TOPICS > Education

St. Louis Program Helps Make College More Affordable for Low-Income Students

April 30, 2009 at 12:05 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: You studied business education, you were going to teach business, so how did you end up here?

BRIAN KRUGER: Well interesting story, um, although my degree was in business, my undergraduate degree, I really wanted to teach elementary education. But I knew it was going to take me so many classes to go back and get an elementary education degree, um, I find out its so much less expensive and time consuming to get the business education degree.

So about the time I was assigned to start student teaching, I had it all lined up in my mind I was going to do six, I’m sorry, 8 weeks of student teaching at a well to do, what I would call a well to do public school out in the west county suburbs and I was going to do another 8 weeks at a Catholic high school.

The last place I ever thought about student teaching was Roosevelt High. In the meantime I got a call and this was mid-November, asking me if I was willing to come teach at Roosevelt High? I said, now you understand I don’t have a teaching certification. They said that’s not a problem. We can get you temporarily certified.

So from a teacher’s standpoint I got the best of all worlds. I got a full-time teaching position, I got a full-time paycheck but I got my certification. I’m one of few people who actually got paid to do student teaching, so that’s how I ended up here. I thought I would put in my time and then leave but I came here, fell in love with it and here I am five years later.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were saying when this process starting Roosevelt High was probably the last place you thought you would end up teaching. Why did you think that?

BRIAN KRUGER: There’s so much turmoil in the St. Louis Public Schools at the time. They were talking about another superintendent change, there was infighting between the school board members, the community, the superintendent, the teachers union, the teachers union was talking about going on strike, that was one of the biggest reasons why I really had no desire to teach in the city. I didn’t want to go someplace, start my career and be on the picket line within a week or two.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, and was there something about this school, this area, this geographic area that made you think I’m probably not going to end up there?

BRIAN KRUGER: Well it was further away from home than I thought, but to be honest I didn’t think that I would be a good fit for this urban environment. It is 180 degrees from where I grew up. I grew up small town Nebraska where the only diversity was male/female, young/old, there was you know you didn’t have the nationality, the ethnicity, the color. There was just no diversity so I didn’t know if these students would even react to me, respond to me. I thought I would stick up, stick out like a square peg in a round hole and I just didn’t know if I would fit, but well lo and behold I found out that the, you know the old saying the kids really just want to know that you care about them and that you’re there and they’ve just been wonderful. I just love every one of them.

A job with much more laughter

JUDY WOODRUFF: ÂSo what did happen? I mean you got here and again you were starting to teach and as you said in a very, in an area very different from the place you grew up and have been living, how was it?

BRIAN KRUGER: I tell you the most difficult thing when I came in here was the vocabulary. There were words that my students laugh at me but words that were not in my vocabulary at the time. The students talking about joning. I didn't know what that was. They would talk about their grills. I didn't, when I heard, we used to hear the word grill I would think of something I barbecued on, or I would think of something that uh you know maybe goes on top of your head. Uh, a grill being you know your dome or whatever, but it was just words like that. A new vocabulary. A whole new vocabulary. But uh, what I found out was that I was willing to laugh at myself. The students would laugh right along with me. And I think that was what helped me bond with the students. We laughed together and you probably heard me say it before, I know, I've talked to many people about it, the biggest thing that I've, or one of the biggest things that I've enjoyed about education and about being around youth is, when I was in the business world.

I heard this figure probably about 15 years ago and its never left me, they said the average adult laughs 17 times per day. The average student or child laughs about 300 times per day. And from my informal research being on both sides, I'm absolutely convinced that that is true. And that's why I love the environment at Roosevelt so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell me what you've confronted when you got here. What, what student population are we talking about in this school? What children are here?

BRIAN KRUGER: Um, I'm just guessing, but I believe its probably at least 90% African American. Um, then there's a diversity, everything from Bosnian to Somalis to Hispanic to Caucasian, but um, more and more were seeing the ESOL students and they're refugees from...

JUDY WOODRUFF: English for Speakers of Other Languages...

