Mentors make a difference

Print More

Nine years ago, the George M. Pullman Educational Foundation created a program at Fenger High School in the Roseland community to find out how to get more minority students out of high school and into college.

While the “Building Your Future” program was only ademonstration project and has since been discontinued, it offers important lessons.

Lesson No. 1: With mentoring and support from adults, it is possible to get more kids into college, even kids in low-performing schools who never considered higher education. The guidance helps them set realistic career goals, choose an appropriate school and apply for financial aid, which is essential for most minority students.

Lesson No. 2: It’s harder to help students get through college than into it. The Pullman Foundation found that even with continued mentoring and financial assistance, many students don’t make it. Some dropped out, finding it too hard to be away from home and in a campus setting. Others needed to work to support their families and couldn’t concentrate on finishing school.

However, the most formidable obstacle was students’ lack of academic preparation in high school. To Pullman, that came as a big surprise.

“At the time the Foundation began preparing for the program, social-economic status was the big predictor of failure, not academic preparation,” says Sandra Blau, Pullman’s executive director.

Building Your Future got its start in 1993 when Pullman staff began working with 75 Fenger freshmen who would be part of the class of 1997. The following year, it took on 75 more students from the class of 1998.

The 150 students got mentoring, optional tutoring and other support during their four years of high school; 127 of those students graduated from Fenger, for a completion rate of 85 percent. The rest dropped out or transferred. In contrast, the graduation rate for Fenger’s entire classes of 1997 and 1998 was about 63 percent.

After graduation, 100 of the Fenger graduates, or 79 percent, enrolled in college. But only 39 of the 100 earned a degree or are still on schedule to earn one. Seven have graduated; four from the class of 1997 earned bachelor’s degrees in 2001 while three earned associate’s degrees. Twenty-nine are expected to graduate over the next few years.

Despite these numbers, Blau says she’s pleased with the outcome and is hopeful that some of the dropouts will return to college and eventually graduate. She points out that national studies show minority students take longer to complete college, dropping in and out over a period of years.

The blueprint for the $1.2 million program was crafted with help from the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Urban Inequality. When Pullman got the word out that the program needed a demonstration site, Fenger jumped at the chance.

“We have a good guidance counseling staff, but our kids deal with serious issues, and they need so much more,” says Janice Ollarvia, Fenger’s principal.

Students chosen for the program had been referred by teachers and counselors or had expressed interest themselves. The only requirement was having average skills in reading, writing and math, good attendance and motivation.

Pullman created a Career Center at Fenger, which served as a club house for students and office for staff. The center had computers with Internet access—at the time, the rest of Fenger didn’t—and plenty of information on colleges and careers. Students could get tutoring help and do their homework there. Pullman also hired two counselors. And students who went on to college got financial help—currently, the average award is $5,625—and assistance with finding financial aid.

From the beginning, the counselors talked up college and let students know it was within their reach.

But many students needed a lot of one-on-one support to reach for that goal, says counselor Patrick Milton, who was hired by the foundation to work with the students. So he and his colleague talked extensively to students about their interests, career goals and what classes they needed to take to achieve those goals. At first, some believed college was a pipe dream, but by sophomore year, few doubted they could go.

“The staff that the Pullman Foundation chose was the most important part of this program,” says Ollarvia, who was an assistant principal and the program’s point person at the time. “The relationships were critical. The counselors were young enough that the kids felt they could relate to them.

“I stayed in the career center,” says Fenger graduate Goza Parks, who attended the University of Missouri and recently returned to Chicago to care for her ailing mother. She plans to complete her last year of college at home. “We learned so much and in so many different ways. I talked to Mr. Milton three times a day,” she says with a laugh. “He really pushed us to work harder.”

Even those kids who said they always planned to go to college needed the boost the program provided. A study Fenger conducted in 1992 found that 50 percent of seniors who planned to go to college hadn’t done a college search and didn’t know anything about entrance requirements or financial aid application procedures.

