Jasmine Johnson sees what’s at stake for her future every time she goes to downtown Denver to see her sister’s theater productions. She says it clicked when she was in seventh grade, and they were passing by homeless people out on the street in the cold.
“I didn’t want to be like that when I got older, so I decided from then on I needed to work a little harder,” Jasmine says.
She had started going to classes at the Family Learning Center just a year before, and in a class there, a teacher had explained the options available to someone with a high school education or lower, compared to someone with a college degree.
“I finally got it that an education was the only way for me to be successful, and so I started working really hard and going home and working for long hours,” Jasmine says.
She’s on the honor roll at Summit Middle School and is starting at Arapahoe Ridge High School this fall with a full schedule of advanced classes and hopes to move on to college at Boston University, Harvard or Stanford to become a lawyer.
“I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was a little kid because I wanted justice for everyone and I want it for all races,” Jasmine says. “Sometimes in Boulder, stuff is unjust because we’re African American, and I want to be a lawyer to get justice for everyone, no matter of their skin color.”
Her mother, Raynita Johnson, says Jasmine stays up late at night finishing her homework.
She’s confident in Jasmine’s success because she believes she’s enrolled in good schools — and getting her children into good schools was part of her motivation for moving the family to Boulder when they relocated from California in 2007 — but also because the programs at the Family Learning Center have given them tools to succeed both socially and academically.
“It’s empowered them to be who they are and be proud of who they are,” Johnson says. “The program makes kids understand that you’ve got to work just a little bit harder and do just a little bit more because then they have so much more opportunities.”
When they moved from San Diego to Boulder, Raynita Johnson says, her older daughter, Autumn, in particular, struggled to fit in what was suddenly a predominantly Caucasian environment, and her grades suffered. She hadn’t seen much of town before she started at school, so that’s where it hit her that her surroundings had changed.
“It was much more diverse in California than here. That took some getting used to,” she says.
Johnson, a single mother, was laid off three times in 19 years of working in the airline industry before going back to school to study to become a mortician four years ago.
“In our society, we really don’t care about poverty, but you always will have the unfortunate people, and unfortunate people, they don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to be poor.’ No one does that,” Johnson says. “Nineteen years ago, when I started my career in the airline business, … I would never have fathomed that I’d be in the situation that I am today.”
Because she’s still a full-time student, things are tough, she says, in ways she just doesn’t talk to her kids about.
“You just try to make things happy for kids and do right each and every day,” she says. “And pray and reinforce that their lives can be so much better if they go to school and do well.”
She can’t say enough good things about the Family Learning Center or its founder, Brenda Ingram-Lyle.
“I think what makes it such a wonderful program is that Brenda has a real core dedication in wanting to see every kid excel,” Johnson says. “She has a fiery desire for everyone to go to college and have equal opportunity in education and so that they will be successful.”
Jasmine says this summer’s program, the Ignite Your Potential class, a free summer program for the first 50 students who apply, “really opened my mind to what I really wanted to be when I grow up and I have to think about that soon.”
The class this summer focused on coaching students on how to prepare their college applications. At 14, Jasmine is a ways off from that now, but her sister, Autumn, who is 17, actually wrote her application essay this summer for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She’s been coached in choosing back-up schools and putting together her resume and portfolio. She knows her dream to be an actress is a lofty one, but, she says, “I’m just going to follow my dreams. It’ll work out.”
And the message she and the other students at Ignite have been getting this summer comes back to the same refrain: Why not apply to Harvard, to Julliard, to Pratt? You won’t know if you can get in unless you apply. That line of thought is the motif behind the coaching given every day at the Ignite Your Potential class — don’t underestimate yourself.
“This is our subtle way of trying to interrupt, disrupt, that sense of, ‘I’m from fewer means than others and I shouldn’t even think of being able to go any further than I am or than my family has gone,’” says Alphonse Keasley, assistant vice chancellor in CU’s Office of Diversity, Equality and Community Engagement.