BRIAN KRUGER: Yeah, absolutely, English as a second language and that has proven to be very challenging for everybody, for the teachers, for the students, but again I know that the students want to learn. I know that they care, and sometimes I think they lose patience, it might be easy for a teacher to lose patience, but as long as everybody's um, works hard and keeps a smile on their face, in the end it turns out very well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Beyond the color of their skin, their ethnicity and where they're from, who are we talking about in terms of what do they bring in terms of advantages to education? How many of them come from families that have been to college? I mean what sort of socio-economic circumstances are we talking about?

BRIAN KRUGER: Um, as you probably know, low income families, the majority of whose parents have not been to college. I know the majority of our students probably from a single income home. Um, I know I have a lot of students whose parent may not be in the picture for any number of reasons. I have a lot of students who live with a grandparent, an aunt and uncle, an older brother, sister. So the home life isn't probably what most of us grew up with or grew up in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how does that affect what they're able to do in school?

BRIAN KRUGER: I think it impacts them in a number of ways. Number one is homework. When I was going to school and I believe when most of us were going to school, there was somebody sitting over the table and making sure they got the homework done before they went to bed. Somebody would say, did you get your homework done? I'm not sure that happened in a lot of cases right now. Same thing in the morning. My mom and dad were always you know whether it was the weekend or whenever they always made sure that there were groceries that we had lunch for or food for lunch and again sadly I don't see that that's always happening.

I think students have to fend for themselves. And sometimes that means running across the street to a Quick Trip or someplace in the morning to try and grab something, some kind of nourishment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To get them started.

BRIAN KRUGER: To get them started, yeah, because so many of our students pull up and when I say pull up, they walk up, run up to school at the last minute. Have not eaten breakfast and you can tell they're just drained. They just don't have the fuel in their system to get going in the morning.

Focusing on college

JUDY WOODRUFF: So when you came here four years ago, uh to work with College Summit, how had you connected with that program? How did you hear about it and what attracted you to it?

BRIAN KRUGER: What attracted me to College Summit, at that time, my oldest daughter was transitioning from being a senior in high school to trying to get into colleges and she went through the whole process we go through in College Summit. She was doing her research, she was applying, she was going after scholarships. She was filling out the FAFSA, and I know how stressful that was for me, for my wife, for my daughter, and my daughters very blessed, my wife and I are very blessed. We had all the tools from the fact that my wife and I have college degrees, my oldest daughter had a high school counselor who had the time to deal with her and help her out where at Roosevelt our counselors spend way too much time dealing with social issues.

So once I saw how hard it was for my daughter to go through that whole process with all the help that she had, a couple parents, high school counselor, then I thought about the Roosevelt students and I thought, they don't have a chance. They don't have a chance. It's not a level playing field. I knew going in it wasn't a level playing field, but it became so obvious to me.

So at that point College Summit came to Roosevelt, they were talking about rolling out the program the next year. They described it and they said are there any volunteers? Any teachers interested in it and um, for a lot of teachers that means one more planning period, one more subject you have to prep for, but for me I practically tackled this lovely young lady named Erica Tyson, because I, I just knew that something I had a passion for and something I felt I had something to contribute.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, and what is it about the College Summit formula that appealed to you and as you learn more about how it works and what it does?

BRIAN KRUGER: I'm probably a very analytical guy. People who know me will laugh and say I'm extremely analytical. But what I love about the College Summit program, it's a process. It's easy to follow.

So we start out at the beginning of the year. We sit down with the students and we do some inventories. As basic as it might sound to you and I, some of them really don't understand what their skills are. They don't understand where some of their interests lie. And I go through all the analogies. I say, I've got all the interest in the world of being a pro football player, but I've never had the skills. And on the flip side I'd say, I've got the skills to be a magnificent plumber, and as we know plumbers can make excellent money, um, but I really don't have the desire. So we start going through that. We match it up with some of their personal values and then we start showing them career choices, career paths. And as I always say, a college is not right for everyone. I mean one single college. But there is I believe a college, a trade school, there is an educational option for everyone and I believe once they start seeing that, they buy into it and they start getting excited. So I said that's the beginning of the process. We take it from there. We find out what's right for them, we help them identify schools, trade schools, the military, we start applying.