Lynda Defell, now a senior at St. Xavier University in Chicago, was such a student. “I always planned on going to college, but I didn’t know how to fill out college applications,” she recalls. “I didn’t know to send off transcripts. I didn’t even have an idea what I wanted to major in.”

Initially, she thought she’d major in business, but when Milton showed her how to research requirements for a business degree, she discovered she needed a lot of math, something she neither liked nor felt she was good in. She is currently pursuing a degree in elementary education.

But in some cases, all the counseling in the world couldn’t make up for academic deficits.

“One kid went to Northwestern and didn’t make it academically. And there were others,” says Milton, who also counseled the Fenger graduates while they were in college. “Most struggled in math and science. Fenger had few computers or science labs [to prepare them for college work]. A lot of these kids were looking into medical and science careers.”

Parks is a case in point. While she persevered, she says her basic college algebra class at the University of Missouri at Columbia “kicked her butt.”

“At Fenger, I took Advanced Algebra, Trigonometry and Pre-calculus, and I was a good math student,” says Parks, who is majoring in psychology. “I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand it in college.”

Ollarvia acknowledges that students were not adequately prepared. But she says preparation needs to begin in elementary schools, not just at the high school level.

“Yes, I know our kids were lacking in academic preparation. I’m not a math person, but the theory is kids should be introduced to algebra in the 7th and 8th grade. This was not happening,” she says.

Since then, she says, elementary schools have begun doing a better job of preparing kids for high school; they know high school expectations and are passing that on to students. Ollarvia and principals from Fenger’s feeder elementary schools now meet annually to discuss preparing students for high school.

In 1999, Fenger also started a math and science academy within the school. Ollarvia says that last spring 55 percent of the kids in the academy scored at or above grade level on the TAP test in math.

But in retrospect, Pullman believes the Pullman program may well have been more successful if it had made the tutoring component mandatory, in order to ensure kids were better equipped for college-level work.

Says Blau, “Patrick said the kids wouldn’t do it. Our thought had been that they didn’t want to be identified as needing special help. So the staff created a [voluntary] after-school homework session instead. Former staff have since said they wished they’d gotten a better handle on helping kids prepare academically.”

Currently, the foundation is putting its money and energy into other existing college prep programs. But Blau says the Building Your Future program can be duplicated, and she encourages other organizations to give it a try.

“It will just take a commitment of money and personnel. Public schools need staff who can focus on what kids need, someone who will show them how to fill out applications, stay after them about meeting deadlines. And above all, we need to create better high schools.”

James Snowden, a senior at Chicago Vocational Career Academy, has dreamed of college since his freshman year. He began laying the groundwork for getting there early in his high school career, working hard to earn top grades and perform well in athletics.

“I’m making sure I take care of business because I know my mother won’t be able to give monetary support,” James said last year, hoping to draw in academic and athletic scholarships to allow him to study international business.

But this year, James has dropped the ball. His story shows how even motivated students who get adult guidance can fall short.

By mid-December, James hadn’t applied to any colleges, was in the process of applying for just one scholarship and had passed up a promising chance for a shot at attending college tuition-free for four years.

“Something is going on with James this year,” says his counselor, Shirley Carter. “I’ve asked him over and over for his college applications, and he says he’ll get them to me. I’ve also been telling him about scholarships, but he’s only given me one [application] to look over.”

Carter, who had taken pains to carve out a plan for the star pupil, is especially upset about his lack of interest in the Posse Foundation, an organization that sends groups of students to small liberal arts colleges that give them four-year scholarships. While many scholarships are awarded on the basis of grades or need, Posse looks for students who show leadership ability, can work as a team and have a strong desire to succeed. (See story.)

Carter submitted James’ name to Posse and thought he would be a shoo-in. Last year, he was president of the Beta Club for high-achieving students, a student council member and Chicago Vocational’s “ambassador,” promoting the school and serving as a tour guide for school visitors. He also belonged to the National Honor Society, competed in the Academic Decathlon, ran track and played basketball and football.

