The College Challenge revisited: Support, perseverance are key

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Brooke Ray

Brooke Ray

What does it take to get a college education? Six years ago, Catalyst Chicago began to examine that complex question in “The College Challenge,” a series of periodic reports on the struggles of nine black and Latino students from Chicago Public Schools who were aiming to earn a college degree.

Associate Editor Debra Williams profiled the nine as they coped with the myriad challenges of making the transition from high school to college: difficulty finding financial aid, inadequate academic preparation and social adjustment.

Since 2001, the district has taken steps to boost college admissions, creating a Department of Postsecondary Education and dispatching college coaches to a dozen schools to motivate students to apply for postsecondary education and help them through the process. Earlier this year, the district released data showing that college attendance now stands at 48 percent. (See “College-going rates inch higher,” May 2007.)

Yet once in college, students face a tougher hurdle: graduation. Just 45 percent of CPS graduates who enroll in a four-year college end up with a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 64 percent nationally, according to a 2006 study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

With this report, Catalyst checks in with five of the nine students to find out whether they graduated and if so, what made the difference in helping them surmount the hurdles. Although the students Catalyst was able to locate and interview each stressed that hard work and perseverance were important to their success, another critical factor emerged: support from outside, whether from a parent, a high-school mentor or the university they attended.

 

Brooke Ray:

Hard work pays off

 

Then: After graduating from Orr High School in Humboldt Park, Brooke Ray was accepted to her dream college: the University of Southern California. But the transition to college was a shock. Though she had been Orr’s valedictorian, Ray struggled in college, and her freshman GPA fell to 2.8. Finding the money was a struggle, too. She had financial aid, took out loans and got support from her mother, but still had to take part-time jobs to pay the hefty $36,000 annual tuition, room and board.

Now: Despite the heavy financial burden, Ray graduated from the University of Southern California in 2005 with a major in international relations and a minor in business. Although her high school classes did not prepare her for university-level work, Ray maintained a B-average GPA by studying hard and asking for help from her professors and teaching assistants.

Ray also says she relied on the emotional support of her high school teachers and administrators to keep going when things got rough. “I think attending Orr High School was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “There are people that believed in me and what I could accomplish.”

Hard work in the real world and skills she learned in an after-school program also paid off.

Ray says she had to work two or three jobs at a time to pay her bills, including stints in USC’s admissions office and architecture department and outside jobs in modeling and event planning. “It was hard to find an academic balance as well as work and have a social life,” she says.

But after graduation, a full resume and the connections she made through employers and the USC alumni association quickly led to a job she loves: director of product development for eForce Media, Inc., a marketing company. Ray manages the design and marketing of the company’s Web site using skills she learned in high school and college.

Ray first learned about Web design through Tech 37, a city-sponsored after-school program that teaches high school juniors and seniors to troubleshoot computer equipment, use new technology and create “Webliographies” to help people find information on the Internet. She saw the program as a link to her future. “I knew that computers interested me. I knew that there would be a life in technology and there would be a demand for it.”

In January, Ray will begin classes for computer programming and Web design to continue to build her skills. Ultimately, she wants to start a marketing company to build Web sites for small businesses, a dream she has had since high school. “I was always a business-minded person and I always knew I would own my own business one day,” she says.

Now, Ray encourages other CPS students to do what she did: Get a job as soon as possible and start learning about potential careers. The part-time jobs she held and the connections she made through them taught her more than she learned in the classroom, she says. “It’s life experiences and interactions that prepare you for the real world.”

 

Vernon Payne:

Art, tough love light a spark

 

Then: Vernon Payne had little academic direction as a student at Morgan Park High School. He was a talented artist but a mediocre student who admitted he did only enough schoolwork to get by. Recognizing his talent, his family and teachers encouraged him to enroll at Columbia College—known for its arts programs—to study fine art. At first, he was disorganized and rarely showed up for class. When Catalyst last spoke with him in 2002, he vowed to make school a priority.

Now: Although he had a rocky start, Payne graduated from Columbia College in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.

Freshman year and the beginning of his sophomore year were the toughest, Payne says. “That’s when I had my worst grades. But eventually I got the hang of college life.”

The second semester of his freshman year, Payne rarely showed up for class and ended up failing the only two classes he was taking. He says anxiety kept him from concentrating and admits he had poor organizational skills.

But pressure from family, friends and teachers to do better helped get him on track. And his mother ended up laying down the law: She said she would no longer pay for his education if he didn’t try harder.

He considered dropping out and returning to school later. But if he did, his mother, who was footing his tuition, told him he would have to pay her back for the classes he had failed before she would help pay his tuition in the future.

