? This boy is going to get kicked out of school.' "

After completing five months of Multisystemic Therapy, an intensive family therapy program with roots in Charleston, this school year is off to a much different start.

"One week in, no calls yet," Drummond reported as Brown's first week drew to a close.

Drummond and her son agreed to take part in the treatment as an option-of-last-resort late last winter after Brown spent a night in jail on charges of disturbing schools and stealing a 97-cent ice cream cone. Without the treatment, Brown risked placement in a group home for juvenile offenders.

The seventh-grader had shown no improvement from the twice-monthly traditional therapy provided by the state Department of Mental Health.

"I never knew what they talked about," Drummond said of the traditional approach. "I'd ask him, 'What did y'all talk about?' He'd say, 'I made a frog out of clay and played checkers.' "

The new therapy would be drastically different, Gregory Wright, the family's case worker, told them.

Wright is supervisor of the Greenville Area Mental Health System's Multisystemic Therapy program, one of five systems in South Carolina to offer the treatment.

"We're going to put mom in the driver's seat of this family and put Nyquan in the back," Wright told them.

Wright, who spent an hour at the family's home three times a week for five months, told Drummond how to discipline her son. For the first time, he'd be punished at home for acting out at school.

Drummond, who began meeting regularly with teachers, knew the play-by-play of her son's school day, which her son's teacher recorded for her in a planner. Brown would be rewarded with games or extra time with friends when he did well in school.

Drummond, who nearly lost her job at PetSmart because issues with her son made her frequently late, was relieved when Wright offered to pick her son up from school when she was at work.

At first, Nyquan was outraged at Wright's intervention into his family's affairs.

"He yelled about how much he hated Mr. Gregory," Drummond said of the first month in treatment. "I'd never seen him flip like that."

Drummond, who also began disciplining her 11- and 12-year-old daughters, stuck with the program and saw a shift in her son's attitude before the second month was over.

Wright, who worked as a therapist in group homes for six years before joining the program in 2008, saw a marked difference in the outcomes of his new patients compared with his former ones in traditional therapy.

"In group homes, you'd see the same kids coming back over and over again," he said. "I could count on one hand the positive outcomes I got in six years."