TOPICS > Education

Year-Round School Commits to Students from Middle School to Last Day of College

August 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Rainier Scholars, a Seattle non-profit, is trying to curb high school drop out rates. Taking the long-term approach, they identify students with high barriers to higher education and ask them -- some as young as 10 -- to commit not just to finishing high school, but to graduating from college. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Now the second in a pair of stories about efforts to keep students from losing ground over the summer.

Last night, we looked at a Rhode Island school district’s attempts to close the achievement gap between rich and poor.

Tonight, we head across the country to Seattle. A nonprofit group there runs a year-round program which aims even higher: to college graduation.

Our report is part of our American Graduate series, and we turn again to Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As summer draws to close in a Seattle, roughly 50,000 K-12 students across the city are ending vacations and preparing to head back into classrooms.

But for 13-year-old Saymirah Cornelius-McClam, the change of season will mean little. Lately, summer school has been part of her life.

The soon-to-be eighth grader is a member of Rainier Scholars, a year-round enrichment program that accepts 60 to 65 highly motivated low-income minority students annually from almost 600 applications.

The young scholars are first recruited in the fifth grade, and each one selected makes a commitment to graduate not only from high school, but also from college.

It all starts with two years of full-time summer school, and weekend classes, and continues with ongoing academic support and leadership training throughout the program.

Saymirah knew her workload would increase dramatically when she was accepted two years ago.

SAYMIRAH CORNELIUS-MCCLAM, Rainier Scholars: I was really excited. And I screamed really loud. And my mom was really happy and stuff, so everything was very exciting that day.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That reaction might seem odd for most teenagers, but not for someone who signed up to spend her summer nights like this.

SAYMIRAH CORNELIUS-MCCLAM: Tonight, for homework, I have in literature two chapters in “The Odyssey,” which is about 30 pages. We have to revise an extract for “The Odyssey.” And then, for math, we have two worksheets front and back.

And for science, we have to read a packet, answer questions about it. And then for Invictus, we have to read an article. And for social studies, we have to read about 30 pages.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finding minority students with that type of ambition and giving them the tools to succeed was the dream of Rainier Scholars founder Bob Hurlbut.

A former businessman with no previous experience in education, Hurlbut started the nonprofit in 2000, with the hope of one day seeing more diversity on college campuses.

BOB HURLBUT, Rainier Scholars: There are in our country the haves and the have-notes. And I think I’m always a person who is rooting for the have-notes. And then you can root for them and you can be sympathetic for folks, but the question is, how do you actually help? How do you change the course of the river in an individual’s life or in a community’s life?

And one of the things that I was stuck with was just the reality of education.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hurlbut realized a strong support system was necessary early and often for kids who come from low-income backgrounds, and he hired several educators to help get his vision off the ground.

That vision has become one of the most effective programs of its kind, says Helen Janc Malone of Harvard University, who studied year-round enrichment offerings around the country.

HELEN JANC MALONE, Harvard University: Rainier Scholars is definitely one example that we looked at, because they’re a great example of a cohort model.

So, they take students in low-resource areas, and they really take them from the fifth grade all the way until college. And in the first few years, they intensely focus on academic preparation and making sure that kids are on par and achieving at the grade level or even above of where they should be.

And over the course of 14 months that they run the first phase of their program, children receive between 1,800 and 2,100 extra additional hours of learning. That is very significant.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Today, 430 students of color are participating in Rainier Scholars, which survives on private funding and other donations, but takes no government funds.

It takes an estimated $40,000 per child to cover costs that include things like transportation, teachers’ salaries and additional staff for tutoring, mentoring and support over the course of the program. On top of economic disadvantages, most of the students come from families where no one has ever earned a college degree.

Those are twin hurdles that are often cited by education experts as the reasons for the so-called achievement gap between poorer and wealthier students and why many less-advantaged students eventually drop out of high school.