The threat worked. Payne got organized and studied hard. Ultimately, he graduated with a 2.9 GPA.

“I didn’t believe in myself, especially in the beginning,” he says.

(Students at Columbia College, an open-admissions school in the South Loop, often lack the academic background needed to succeed at a more competitive institution. The school offers programs to help freshmen who need an extra boost, including the Conaway Achievement Project for students who are first-generation college students, come from low-income families or are disabled; and the Bridge summer program for incoming freshmen who lack the academic skills needed for college work.)

Once he committed to school, Payne took classes in everything from performance art to ceramics. He discovered a passion for printmaking and painting and developed confidence in himself.

“I had an identity crisis because I didn’t know who I was,” he says. “The whole experience of college helped me realize who I really am.”

While still a student, Payne started working at an art supply and frame store in Morgan Park. He is now a manager and loves his job. “I order, I frame, I do it all. I worked my way up from the bottom all the way up,” he says proudly.

Payne has set up a Web site to sell his artwork, www.vernonpayne.com. He also has plans to launch his own business, an online art supply store. Down the road, he hopes to pursue a graduate degree in art.

His advice to other students: Work hard. “You got to want it,” Payne says. “If you don’t want it, it’s not going to come to you.”

 

Adam Ramirez:

What he didn’t learn in college

 

Then: In 2002, Adam Ramirez was a senior at Roosevelt University earning top grades and about to earn a degree in elementary education—a substantial accomplishment after struggling at Hubbard High in West Lawn. Despite low grades and a low ACT score, the Scholars Teach and Reach (STAR) scholarship program for aspiring teachers took a chance on him. STAR provides financial aid and mentoring for students, and the support paid off: Ramirez became a model college student—STAR requires students to maintain at least a 3.25 GPA each year, but Ramirez had a 3.8 upon graduation—and was a volunteer at Pulaski Elementary in Logan Square.

Now: After graduating in 2003, Ramirez is now living his longtime dream: He’s teaching 7th- and 8th-grade math and 8th-grade reading at Eberhart Elementary in Chicago Lawn, where he started in 2004.

But after several years in the classroom, Ramirez says flat-out, “I don’t think any school prepares you for the actual teaching experience [and] the issues these kids are bringing into the classroom,” he says, noting that his students have dealt with significant problems such as abuse and rape.

“How do I expect these kids to learn how to add integers when they’re going through so much personal trauma inside?” he adds.

Ramirez says he achieved success in college, despite poor preparation in high school, because he discovered his ethnic identity as a Native American. “I joined ethnic dancing and from that I met many people connected to their roots,” he says. “I found who I was as an indigenous person and that made all the difference in the world.”

Now, Ramirez advises high school students to study their ancestry, like he did, to find the self-awareness they need to succeed. “If you don’t know your past, you’re not going to know your future,” he says.

In October, an Eberhart student was murdered and Ramirez turned to his Native American roots to help students cope. He used the tradition of “talking circles” to allow students to discuss the loss and the consequences of decision-making. He also read to them from “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way,” a book by writer and former East Los Angeles gang member Luis Rodriguez on the devastating consequences of gang violence and the importance of making good choices.

Ramirez says he has been disappointed because of a perceived lack of compassion for students among his colleagues. “My goal was to keep these kids out of gangs,” he says. “I was so enthusiastic. But now that dream is just dying. The teachers around me are killing that spirit.”

His answer to that challenge is to pursue a graduate degree in school administration. Then, Ramirez says, he’ll have more power to fix a school by hiring teachers who care about the kids and by implementing a Native American approach to discipline that is similar to the concept of restorative justice—asking kids to make restitution when they do something wrong instead of kicking them out of school via suspension or expulsion.

Even with the difficulties, Ramirez has never considered quitting his job. “When I was going to school, I would often ask myself what I would do if I wasn’t teaching,” he says. “And I still can’t answer that question. I have to keep teaching.”

 

Ana Salinas:

A role model for students

 

Then: At Juarez High School in Pilsen, Ana Salinas earned good grades and took Advanced Placement classes. So it came as a big surprise to her when she failed a pre-calculus class during her first semester at Loyola University and then had to take a remedial math course. Despite inadequate preparation in high school, Salinas had a passion for numbers and was determined to succeed. With support and hard work, she got good grades—even in math.

Now: Today, Ana Salinas teaches math to 7th-graders at Ruiz Elementary in Pilsen, the same grammar school she attended. She is now working toward a master’s degree in bilingual education and plans to earn a master’s degree in mathematics. Both degrees will make her a hot commodity in the teaching field.