Once they start applying and they get those acceptance letters, and they take them home to mom, grandma, auntie, they're so excited, they're so proud. Mom's so proud. They're telling everybody at church on Sunday morning that their son or daughter got this acceptance letter and its a phenomenal thing to watch it, to see it in action. And the scholarships, you can just imagine if they get that excited about um, an acceptance from a college, that scholarship, it just goes beyond words what that can do for a students self-esteem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell me about some of those, say in the beginning, or even more recently when, I mean and give us an example of what you see in, in turning a student, you know somebody who maybe would have gone in another direction but that College Summit has really managed to redirect them and wake them up to new possibilities?

BRIAN KRUGER: I have several students who are absolutely, positively convinced that they could not get into college and they were not even going to try. They have it in their mind because especially some, it tends to be some of the male students, they sometimes get a rough start their freshman or sophomore years of high school. And it takes them maybe till their junior or senior year to get it together. So their grade point average is not where it should be or where they want it to be. And so they're convinced because their grade point average or their test score that they can't get into college. And they've had older brothers and sisters who have not gone, so they just kind of have it in their mind that okay, college is not an option for me, but once they start seeing some of the possibilities, we talk about open enrollment schools.

I bring in some guest speakers who have been in their shoes and they understand, well open enrollment colleges are kind of for the people who like you, that's the message they deliver, that maybe you didn't get your act together when you were a freshman or sophomore, but now, come college, you work hard and good things will happen and we have plenty of success stories to show them its possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you, you see changes in people.

BRIAN KRUGER: Absolutely. Absolutely is see changes in people. As the senior year goes on, its a very exciting time, but I think its also, the students wont want to admit it, but its also kind of a scary time because they do know that come May 18th or whatever graduation date is, they've got to figure out where they go from here.

And most of the students no matter how tough life has been, I think they realize that they want to do better than some of the last years seniors that are not going to college right now. They all say I don't want to end up on the streets like some of the people in my neighborhood. And they know that their parents want them to have a better life. So the light starts coming on for some students early during their senior year but lets say the light glows a little bit more brightly as the year goes on and they start figuring out, okay, I've got to make this happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you again a little bit about the process. There's this book. I'm just going to set up, pick it up, the Navigator that you talked about the process. Getting them from the beginning of the year to the end. Now this is just one example and they write their goals at the beginning of the year. How important is it for them just to, to set out what their goals are as they start this process?

BRIAN KRUGER: Its critical, but the thing that I think is even more important for the goals, I have them write an essay, a two page essay, describe your life 20 years from now as you want it to be. Where are you living? What car are you driving? Do you have a family? What's your occupation? And I said, don't place any limits on it, describe the life, how you would like to be 20 years from now. And so they write that essay. And so then we back up, okay, now how are you going to get there? So we talk about long term goals, being five or more years, we talk about intermediate goals, one to five years and then we talk about short term goals. So what do you have to do between now and August to make all these things happen? Well graduate from high school is the obvious one. Get into college is another. And then we take it through, okay, what are you going to be doing years 1 through 5? That means completing college. That means looking for internships and we walk them through that whole process.

But another part is that after the five year intermediate goal process, they start looking at long term goals, they start realizing that doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, the learning process never stops. And again that's kind of an enlightening moment for them, that if you want to progress and if you want more money and if you want bigger titles, the education is an ongoing journey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's a lesson. A lesson for all of us. The financial aid piece of this, its one thing to get into college. But it costs money to get that higher education. How do these kids, how do you help them deal with that and is there money there truly for all of these kids to go to college?

BRIAN KRUGER: That is a, as you probably know, not an easy question to answer. Is there money available? Absolutely. Is there as much money as you and I would like for there to be? No, there never is. Um, we all know federal government today, they're all talking about the challenging issue. What were finding out is most of our students in St. Louis Public Schools, the, when they do the financial aid forms, the FAFSA or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, when they get that report back, their expected family contribution is typically zero. Meaning that the government and the colleges understand that they have a challenging economic background where mom and dad and, and the students themselves don't have that money to help pay for a significant part of their college education.