Keasley worked with Ingram-Lyle to create the Ignite Your Potential program, which is run by the Family Learning Center in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder. The program was designed to provide low income, minority high school students, many of whom are the first in their families to apply for college, with college preparation in everything from mastering the basic academic skills they’ll be expected to demonstrate in math, reading and writing to coaching on finances and the opportunity to investigate their own family history. This year’s program had the specific focus of preparing rising high school seniors for applying for college by actually coaching them through the process of searching out the application requirements for colleges of their choice and writing application essays. Students attended sessions with financial aid staff to discuss personal budgets and affording higher education. They were coached by admissions counselors and given one-on-one support with their writing.
It’s great preparation for any high school student. But multicultural, low socioeconomic background students who are the first generation in their families ever to apply for college face a litany of issues, from logistical questions on completing the applications, knowing how and where to apply for financial aid, to simply the belief that higher education — even in the face of rising tuition costs — is still an option.
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According to U.S. Census data, 7.8 percent of Hispanic and 9.2 percent of African American people over the age of 25 have completed a bachelor’s degree, compared to 14.3 percent of white Americans.
Getting to goals like the one President Barack Obama announced for America, having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, will require boosting the graduation rate among minority students.
“Everyone is grappling with these issues of, how do we close the achievement gap, how do we increase graduation rates for poor and minority children,” says Lyle. “It all sounds really good, but when you really, kind of like the skin of an onion, when you peel it back, it’s really, basically, mastery of skills.”
She describes working with high school students who read a paragraph and understand a handful of the words in it — which makes it impossible to complete the homework for a higher level science class.
All too often, parents and kids build their high school coursework like a house without a blueprint, Lyle says. “Too many kids and parents are saying, ‘My kid’s going to college,’ but you look at the transcripts and say, ‘No, because you’re not taking the right classes to go where you think you want to go.’”
Remedial kids end up in classes that split freshman-level math and science classes over two years — and they may think they’ve done the four years of math or science required by universities, but haven’t progressed to the required level of coursework.
Students from the summer 2013 Ignite Your Potential class | Photo by Vanessa Schatz
“What we’re trying to do is teach kids and families, know where you’re going,” Lyle says.
The Family Learning Center tracked 100 kids who joined their preschool program in the ’80s over almost all of the 33 years Lyle has worked at the center. She calls the results of their program “phenomenal”: 98 percent had moved out of low income housing, many into their own homes, and 98 percent of the students had graduated from high school, 68 percent from college. One had a Ph.D. Several had master’s degrees.
“We know what we do works,” Ingram-Lyle says.
So does the federal government. Nationwide, the Federal Talent Search program, created by the Higher Education Act of 1965 and run by the U.S. Department of Education, shares a similar goal to the Ignite Your Potential class of increasing the presence of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in postsecondary education. That program sends competitive grants to projects that provide tutorial services, aptitude assessments, mentoring programs, alternative education, career or educational guidance or work with groups traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education, including homeless youth or foster care. A 2006 report on the effectiveness of the program in Florida, Indiana and Texas found that participants were 6 to 18 percent more likely to enroll in a public college or university than nonparticipants from similar backgrounds, and 14 to 28 percentage points more likely to be first-time applicants for financial aid.
Despite that success, Talent Search has seen decreases in funding over the last seven years, and corresponding cuts in the number of participants.
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Being the first in their families to apply for higher education programs means there’s not a lot of advice coming from their parents.
“They have emotional support, but not structured support,” says Vanessa Schatz, who’s teaching the writing component of the course. The skill levels she meets vary, she says, but the majority of students are very tuned in, and very grateful. The narratives she encounters evaluating their essays, she says, are sometimes a surprise. They describe raising their own siblings. They mention gun violence.
“They’re definitely an absent history of this community,” Schatz says.
Schatz joins them for class the week before their graduation from the program in a computer lab that was once a gymnasium, one fan aimed at the first few rows. Roughly half the seats are occupied by students already at computers — most of them don’t have computers at home, so this is their only chance to type their essays.
