Students navigate turbulent waters

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photo by Gary Kirksey

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In early 2001, Associate Editor Debra Williams caught up with nine students who had their sights set on a college degree. They ranged from high school juniors to college sophomores. Recruited by Future Teachers of Chicago/Illinois, they agreed to share their experiences for two years. Though uncharted, their journeys wound up illuminating many of the challenges that minority students face in getting a college education. Although keeping track of them proved to be a challenge in and of itself, Williams is happy to report that all are still in school. She believes that all of them will make it. Ditto for her own son, Derrick Jr., a sophomore at Western Illinois University.

Adam Ramirez: Chance paid off

Hubbard High School graduate Adam Ramirez has almost achieved his goal of becoming a teacher. Once he has that degree in hand, he’ll be a hot commodity: a male Latino prepared for a field that is desperate to get more Latinos at the head of increasingly Latino classrooms.

In this era of strict standards, Adam is lucky to have gotten this far. In high school, he had poor grades and scored only 16 on the ACT college entrance exam, a score that generally is considered too low for college-level work. After rejections from several colleges, he finally was accepted by Roosevelt University under a special scholarship program for aspiring minority teachers. Even that program had to waive a key standard.

“Students should have a 3.25 GPA, which Adam didn’t have,” says Linda Pincham, who runs the Scholars Teach and Reach (STAR) program. “But Adam’s recommendations from his teachers were glowing, and they spoke so highly of him that we looked beyond those scores.”

Adam did not disappoint. Now in his senior year, he is an A student with a passion for teaching and helping young people. For the last two years, he has volunteered in classrooms at Pulaski Elementary in Logan Square.

“I almost don’t recognize him,” says his mother, Maria Ramirez. “I am so proud of him. He is doing so well in school.”

Pincham believes that because of the teacher shortage, universities need to take more chances on students like Adam. For example, she’d like to see Roosevelt ease the GPA required to maintain a STAR scholarship and support, which at 3.25 is higher than the 2.5 required for admission to Roosevelt’s College of Education. Since STAR was launched in 1999, it has lost 15 of 43 students because of low GPAs, she says.

A few of these students dropped out of school completely, some transferred to other institutions, and some remained at Roosevelt as education majors but with other financial aid, she says.

“I had one Hispanic male with a 2.8 GPA,” Pincham recalls. “But he was determined to teach. He worked with kids every day. He loved doing it. So he worked out some other financial aid package with the university. This young man was serious about teaching.”

But other students can’t get along without the STAR scholarship. “We need to step back and look at this [GPA requirement], especially since there is a teaching shortage,” she says.

Meanwhile, Adam already is revising his lesson plans. Last summer he was one of 20 applicants out of 1,300 who were accepted for a summer leadership development program sponsored by the Civil Rights Projects at Harvard University. The lectures and discussions with civil rights leaders and government officials gave him a better understanding of how the government and country operate.

“I’ll probably teach the Constitution differently now,” he says. “I don’t want my kids to just memorize facts, but really understand the politics, the decision-making process, how it works, how it affects people. I want to be a civic-minded teacher.”

The experience also increased Adam’s appetite for more study. “When I get my undergrad degree, I think I’ll keep on going,” he says.

Angela Serrano: ‘Floating around’

Angela Serrano had big career dreams. She loved animals and wanted to become a veterinarian. But she started working toward that goal too late. Now, two years after graduating from Hubbard High School, she is trying to figure out what to do instead.

“I’m just floating around taking classes,” she says.

In high school, Angela did not fully explore career options and requirements and, therefore, did not take the kinds of courses or do the kind of work that would put her on track to veterinary school, which requires high grades, especially in math and science, for admission.

The first sign of trouble came when the University of Illinois at Chicago, the only college she applied to, rejected her application. Undeterred, Angela decided to enroll in Morton Community College in Cicero, bring up her grades and reapply to UIC. But even at Morton, she started out behind, with a remedial math class. Later, she failed her first college-level math course, which she plans to retake this fall.

“I think becoming a vet will be too much of challenge for me,” says Angela, who attends Morton part time. Joan Klaus, who oversees a Bank One program to help Chicago Public Schools students get into and succeed in college, says students should begin as early as 6th grade to set career goals and make plans to achieve them. That will put them in the “college mind set” and keep their options open, she explains. “Schools need to help kids do this,” Klaus adds. “There is an assumption that this is being done in the home. Well, the home is not doing it.”