Carter, who had told James exactly what day and time he should show up for the first interview, was stunned at his response. Stopping him in the hallway later to find out how the interview had gone, she learned he did not go. He told Carter he wasn’t interested in any of the colleges that Posse members were attending.

“I couldn’t believe it. In a matter-of-fact manner, he told me this,” says a bewildered Carter. “But I told him, when you don’t have money and you want an education, you have to consider all your options. Who is going to give you what kind of money?”

Later, James gives a puzzling explanation. He says he misunderstood Posse’s mission. “I thought they were trying to start their own college, and it just didn’t sound right to me.”

Still, Carter thinks he didn’t go because his first college choice is Stanford University in California. He’d also been talking about Notre Dame, Florida A&M, the University of Chicago, Harvard and Princeton. But to Carter’s knowledge, he hasn’t taken any steps to apply to any of these colleges.

Andrew Williams, the executive director for the Posse Foundation’s Chicago office, is not surprised by James’ decision. Although the organization received 800 nominations for students this year, only 306 showed up for the initial interview.

“The colleges that we work with are excellent, but are not well-known to a lot of students,” explains Williams.

James acknowledges the situation, even though he has not yet applied to any college.

And by mid-December, there’d been no word from his coaches about potential athletic scholarships. And the only academic scholarship he’d applied for was the Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship, even though many of his teachers and Carter had also steered him to others.

One teacher suggested he apply to the United Negro College Fund; another suggested a scholarship offered by the Tuskegee Airmen Foundation. Before the Christmas holiday, Carter asked James to complete one for the George M. Pullman Scholarship. But she was nervous he’d miss the deadline.

“I gave him a four-page application and told him I wanted it back by Dec. 12,” she said in mid-December. “That scholarship is due Jan. 5, when he’s on Christmas break. I need it now.” James said later he mailed the forms to Pullman on Jan. 5, but Carter reports that by Jan. 15, the foundation had not received them.

“I had five kids fill out those forms who say they mailed them, but Pullman doesn’t have one of them,” says Carter. “Pullman is extending the deadline for them, and I told them, ‘I’m going to have all five kids fill these things out in front of me, and I’ll mail them off myself.'”

She adds, “In most cases, it’s up to the kids to fill these things out. If I had more time, I’d hand-deliver these applications and take these kids to appointments myself. I don’t think these kids realize the seriousness of the situation.”

As for James, “I think he’s suffering from senioritis,” she says. “He’s been so used to being number one, he’s slacking off this year. I hope he’ll get it together and be all right.”

Last year, Dannielle Dungey couldn’t wait for her first year at Northern Illinois University to be over. She hated it. Although the honors student handled the college level work without breaking a sweat, she felt lonely and isolated. She had a hard time making friends.

When she wasn’t in class, she hibernated in her single dorm room. Every chance she got, she made a beeline home to south suburban Chicago.

“I felt like I made a mistake,” said Dannielle, a 2000 graduate of Hazelcrest High School. “But I have a four-year tuition scholarship, so I also felt trapped.”

Such feelings are not uncommon for new college students. For minority students on predominately white campuses, feelings of isolation can intensify to the point where they drop out.

“Students are looking for students who look like them, talk like them, act like them,” says Derrick Smith, a professor of the Center for Black Studies at NIU. “It’s harder for them to adjust. Minority students are afraid they’ll look stupid, so they don’t speak up in class or ask questions or have the confidence to negotiate their way around.”

But this year, things are different for Dannielle. This fall, she moved to another dorm and uncovered a support system of older peers. Now she’s happy and finally feeling settled.

Just before school ended last year, she took it upon herself to request a single room on a co-ed floor in one of NIU’s newer residences. She wanted to see if it would be any different from what she’d been experiencing in her women-only dorm. There, students didn’t talk to each other, kept their doors closed and were “very standoffish,” she says.

