Promoting College Readiness: Smart Investments in Our Future

Education has long been the most common route to economic success, and it's more important than ever. Sixty percent of jobs require post-secondary education and training, up from 28 percent 40 years ago. Youth of color, the fastest-growing segment of our young population, must be prepared and supported to graduate from high school, make a smooth transition to post-secondary education, and earn a certificate or degree if America is to have the workforce we need to prosper.

In today's newsletter, we profile three young people who demonstrate what the nation's future looks like if we invest in youth, their schools, their families, and their communities. These youth, and so many of their peers, are overcoming barriers of poverty and racial inequity to succeed in school — and they're doing it with the support of mentors, visionary programs, and innovative policy initiatives.  This graduation season, let's celebrate the achievements of youth in low-income communities and communities of color. And let's honor the educators, change agents, and local leaders who inspire these young people to aim high, and who labor tirelessly to provide them with resources to achieve their goals. Our collective future depends on this work.

Antoinette Gabriel, Chicago, Illinois

This fall, Antoinette Gabriel will head to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study neuroscience and foreign languages. It's a dream made possible through her persistence, the commitment and resourcefulness of her high school leadership, and a federal investment in turning around a low-performing school.

The $6.4 million turnaround effort began in 2009, a year before Antoinette entered Fenger, a South Side Chicago high school where almost all students are poor and African American. At the time, less than half of freshmen were projected to graduate from the school and even fewer were college-bound. The killing of a student walking home from Fenger, just two weeks after the turnaround initiative began, focused national attention on the school.

Now the dropout rate is less than 3 percent, and more than 90 percent of freshmen are on a college track.  Anger management classes, trauma therapy, and a restorative justice program have dramatically reduced violence and arrests. Intensive support services and the guidance of school administrators have helped students redefine their ambitions and strive to achieve them.

"They have so many resources here, I wouldn't say it's impossible to fail, but if you want to succeed you will," Antoinette said.

Two programs were especially important for her. She had wanted to be a doctor since she was a child and an uncle died of a mysterious brain disease. OneGoal, a nonprofit that works to make college graduation a reality for all students, guided her through the overwhelming process of college and financial aid applications. "I must have applied for 100 scholarships," she said.

Embarc, a teacher-driven organization that supports academic success through immersion in Chicago's arts and culture, "opened our horizons," Antoinette said. "It changes your attitude. It helps you build confidence. It made me realize that everyone's their own leader of their own life, and it made me a better leader in mine."

The care and steady support of Fenger's principal, Elizabeth Dozier, were also pivotal for Antoinette. "Half the things I got to do would never have been possible without her," Antoinette said. "She helped me find my path."

When the four-year federal turnaround grant expired in 2013, Fenger lost 20 staff members and several community partners. But Dozier is drawing on community resources to provide the counseling, anti-violence interventions, and other supports that have proven to be transformative. She's determined to sustain the positive changes and help more young people find their path.

Zachary Rasmussen, Chula Vista, California

In his application to the University of California, Zachary Rasmussen describes struggling with a learning disability. "My whole life I have been told that something is wrong with me, that I'm not as capable as other kids my age. I don't have to accept this as my definition," he wrote. "What sets me apart from others can't limit what I can become."

This sense of possibility was inspired through the Castle Park High School Academic Advocate Program. It's a centerpiece of the Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood, part of the Obama Administration's Promise Neighborhoods initiative. In Chula Vista, 28 community agencies and institutions are collaborating to provide comprehensive approaches to change the odds for children in the diverse, low-income Castle Park neighborhood.

Before Zachary started working with his advocate, Rea Concepcion, the University of California wasn't on his radar. Nobody in his family had graduated from college.  "I couldn't imagine going to a university. That didn't seem like an option."

Concepcion encouraged him to apply and helped him every step of the way. And she did the same for dozens of other students, most of them first-generation college-bound.

"I'm a GPS for students and families, helping them navigate the whole process," she said.

The advocate program is based on the belief that everybody has the potential to graduate from high school and college. Advocates work with students to assess their strengths, identify goals, and develop plans for success.  The idea is to work with students throughout high school, but the program started just last fall, so this year's seniors had the benefit of only one year. Thirty-four were admitted to four-year colleges and universities.

Zachary, who identifies as white and Asian Indian, will attend the University of California at Santa Cruz. He plans to study human biology and hopes to become a professional sports trainer and physical therapist.

Concepcion will remain the advocate for all her students through their first two years on campus. She'll Skype with each one monthly, connect them to mentors and advisors, visit them at school, and make sure they have the resources they need to succeed.

"Getting students who are underserved into college is one thing," she said. "Getting them to stay in college is another."

Lia Abeita-Sanchez, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Lia Abeita-Sanchez, a member of the tribal community of Pueblo of Isleta, will graduate in May 2015 from the University of New Mexico with a degree in political science. She attributes her educational success to her family and community, and the programs that helped facilitate her pathway into higher education.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, American Indian and Alaska Native students account for less than 1 percent of those who have earned a bachelor's degree or higher from a university. Closing the wide and persistent racial gap in educational attainment is key to building the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in a global economy. Programs dedicated to serving historically underrepresented students ensure that our increasingly diverse population has access to the educational opportunities to develop into the leaders that will strengthen communities and our nation's economy.

As a student at Sandia Preparatory School, a private school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lia participated in programs aimed at promoting college readiness among Native American high school students.  College Horizons aims to fill the access gap by increasing the number of Native American students eligible for admission to four-year universities by providing individualized support throughout the process of applying to college and information about financial aid. This program reinforced Lia's commitment to pursue higher education. Lia also participated in the Summer Policy Academy (SPA) Program, an intensive four-week program focused on indigenous issues. Learning about the impact of state and federal policy on tribal communities, through both classroom learning and service-oriented projects in the community, Lia came to recognize education as a tool to advocate for social change.

Lia was enrolled at Stanford University for two years before making the difficult decision to return home and enroll at the University of New Mexico. Lia struggled finding a sense of place and belonging while at Stanford, explaining, "No one looked like me. No one talked like me." Many services were available for Native American students. However, at the University of New Mexico, Lia felt she could more readily focus on school, saying, "Home was down the road, there wasn't a need to recreate it." She hopes that more students embrace their own personal experiences of resilience and that schools can build upon these assets.

Lia now advocates for policy and culturally appropriate health interventions for tribal communities as a research assistant with the Center for Native American Health Policy.  When asked about her future aspirations, Lia responded, "To continue to serve my community in whatever way possible and whichever way necessary."

Read the rest of the June 27, 2014 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.