In Angela’s case, home indeed was not doing it. Her mother, an immigrant from Mexico who didn’t graduate from high school, had put a damper on Angela’s college aspirations, telling her she didn’t have enough money or good enough grades. It was a co-worker at her job who rekindled Angela’s interest in college, but that was not until her senior year at Hubbard.

Klaus says students also need mentoring throughout their schooling. “Culturally, some kids don’t know how to ask for help. They are told not to ask questions,” says Klaus. “But it’s hard to find the right path if you don’t have adults to help along the way. We tell our kids all the time, ‘You have to raise your hand and ask; don’t wait until you sink.'”

Klaus could have been talking about Angela, who is shy and did not ask for help from counselors. High schools need to do a better job of preparing kids in math and science, Klaus adds. “Math and science are gateways, and there is a whole world that is ineligible to students if they are not strong in these areas.”

“If you want to become a vet, you have to have a passion for science and be strong in math,” says Mary Kelm, assistant dean for academic and student affairs at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. “After all, you are becoming a doctor.”

But students like Angela, who love animals but do not have strong academic backgrounds, can come close to their dreams by becoming certified veterinary technicians, she adds.

The job requires only a two-year associate’s degree. Duties include drawing blood, assisting in surgeries, overseeing an animal’s recovery and performing community outreach. Joliet Junior College and Parkland Community College in Champaign both offer the degree.

“And they are in high demand,” Kelm adds.

Informed of that option, Angela got excited. “Wow, that’s awesome,” she said. “I’m very interested in that. I’d heard about techs, but I thought you had to have math and science for that too. I didn’t know who to talk to about it. Now I’m going to look into it next semester.”

Ana Salinas: Last-minute reprieve

During her first three years at Loyola University, Ana Salinas saw her grades go down and up and down and up. For most of the summer, she feared they would go down again because of a new and lengthy commute to classes.

She and other upperclassmen living in dorms and campus housing were told they had to move to make room for a surge in freshman enrollment. Ana couldn’t find an apartment nearby and decided to move back home to Pilsen, which would put her on public transportation for up to three hours a day. That, plus a part-time job, would leave little time for studying.

Then, three days before classes began in August, university staff notified Ana that they had found her an apartment. She was elated. “I have my own space, my own desk for studying that I don’t have at home. I have access to a computer lab. If I need extra help, I’m closer to tutoring.”

Being on campus will keep her on track, says Ana, who is studying to become a teacher. One Loyola professor agrees. Commuter students lose not only time but also an important network of support, says Isiaah Crawford, chair of Loyola’s psychology department.

“Being connected to the campus allows students to share information, study habits and have access to information,” he explains. “Students learn from each other. They talk informally about professors’ styles, what classes they should be taking. They share coping skills. Commuter students, especially minority students, miss out on this, and this is very important.”

He adds that it is important for minority students in particular to be around others with a shared interest. When Ana graduated from Juarez High School, she thought college would be smooth sailing. She had gotten A’s and B’s, and her teachers told her she was an excellent student. But she didn’t feel like one her first year at Loyola. “I thought everyone was smarter than me,” she recalls. “I didn’t feel like I fit in.”

Ana quickly learned that, indeed, she was not as prepared as she had thought. So she worked harder, which brought her decent grades. But then she took a full-time job, and her grades took a plunge. So she cut back her hours, and last semester, she earned all A’s.

“Being on campus is the best thing for me” she says.

Brooke Ray: GPA from 4.0 to 2.8

Brooke Ray had a grade-point average of 4.0 when she graduated last year as valedictorian at Orr High School, a school on “intervention” for its low test scores.

Not surprisingly, the prestigious University of Southern California in Los Angeles proved to be a bit of a shock. As a freshman there, Brooke found herself in a situation that’s not uncommon for star students from poorly performing high schools.

Struggling with a demanding curriculum, she finished her first year with a GPA, 2.8, that is respectable but short of what she was accustomed to.

“Students were much more advanced and more prepared than I was,” she says. “They were used to taking notes, had read a lot more books, had great writing skills and were more familiar with computer technology. In high school, most of the time my homework was easy enough to complete at school. However, when I studied at home, I probably put in 8 to 10 hours a week. At USC, I study 24 / 7.”

Writing was one of Brooke’s toughest challenges. She had to do many more papers, and the papers had to be research-based, something that Orr had not taught.