In contrast, her new neighbors are a multi-racial, tight-knit group of juniors and seniors, most of them males.

“It’s like one big happy family,” says Dannielle. “Most of them have been together for two years or more. They are really tight.”

When she first observed the camaraderie, Dannielle feared she’d be left out of the loop again and did what she’d done before—stayed in her room. But that didn’t last long.

One night, six or seven students knocked on her door, introduced themselves, piled into her room and started talking. Before she knew it, it was 3 in the morning.

“I had to kick them out of my room,” she laughs. “But it was great. We started talking and it just went on.”

Later, the students asked her to play cards and Monopoly with them.

Now, students sometimes stop by to ask if she’s been off the floor at all that day, gotten something to eat or if she’s doing well in her classes. “They started treating me like I was their little sister,” says Dannielle. “It felt good to have people watching out for me.”

Says “big brother” Cory Jackson, a junior, “It was sad to see her in her room. So we made extra efforts to get her out.

He adds, laughing, “And when we found out how smart she is, we thought, ‘Hey, she can help us.'”

Jackson and others are now pushing Dannielle to get involved on campus.

“I haven’t joined any clubs yet. That’s what the group fusses at me about,” says Dannielle. “I’m really thinking about joining the NAACP and the National Honor Society. The society asked me last year, but I said no.”

Dannielle also says that her new “big brothers and sisters” have made her feel more confident about “shining” in her classes, so much so that she says other students now ask her for help.

While her social life has improved, academics have become more challenging. She’s not getting B’s instead of A’s. Her reasons are varied: one of her classes, Asian history, is hard and requires a lot of reading. Her psychology class is taught by a graduate student who, Danielle says, covers too much material in too little time, making it hard for her to keep up. And physical geography, the study of air, water and land, is so boring, it’s “like watching paint dry,” she says.

“I know I should be getting A’s,” she sighs. “But I’ll keep at it.”

For now, Dannielle plans to stick it out at NIU. “I’m really happy to be on my new floor. I’ve made a lot of progress socially this year,” she says proudly.

But Jackson observes with a laugh, “We’ve got her out of her room, now we’re working to get her off the floor.”

When Mokerah Bradley arrived at Carleton College in Minnesota last fall, her first thought was, “At last, I’m free.” It was the first time she’d live away from home, and she was excited and eager to be on her own.

But her feelings of elation soon evaporated, and panic set in.

“My parents left, and in an hour, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m in Minnesota. My parents are gone. What have I done?'” says Bradley, who graduated from Best Practices High School on the Near West Side.

Nervous in the first place about attending a predominantly white school, she then ended up as the only minority student on her floor, which increased her discomfort. But she quickly recovered by seeking out her “posse,” a group of students sent to Carleton together to help support each other.

“All freshmen get homesick,” says Bradley. “But freshmen are fragile, and the slightest thing can make you say, ‘College is not for me.’ My posse helped me get through the rough spots. They reminded of my goal, which is to get through college and graduate. And once they helped me, I got it together and helped them, too.”

Bradley and her support network are part of the Posse Foundation, a program that sends students in groups of 10 to the same college to bolster each other through the experience. Partnering colleges give each student a full four-year tuition scholarship.

Launched in New York City in 1989, Posse later expanded to Boston and made its debut in Chicago in May 2000. It is laying the groundwork to expand to Los Angeles this May. Since the program’s inception, more than 90 percent of the participants have stayed in school and graduated. Posse’s budget of $1.5 million comes from private foundations, corporations, individuals and some federal grants.

Combating culture shock

Debra Bial, the Posse Foundation’s executive director, founded the organization while writing her master’s thesis in education at Harvard University. At the time, she was working with students from the City Kids Foundation in New York City and noticed that a large number returned home after only six months away at school.

Academic ability wasn’t the problem. One told Bial that he would have stayed in college if he’d had his “posse” with him, using a slang term popular with young people at the time to describe a group of close-knit friends who support each other.