Schatz reminds them they’re in crunch time, and to focus on memorable writing. A whiteboard offers reminders on thesis statements, claims and evidence and persuasive summaries. The sound of typing ebbs and flows.
One student writes about a truancy problem that plagued her for three years of high school — the same amount of time she describes caring for a baby she started babysitting when it was a month old, which is how she’s decided she wants to go to nursing school. One wants to be a zoologist. One wants to write for ESPN. One wants to become a translator.
The aspiring zoologist, Joshua Efe, who wrote about his powers of observation in the animal world and how that world makes sense when people don’t, says getting ahead in his application process has been the big benefit from the class.
“I learned how to write my application essay. I had no idea how to do that, so that was really helpful,” he says. Efe’s parents did go to college, but came as international students from Nigeria.
“My college process is radically different, and high school process is radically different from theirs because they didn’t have to take any ACTs, SATs or subject tests,” he says. He’s studying to take those exams this fall. “When I’m talking to my mother about all these standardized tests, she’s thinking, ‘This is just going over my head. I don’t know what any of these are.’ And I’m the first so it’s just I’m teaching everyone how to do this basically, so when my sister and brother come along they’ll go, ‘Oh this is how we do this.’”
A CU admissions counselor has gone over his transcripts to talk about what he needs to achieve academically in his senior year, which he starts this fall. A team leader with the Family Learning Center coached him in looking at schools outside the country, and he has plans to apply to universities in the United Kingdom and Canada. And he’s been shown some scholarship websites he hadn’t heard of before.
“I think learning how to find scholarships and learning what grants I would qualify for and how to fill out a FAFSA was really helpful because there is no way on this planet I can do this on my own,” he says.
“Through the end of high school junior year, I didn’t really understand what I wanted to do. I didn’t really have big ambitions like other people did,” says Chelsea Kessler-Bauersfeld, a rising senior readying her application for UCLA. “I wanted to take the class because it helped me go into full gear of the desire, the potential I had.”
Her essay describes the inspiration she’s drawn from Audrey Hepburn and how she wants to go on to design her own advertisements. She mentions the lotus flower, a symbol of new beginnings. Her parents never went to college, she says, and neither did her grandparents, who are now her legal guardians. Before they adopted her, she was raising her younger brother. In her essay, she recalls feeding and dressing him since before he could walk.
“When they found out about this program, they knew it would be a good opportunity for me to understand what I could do,” she says. She’ll be moving from Nederland to Los Angeles if she gets into UCLA.
“It’s a big change, but I’m ready for it,” she says. “I want a new perspective about myself and my world.”
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Ignite Your Potential emerged in response to two incidents of racial hazing at Boulder high schools in a single week, each including death threats, one directed at black students, and one at Hispanic students.
In the wake of those events, as community members rushed forward to offer support, Keasley and Ingram-Lyle looked at the situation, Keasley says, and realized they were both in positions to do something about it.
“Brenda and I come from two different parts of the United States, she from California and me from New Orleans, but we grew up in black communities where there was tremendous care for us, and great hope for us,” Keasley says. “Again, two different experiences in life, but within communities where there truly was a strong desire for us to have a tremendous future. And when we started comparing notes, we recognized that our children in Boulder weren’t necessarily — children of color in particular — weren’t getting that same kind of ‘We believe in you no matter what.’ So we started this program called Ignite Your Potential.”
Keasley, Ingram-Lyle and Justina Boyd, coordinator for the First Generation Program at CU’s Center for Multicultural Affairs, worked with the university to draft the curriculum for the program based on their answers to what they needed to see from graduating high school students.
It also meant drawing from their own experiences, Ingram-Lyle says.
“It’s our lives. We grew up with a lack of privilege and poverty and so we knew what we had to do that worked to get us to individually have upward mobility,” she says.
At their first graduation ceremony in 2011 for a program, which was a sports-based awareness program designed to simply get kids to come on campus and realize it was open to them, the difference the class had made reverberated through the room.
“We were able to see that there really was a difference, that the students did now come to believe more in their family, in the value of their family, culturally speaking, and why it was important to continue towards their aspirations of wanting to do more for themselves in life,” Keasley says.