A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 1999 found that the quality of the high school curriculum—not test scores, class rank or grade-point average—is the most important factor in determining whether a student gets through college successfully.

“When bright students who have done well in these kinds of high schools get to college, it is a shock,” says Sandra Blau, executive director of the George M. Pullman Foundation. “That’s the idea behind college bridge programs, to prepare kids for college and show them what is expected.”

Pullman piloted such a program in 1993 at Fenger High School, another poorly performing Chicago school. The program, which no longer exists, offered guidance and optional tutoring. Like Brooke, many of the participating students were accepted into college but struggled once they got there.

“The way these students made it was through tutoring or by acknowledging ‘Wow, I’m really behind. I have to work a lot harder,'”says Blau, who is convinced that “the best way to help kids make it through college is to create better high schools.”

So far, Brooke has not been shy about seeking help.

“Most of my classes required a lot of reading, and writing 12- to 15-page papers,” she relates. “When I didn’t understand something I read, I went to my professors or to the TA [teaching assistant]. When I needed help with a paper, I went to the writing center.”

Brooke, who plans to major in international business, and her mother, Jean Ray, are finding college financially demanding as well. Brooke’s first year at USC cost $36,000, and Ray is still paying off $10,000 of that. Brooke also took out a $3,500 loan this year and is working part time to help out. In retrospect, Brooke wishes she had been more aggressive looking for scholarships; she says she will be during this school year.

Still, Brooke returned to USC in August with ambitious goals for her sophomore year. Without hesitation, she says, “I’m going to be more involved in activities, meet more people, and although I expect harder work, I’m also expecting to make a 4.0 this year and get my GPA back up.”

She pauses and laughs, “I also expect to have plenty of debt.”

Lekena Figueroa-Forman: Dropping teaching

For the past three years, Lekena Figueroa-Forman has been attending Northeastern Illinois University in the hopes of becoming a teacher. Last month, she decided to switch to business. Slow to evolve, her decision was based on time and money.

First, as a bank teller, Lekena learned she could make more money in business. “I see what new teachers make, and they don’t get paid enough,” she says. “The ones that make the money are old and gray. But young business people are depositing good money.”

Despite this discovery last year, Lekena had planned to stick with teaching. At the time, she was working at a bank that had late hours, which would have allowed her to student teach during the day. But then she took a higher-paying job at another bank, one that does not stay open late.

“Student teaching [involves] being in a classroom during the day,” Lekena notes. “I’m getting financial aid for school, but I have rent, a car, car insurance and other bills to pay. I have to have a full-time job.”

“We’ve heard this problem since forever, especially from adults returning to school,” says Patricia Walsh, acting dean of the College of Education. “Still, student teaching is full time. That’s how it is structured, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“We know it’s difficult,” she adds, “but I’m always amazed what students do so they can student teach.”Stockpiling money, taking out loans, working in the evening and living with parents to reduce expenses are among the creative solutions.

Student teaching was not imminent for Lekena, who had not yet applied.

In late August, she was still straddling the fence. “If I get a teaching degree, I can come out of school and be guaranteed a job,” she reasoned. “But if I study business, the business world is kind of shaky after September 11, and I may not be able to find a job. I don’t know what I want to do.”

She acknowledged she could move back home if she “had to.” She left because of “family problems.”But then she calculated that she could graduate sooner if she switched majors. At her current pace of accumulating required credits, she couldn’t get a teaching degree until 2005, but she could get a business degree in the spring of 2004. (Lekena had dropped a number of courses to avoid failing them.) By mid-September, Lekena had made up her mind and scheduled a meeting to talk with a counselor in the College of Business.

“I’m tired of going to school,” she explains. “I talked to my advisor, and she told me that if business is what I wanted to do, then that’s what I should do. I like what I’m doing now [working at the bank]. Teaching is still an option, but not something I’ll do right now.”

James Snowden: Living his dream

As a freshman at Chicago Vocational Career Academy, James Snowden was determined to go to college. Not just any college. A very good college. He studied hard, earned good grades and participated in clubs and sports to build leadership skills and position himself for athletic scholarships.

His determination paid off: In May, a month before he graduated as valedictorian, James won a four-year, need-based grant that will cover almost 70 percent of his tuition at the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions. The grant, $18,500 a year, came from the university itself, which charges $27,324 a year in tuition.

With the addition of federal and state grants, a federal loan, work-study funds and a scholarship from the George M. Pullman Foundation, James amassed $35,870 to cover total annual costs of $39,454. Even so, the $3,584 difference will be a challenge for him and his mother to raise.