“Students, especially minority kids, were experiencing culture shock,” says Andrew Williams, executive director of Posse Chicago. “The faculty and the students were white. The curriculum was different. That was their biggest obstacle. A psychological and cultural safety net is critical for these kids, and that’s what the program provides.”

The posses sent to the foundation’s partner schools are multi-racial and include students from suburban school districts as well as Chicago public schools. And while most scholarship programs are based solely on financial need and grades, Posse is interested in students who are leaders and show a desire to succeed.

“We don’t have a race quota. We look at grades, but we don’t have a grade-average cutoff,” says Williams. “We look at students individually, have students explain their grades to find out what was happening in their lives [when they took those classes]. Sometimes what kids can do doesn’t show up on a standardized test. Often these kids get overlooked, so we’re more interested in those who show academic potential and are student leaders.”

Once chosen, students must agree to foster diversity on their campuses by working to bring together classmates from different backgrounds and races.

“We want them to have an impact on their campuses, and they are,” says Williams. “We’ve seen young people of different ethnic backgrounds who wouldn’t normally sit together, sitting together. Posse kids make bonds outside of their groups. They become presidents of organizations, invite diverse speakers to their campuses, hold dances and sponsor events to bring people together. All this changes the classroom climate.”

The commitment to diversity convinced DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., to sign on as a partner.

“The Posse program is so important and so worthwhile,” says Jacqueline Gardner, dean of academic services at DePauw. “They are creating inclusive communities on campus, increasing the number of students of color and, more importantly, helping the retention rate of non-Posse members because they keep broadening their circles and reach out to everybody. This is one of our university’s mission.”

“It’s been rather easy to sell the Posse idea,” says Shirley Collado, Posse’s national program director and an alumnus of the first posse. “Universities are being seriously challenged to address their diversity issues on campus, and they are also concerned about increasing their retention rates. Posse allows this to happen. They are not a clique; they move outside their group.”

Selection process

To be chosen, students go through a three-phase selection process that begins in October. Students participate in group exercises to see how well they interact with each other, and go through individual interviews with foundation staff. Then, students who make it through phases one and two are interviewed by the partner universities.

Each partner university chooses 10 students and awards each a full, four-year scholarship. Along with DePauw and Carleton, other partnering colleges for Chicago Posse students are Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

This year, the program received 800 nominations from counselors, teachers, churches and community organizations, up from 450 the year before.

“We only had a few months to get the word out the first year,” says Williams. “This time, we’ve had more time to get the word out. We also have a larger staff that has been aggressively promoting the program.”

All of which is important because, according to Williams, the program faces stiff competition from colleges that have more name recognition. (See story on James Snowden).

Students chosen by the partner schools go through weekly two-hour workshops for eight months, learning how to work on their campuses in specific areas: team building and group support, cross-cultural communication, leadership and diversity.

“The training put us in situations where we faced racial injustice and we had to figure out how we’d handle it,” says Bradley. “The training also helped us form strong bonds with our Posse members and to learn how to support other people.”

Posse member Iris Santiago, a Latina from Schurz High School, says the training definitely helped her through some touchy conversations at Denison.

“I’ve been asked questions like, ‘Do you live in a house?'” she says. “And I’ve said, ‘Yes, we’re human, too.’ Because there are so few minorities, this environment really [sparks] deep conversations about race, even within our Posse group, which is multicultural. That’s where our diversity training came in handy.”

Because the program has no grade-point requirements, it also teaches academic skills: effective study habits, time management, stress management and how to think critically. Each student is also paired with a writing coach.

Tina Andrews, a Denison student who is an honors graduate of Chicago Vocational Career Academy, says the training and her posse members have been her life line.

“When I got sick, my Posse cared for me. For Thanksgiving, when I didn’t have money to get home, one of my Posse bought me a bus ticket,” says Andrews. “And when I got here and didn’t know how to work a computer, because I’d never used on in high school, my Posse showed me how. If I didn’t have my Posse, I’d be back home.”