In addition to skills, a portion of the class covers race, class and power structures in America. Students were asked to study their own genealogy.
“The research is really clear on that — kids who feel good about their cultural heritage, whatever that may be, kids who understand that their ancestors contributed to this country, do better in school, they do better in life, so that is critical,” Ingram- Lyle says. “We all have to have that sense of culture and belonging. We have to be proud of who we are and be proud of our families.”
At the closing ceremonies, she says, she’s heard students admit that learning about where their families come from, whether Hispanic, African American or Native American — and history for each is also part of the curriculum — and their contributions and struggles changed their perspective on their own families.
“A lot of the kids actually stood up and said, ‘Before I learned these things about culture and not only my own particular culture but other people, I thought that as a Mexican I was just nothing, that my parents hadn’t contributed anything and I wasn’t really that proud,’” Ingram-Lyle says. “They really realized that they really did belong here and that their parents had these incredible stories of contribution and value that they never took the time to find out, which in turn created in them a greater sense of belonging and connectedness to their communities and gave them a greater sense of they could do anything.”
The experiences connect students both to their communities and their parents, she says, and give them a greater appreciation of the sacrifices their parents and grandparents made so they could grow up in Boulder.
“You’ve got to know where you come from,” Ingram-Lyle says. “That’s especially true in a community like Boulder.”
The students, some of whom have multiple years of high school still ahead and are just mapping out a long-term educational plan to get them to their goals, still have the same potential hazards facing other high school kids, like alcohol, drugs and teen pregnancy. In Boulder, Ingram-Lyle says, they’ll feel the particular pressure of being poor keenly compared to other privileged children, whose parents’ higher level salaries and higher education may make their kids appear smarter in class. That it’s just been a difference of opportunity isn’t readily visible to the kids, she says. What they see is that they don’t have the clothes, the shoes, the cars their classmates do, and that they don’t always have the preparation.
It’s easier to be poor in Boulder than it is in south central L.A., where she grew up, Ingram-Lyle says. There’s less violence, for one thing.
“But it is very hard to be poor in Boulder in a community that is so affluent, because you have so many kids that have so much privilege,” she says. And not just privilege with a dollar sign — privilege like growing up in a home with a parent who has a Ph.D. augmenting their student’s classroom learning with educational experiences outside of that. The result is that underprivileged students, still sitting next to the same kids they’ve been in class with since kindergarten, watch those privileged students surge ahead with knowledge and skills, Lyle says, and draw the conclusion that they’re just not as smart.
“Poverty and the effects of poverty are huge,” Ingram-Lyle says. “Families are barely keeping it together. I think kids are feeling the stress of that. I have kids whose parents, at the end of the month, don’t have food, or enough food.”
The subsidized housing in Boulder is nearly indistinguishable, she says, but that has a flip side.
“People don’t really think there are so many people here who are hungry, so many people here who are struggling, because you really don’t see it,” Lyle says. The kids see it though — that they have to work, that they don’t always have clothes or cars their counterparts do.
“The idea of privilege is really hard for many people who have privilege to really see,” Keasley says. “But those who are outside of privilege recognize it on a moment to moment basis.”
“If you have to look at the magnitude of the problem of poverty in this community, of all the issues that kids and families are facing, it becomes so overwhelmingly daunting that you’re just too depressed to do anything,” Lyle says. “But if you just can say, OK, this is kind of like that old saying, how do you eat an elephant? It’s like, one piece at a time. So how do you change the world to make a difference? It’s one child, one family at a time.”
The coaching they provide is about finding the pathway to your goals that fits for you — through college, community college, whatever it takes, and Lyle says she just tries to stay focused on reaching each child and family in the program individually.
“We may not be able to impact all of these systems — we may not be able to change things in Boulder Valley School District, we may not be able to change a lot of things,” she says. “But what we could do is take as many kids as we could grab a hold of who want to have this opportunity and we could change the world literally one child, one family at a time.”