Most of James’ financial aid is renewable all four years. To fill the gap in the future, he will seek additional scholarships and take out more loans if necessary, he says.

With his finances largely under control, James shifted his sights to academics, learning quickly that despite a stellar high school record, he is starting out behind.

James was among nine incoming freshmen invited to participate this summer in U of C’s Chicago Academic Achievement Program (CAAP), a special program just for Chicago students. The instructors didn’t mince words about what students had to do, he says. “One instructor told us, ‘You guys are behind, but that can be cured. It can be worked on. You can make it, and that’s what we’re here to help you do,'” James relates.

The six-week program ran eight hours a day, five days a week. It included readings and discussions that mirrored the undergraduate curriculum, lectures on special topics and sessions on basics such as using the university library and computer system. Students were also given paying jobs on campus.

“It’s not a mandatory program, but we tell students, ‘If you are about to attend U of C, this program will help smooth the transition,'” says Andre Phillips, an associate director in admissions.

The students studied humanities, math, chemistry and physics, and attended a special lecture on biochemistry. There was substantial reading; James got seven books the first day and says he read “about 16 or 17” during the six weeks.

Like many new college students, James had the toughest time with writing. “I thought I had my writing down, but I found out I didn’t,” says James. “I have good ideas, but my writing was vague, and I had problems with organization. When I showed my friends my papers, full of corrections, they were also surprised and told me, ‘But we thought you were a good writer.'”

“I know I’m coming from a public school to one of the best schools in the country,” he says. “It will be a challenge, and I’m a little nervous. But I know I’m going to have to really, really work—and other than that, I try not to think about it too much. It would kill me.”

Vernon Payne: Trying again

Vernon Payne was a so-so student at Morgan Park High School. “[He] just didn’t take his work seriously,” according to one former teacher. However, when he began studying art at Columbia College last fall, he vowed to buckle down and do better.

He didn’t follow through. With a poor attendance record, Vernon had to drop courses to keep from failing them. (Columbia College policy allows students three absences due to illness or another emergency; after the third absence, a student earns a failing grade.)

“The first semester, I felt I was focused. But the second semester, I didn’t make the commitment to get there,” Vernon admits. “I work, and I found it hard to get to class. I knew I wasn’t doing well, so I dropped my classes. I’m a little disappointed in my first year.”

With its new demands for setting priorities and managing time, freshman year typically is the toughest for college students, experts say. As an open-admissions school, Columbia College gets students from a wide range of academic backgrounds, including some “who didn’t do so well in high school [and] need to be academically challenged,” notes Mark Kelly, acting vice president of student affairs.

Three years ago, Columbia, which focuses on media and the arts, opened a Freshman Center to help students with academics and the tasks that can seem overwhelming to new students, like filling out paperwork, choosing classes and managing a schedule. It also helps them overcome a transition hurdle that appears to be unique to performing-arts students, says center director Timothy Gordon.

“Many of our kids are leaving environments that say, ‘Hey, painting or drawing is not really a career,'” says Gordon. “We may be the place where, for the first time, they are told that their careers are serious business, and we have different expectations here. We tell them, ‘This is a professional environment. You have to get to class. You have to turn in assignments.'”

“We think the center is having an impact,” says Kelly. Last year, 85 percent of freshmen sought help from it, he notes, and the freshman retention rate rose to 83 percent, up three percentage points from 1999.

“We expect our graduation rate to rise to 30 or 40 percent over the next six years,” he adds. The average for the past six years has been 27 percent.

“We ask students to see us twice a semester,” says Bob Blinn, Vernon’s advisor. “Vernon has been in once or twice this year. There are tons of things we can do to stop a student from failing. We talk to teachers. We can get a student a note-taker. We get tutors. The problem is, students don’t come in. They find other things to do.”

Vernon acknowledges he could have done more, and again, he is vowing to make school his top priority. “I’m going to go to school full time,” he says. “I’m going to quit my job. My mom says she’ll take care of school for me financially. This time, I want to get good grades and stay focused.”

Dannielle Dungey: To teach or not to teach

Dannielle Dungey has been riding an emotional roller coaster at Northern Illinois University. In her first year, her biggest problem was feeling isolated on a mostly white campus. In her second year, she found a new group of friends in her dorm and developed an active social life.

Now in her third year, Dannielle is questioning her goal of becoming a high school history teacher.