A study last year by the RAND Corporation and the Wallace Foundation showed the achievement gap can grow substantially during the summer, because low-income students are disproportionately affected by what experts call learning loss, or what kid forget in between school years.

But Rainier Scholars aims to not only prevent loss, but to move students forward over the summer. And it begins in classrooms like Drego Little’s.

DREGO LITTLE, teacher: Dark blood spurted from his nostrils.

(LAUGHTER)

DREGO LITTLE: Why are you guys laughing at that?

(LAUGHTER)

DREGO LITTLE: See, see, see, see, see? That’s too much TV right there. You are desensitized.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Little says his approach to teaching is a simple one.

DREGO LITTLE: When I look at one of my Latinas, for example, I treat her as though she is going to be my I would say grandchild’s pediatrician, or when I look at one of our black American boys, I try and educate him as though he were going to be my city council person.

I try to treat them as though they are going to be consequential people, and we work back from there. And I find that if you treat them like they actually have a future, they tend to have one.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And listening to the goals of students here, there is clearly no shortage of ambition.

PABLO SANTIAGO-BENITEZ, Rainier Scholars: When I grow up, I want to be a herpetologist, because I want to study reptiles and amphibians.

JASMINE ALVARADO, Rainier Scholars: I want to be a toy engineer and technology engineer, and I’m going to have to go to MIT.

NAPOLEON LEE, Rainier Scholars: I want to be a chemical engineer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And by giving students a set of expectations early in their lives, Rainier Scholars executive director Sarah Smith says year-round enrichment programs play an important role to keeping kids in school.

SARAH SMITH, Rainier Scholars: I absolutely think our work fits into the bigger-picture issue of reducing the dropout rate.

And the flip side of reducing the dropout rate is accelerating the achievement rate.

We are identifying students very early on. And depending on what study you read, you can see studies that say by eighth grade there’s predictive factors that determine dropout/college matriculation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But what separates this program is that it lasts until the last day of college. That day is not too far away for one of the original Rainier Scholar, Kainoa King, who is a senior music major at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

King says the program helped him land an internship at a film production company in Seattle this summer and was particularly instrumental in helping him transition from high school to college.

KAINOA KING, Rainier Scholars: They do send care packages. They send food sometimes and little cards and things like that. And it always reminds you that they’re there.

And I think by the time that you get to college, it’s — you know, Rainier Scholars has been such a huge part of your academic life, that even though they’re not there all the time, it still doesn’t seem like they’re not there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the 11 years since the Rainier Scholars program began, the program’s own report card has been stellar. The first three cohorts that have finished high school have done so with a 100 percent graduation and college admissions rate.

Hurlbut admits that his organization has been accused of creaming the crop by accepting only minority students at the top of the class or those who are already proficient at required subjects like math, reading and science. But he says those criticisms are unfair.

BOB HURLBUT: We are taking a lot of average kids, a lot of students. We have students who represent the top 40 percent. But what you are looking for, when we’re recruiting students, you’re looking for those students with the most barriers to college, whether that be family education or just financial.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And the family element is a major factor in recruitment, with the most successful students often having mothers or fathers with regrets about their own education.

Saymirah mother, Shameka Cornelius, is one such parent. She finished high school, but dropped out of college after becoming pregnant with her daughter.

SHAMEKA CORNELIUS, mother: Whatever it takes to get this done and for her to be successful, that’s what I want to do, because I didn’t have these opportunities. I was good at school. I just didn’t care.

That was my bad choice. And so because of the bad choices I made, I don’t want my kids making the same decisions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For Saymirah, who hopes to one day become a forensic scientist, she says her life would be much different if she had not been accepted into the program.

SAYMIRAH CORNELIUS-MCCLAM: Without this help that I’m getting now, I probably would be totally confused in a couple of years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And Hurlbut says if Rainier Scholars continues to do its job, Saymirah will able to become whatever she wants even if her career plans change along the way.

GWEN IFILL: American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. You can watch extended interviews with some of the young scholars in Seattle online.