So that's part of the process of the Navigator and College Summit. We walk them through what are loans, what are grants, and as you may know there are so many different kinds of grants today, there are so many different kinds of loans it can get overwhelming, so we have to help them understand what those are all about. What are the ones, and again our students I think have had enough exposure to debt issues in their own, life, whether its credit card debt or over siblings who maybe got tied up in a car loan that was bad. They're now very much I think they're further ahead than they were five years ago. They're looking at these loans and they're starting to understand, okay, I've got to ask about the interest rate. I've got to ask about when do I start paying back on that loan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Has the recession changed this process?

BRIAN KRUGER: It sure has. From one standpoint I don't know that its impacted the parents as much as it has the students. Our parents have always had issues in many cases, finding jobs, sustaining jobs, many parents live off part-time jobs. But the one thing I really notice with this recession is my students have become pretty discouraged looking for work.

I've got a lot of students who are very responsible students, they're very bright students, very energetic, hardworking who I would, I would love to help them find that job and its really, really hard right now because as you know a lot of these part time jobs that used to be available to our students, those are being absorbed by moms and dads who have lost their fulltime job, now they're taking those minimum wage part-time jobs. So our students want to do the right thing, they want to get their money for college so they can go out on a date while they're in college, buy the laptop, they want that extra spending money, but they are really having a tough time right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ÂÂÂÂSo is it the case that every student who gets accepted somewhere will one way or another there will be money there for that student to go or not?

BRIAN KRUGER: I wish I could say that in every case there's going to be money, but in most cases, in many cases there is a gap, even after they've taken advantage of the grants, and the loans, sometimes uh, it could be a, a private equity loan from a bank or something like that, but again that's pretty hard for our students to come by.

Many students start out and I intentionally bring a lot of different options to the table, like guest speakers. Small schools, large schools, public schools, private schools. We have some private schools who come speak to our students and as you can imagine they're very costly universities. And in some cases our students, I want to say you know strike it rich and they get literally 100% of their education paid for at these schools. But that's not always the case certainly. But our students still sometimes fall in love with these more expensive schools and they get very excited about these schools, so those schools might offer them $10,000, $15,000 a year and the students get all excited because that is a lot of money but as you know by the student pays tuition, room and board there is still that gap. And they don't get enough grants or loans to cover that, so they still have to either find ways to come up with that money or go down, I don't want to say down to, they have to probably start looking at other options. Mainly public universities. Sometimes its a two year school just to meet their, their budget, their personal budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other think you mentioned was um, or we touched on was the grants and the loans. How much harder is it to get those in this recession?

BRIAN KRUGER: You know the funny thing on that is when the college speakers, the guest speakers come in here and I get most of my research from talking to them, the admissions representatives who come from the colleges, they will freely admit that its tough... They confirm what I've read in the papers that these universities, they face the same thing that we face in our own personal life. Their endowments have gone down, they are fighting to get donors to contribute the same amounts of money that they have in the past, so they are having to work harder and harder to come up with the money to fund all the scholarships, all the grants, all the needs. So as more and more students sometimes, especially at the less expensive colleges, as more people apply colleges I know are having a hard time trying to maintain the level of grants and scholarships that they've given out in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So for your, . . .

BRIAN KRUGER: Yeah, so for our students absolutely see that. It absolutely has an impact on them.

Helping kids grow up

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's see. Just from a standpoint of watching these kids up close day in and day out, how does it make you feel personally to feel you know be dealing with them and be in their lives and have them relying on you?

BRIAN KRUGER: Um, five years or so ago when I made the transition from the business world to being a teacher, all my friends, family, people who knew me, knew that I took a tremendous financial hit to do that, which is not a big deal. I'm not asking for anybody's sympathy but um, I had people use the word, you're a hero. You're going to inner city and teaching these kids, helping them. And I thought about that and I just laughed. Um, nothing can be further than the truth.