“If I could have done things differently, I would not go into education,” says Dannielle, a history and political science major who is now interested in the law. “In high school [Hazel Crest High], I really didn’t look at a broader area of career choices. I wish I had done more research on other careers.”

Despite her misgivings, Dannielle is still on the teaching track, largely because of the teaching obligations that came with scholarships. The Golden Apple Foundation, which gave her $5,000, requires five years of teaching in Illinois; the Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship Program, which gave her $2,500, requires one.

“I feel like I’m stuck in this profession now,” says Dannielle. “If I change my major, the money that I got turns into loans, something I’ve been trying to avoid. And, I’m almost there, so I’m going to teach. Still, more than half of history majors at my school are going into law.”

It’s the prospect of higher pay elsewhere that turned Dannielle’s head. “I talked to friends from high school who were saying that when they come out of school, they’d start off making $50,000 because of the careers they’d chosen,” she says. “One was going to be a pharmacist, and others were business majors. I thought, my grades are good, and I’m smart, and they’ll be making more than me.”

The average starting salary for teachers is $28,986, according to the American Federation of Teachers. That’s slightly higher than starting salaries in hotel and restaurant management ($26,255), advertising ($26,667), the humanities ($27,017) and architectural design ($28,156) but less than starting salaries in business administration ($33,790), civil engineering ($36,160), computer science ($44,345) and pharmacy ($59,276), according to data published by the trade publication Employment Review.

“We may be losing teachers before they even get into schools,” laments Debby Pope, communications director for the Chicago Teachers Union. “And we [already] have a teacher shortage, which didn’t come out of thin air. It developed out of how teachers have been treated professionally and financially.”

Margee Myles, the director of advisement services at Northern, says it’s not unusual for education majors to switch career choices.

“We find that sometimes teaching is not a student’s first choice, but a fallback choice. They’ll have a job when the graduate. They’ll have summers off. It will be a piece of cake,” she explains. “Then they find out, especially if they’d done some student teaching, that it’s not a piece of cake. You have to prepare for the next day. You grade papers at night. It’s hard work.”

Dannielle’s current game plan is to start her professional life as a teacher and then move into law or at least up the education ladder.

“I’m still going to teach because I’d planned to do this,” she says. “But once I get into it, I’m not going to stay in the classroom. I see myself moving into administration. Staying in a classroom until I retire, that’s unrealistic for me.”

However, Myles says that if Dannielle “really feels strongly about it, she shouldn’t pursue teaching. It’s better to make the change now than after a student finishes school. Yes, it’s hard. Students may have to pay back loans, but they get through it.”

Aaron Price: College a breeze

After cruising through his first year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Kenwood High School graduate Aaron Price was set to be inducted this September into the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

“I was really pleased with myself, ” says Aaron, who ended the year with a grade-point average of 3.41. “The work wasn’t that hard, and I went in feeling pretty confident.”

Aaron’s achievements show the difference that preparation makes in college success. At Kenwood, his teachers pushed him academically, and counselors helped him research careers, choose and apply to schools and find financial aid.

He notes that his high school math teachers, for example, tutored him after school and gave him plenty of one-on-one help. He began college as a math major, but switched to business, with a concentration in accounting. “I still get to work with numbers, but business and accounting are more profitable,” he says with a chuckle.

Aaron also had supportive parents, both college-educated, who expected him to go on to college and guided him through the entire process. His mother, Pamela Price, put in long hours to find $65,000 in scholarships to help cover the cost of tuition, room and board for four years, a total of about $83,500. For the coming year, Aaron is adding another United Negro College Fund scholarship and $3,000 from South Shore Bank.

Without all that help and encouragement, Aaron says, “I wouldn’t have made it so far. Because of what people did for me, I hope to be successful so that I can give back and do for others.”

Aaron’s greatest challenge last year was social: He had to adjust to his roommate. “We had our differences,” he says. “He was a party animal. I’m quiet.”

This school year, Aaron plans to broaden his horizons. As a freshman, he stayed away from extracurricular activities to focus on schoolwork, but this year he plans to become active in student government and pledge Omega Psi Phi, his father’s fraternity.

Over the summer, Aaron worked as an assistant manager for food operations at the Atlanta Zoo, where he picked up a valuable lesson. “I learned I need a college degree. I realized I would not look forward to doing what I did over the summer as a career. The experience will make me work even harder. I can’t wait to go back to school.”