Salinas, who graduated from Loyola University with a 3.0 GPA in 2003, earned a bachelor’s degree in education with a concentration in mathematics. Support from her mother and former teachers (who had encouraged her to pursue a teaching career) kept Salinas on track personally as well as academically.

“I kept talking to my old teachers from high school,” says Salinas, who thought at times that she might not be smart enough to graduate. “It kept inspiring me to complete my studies.”

One of those teachers is Dana Butler, now principal of Ruiz Elementary.

“We see people from all walks of life [become teachers], but I think it’s an added bonus when you can have someone from your own community,” Butler says. Salinas’ success shows the students that a college diploma is achievable for them, too.

Salinas sees herself as a role model for students, but the transition from Ruiz student to Ruiz teacher has been difficult. Although her former teachers now are peers, Salinas is hesitant to call them by their first names. “I still feel like a student,” she says.

Ruiz teachers, however, have had no difficulty accepting Salinas as a colleague. Theresa Kevorkian, an 8th-grade teacher, says she is thrilled to see Salinas grow from an insightful teenager into a talented educator.

“She’s an amazing math teacher,” Kevorkian says. “She knows how to break it down—she’s effective. The kids are focused, she gives them a real strong foundation and they end up really understanding the language of math.”

Salinas says her difficulties with math in college made her a better teacher. “I did struggle, and I saw what did work for me, and that’s what I work into my classroom,” she says. “I’m one of those visual learners. You have to show me. I have to understand the reasons behind it. And that’s how I teach my students.”

Salinas is earning a master’s in bilingual education from Concordia University, where she maintains a 4.0 GPA and is scheduled to graduate in December. She plans to apply to the Illinois Institute of Technology to earn another master’s in mathematics. She also wants to write children’s math books.

“When I first started teaching, I thought that was it—I was done,” Salinas says. “I still love teaching, but I feel that I need to do more.”

 

Danielle Dungey:

Career exposure would have helped

 

Then: When Catalyst last spoke with Dannielle Dungey in 2002, she was in her third year at Northern Illinois University, wondering whether she should have chosen another major besides history. The prospect of higher pay lured her to consider other careers—she planned to become a teacher—but she worried that changing that plan would mean losing her grants and scholarships. “I wish I could have been exposed to other careers,” she says now. “There are so many careers out there I didn’t even know about.”

Now: Dungey ultimately stuck with her major, and her decision to become a teacher, because she already had dedicated so much time and money to that career path. In 2004, she graduated from NIU with her teacher’s certification as well as her bachelor’s degree.

By the time she began having doubts about her career path, Dungey says, “I was already a junior and had already started my [major] program and I just didn’t want to quit. There were so many people who had invested in me.”

Outside support, from peers and adult mentors, made a critical difference for Dungey. The Golden Apple Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships for teachers, created a support system for her. “It helped me network and meet people, like other scholars,” she says.

While Golden Apple provided emotional support, Dungey knew to reach out to get the academic support she needed at NIU. Whenever Dungey struggled, she went to the university’s writing center to have her papers proofread, or made an appointment to talk with her professors.

Dungey now is teaching history to juniors and seniors at Eisenhower High School in south suburban Blue Island. She felt academically prepared for teaching, and remembered from her own high school classes what made learning fun. But she wasn’t ready for the challenge of teaching unmotivated students.

Dungey says she tries to inspire her students and give them the same passion for education that she had by offering extra-credit options and giving a motivational speech at the end of each class. “If you’re not smiling, I encourage you to put a smile on your face. Live every day to the fullest with no regrets. And always remember life is what you make of it,” she says.

It’s also her job, Dungey says, to prepare her students for college by teaching them to be responsible. For one, she does not accept late assignments. “I tell them I do this because when you go to college, professors aren’t going to go to your dorm and knock on your door to ask if you’re coming to class,” she says.

Beyond the classroom, Dungey assists students who want to go to college the same way her high school teachers helped her: by nominating them for scholarships.

Dungey also has earned a master’s degree in school leadership from Concordia University. She wants to become a dean of discipline and sees it as a way to work in educational policy while still inspiring young people.

“There’s always a good and a bad choice, and the choices you make affect you,” Dungey says. “I want them to understand that there are consequences to everything they do.”

She also wants students to understand that there is potential in everything, too. “I’d love it if they remembered, 20 to 30 years from now, everything I taught them about history,” Dungey says. “But if they don’t remember anything else, I want them to remember they can do anything if they want to.”