When I started thinking about it, the heroes in my life right now are these kids. Once I got to really understand what they're going through, they are my heroes. I mean that sincerely. The things that they have to go through, I don't know that I would have had the guts, the courage, the fortitude, the strength to deal with what they have to deal with on a day to day basis. So they come up here to school, maybe they haven't been fed, they're hungry, they're tired, there are problems going on in their personal world. They've got to suck it up and they do and they get it done. And in spite of that cause I said, they always smile, they always try to smile. They have a sense of humor, and they're fighting in many cases, fighting like heck to get it done to have a better life, so they are the ones that I really admire. I really do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in a school system that is seeing a uh, a disappearance of many families taking their kids out of the school system, leaving the public schools here with less resources.

BRIAN KRUGER: Yes, absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just this notion of the public, its as if the public school system is being left by so many.

BRIAN KRUGER: Right. You can look at that I believe as the glass is half empty or the glass if half full. I know that Mr. Houston, our principal, I know that most of the teachers, I know the students, in some ways it creates this resolve that were going to prove those people wrong. We're going to get this turned around. We can do this. There's a tremendous amount of strength that comes from adversity. And again, sometimes I look at the students and I'm just amazed at what they're able to do. They want to prove people wrong and they want to prove to people that they can accomplish great things. A

s I've said before, I know when I first came here five years ago, colleges were not beating a path to Roosevelt's door. They weren't trying to recruit our students if you will. Within the past year especially I have college admissions people calling me saying we want some of your kids. Who can we get? I feel like college football recruiters who are coming to me, because they want to drive the numbers. They want to help these kids. They want to drive the, the um, diversity within their own college and universities so they're saying, who are your good kids? Truman University, Truman State in, I'm sorry in Kirksville, Missouri, is the most difficult public school in the state of Missouri to get into. Prior to last year I am only aware of one student in the last five years, one Roosevelt student who got into Truman State and they got there on a football, on their football abilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I got the first part and you were saying, . . .before last year what?

BRIAN KRUGER: Right, so Truman State, difficult school to get into, the only Roosevelt student I know who had gotten into Truman got in based on their athletic abilities playing football. Last year I worked with an admissions rep at Truman State. And they got to know him, he got to know me, he came to Roosevelt, it really opened his eyes that these kids are bright kids. Their ACT scores might not reflect it so much, their grade point average might not reflect it so much, but he saw they're polite, they're enthusiastic, they're energetic. He saw the desire that they have.

So last year five of our students got accepted to Truman State. The most difficult school to get into. Public school to get into in the state of Missouri. This year I had a similar thing, St. Louis University, a great public, I'm sorry, a great private university. I started talking to their admission people. They targeted one of my students and they've gone, I mean they've bent over backwards to get him into their university, get him the scholarships he needs so he will be going to St. Louis University next year. Its a wonderful story, wonderful opportunity

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two quick comments about the students we were talking to, Shirley Petty and Zebedee Williams. Tell me just in a thumbnail how both of them are doing and what you see for them?

BRIAN KRUGER: Oh, talk about two students I absolutely love. I had Zebedee in class two years ago. He's a football player. Sometimes people think, okay, football player, he must be cocky, arrogant, must walk around with a swagger. Nothing can be further from the truth with Zebedee. Modest, humble, polite, respectful, again I don't know that he knew how to get into college. I don't believe that he did, but talk about being a sponge. He is always willing, he always listens, he's always respectful, he always wants to do better. He'll do great in life. I'm confident because he is so humble, so modest.

Shirley Petty, again another bright lady, one of the funniest people I know, always has a smile, always cheerful, same kind of thing. She just has a great outgoing personality, always willing to help her peers, always asks me how I'm doing, always want to make sure that everybody's okay. She just lights up a room when she walks in. And I have a feeling that any college she goes to they're going to count their blessings that Shirley Petty's on their campus. She's just that kind of individual.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last thing I want to ask you is kids who graduated since you came here, have you been in touch with any of them? Have they come back? Have you been able to maintain connection, relationship, contact with them?

BRIAN KRUGER: Yeah, again as a teacher that's one of the most gratifying things in the world. When I got to a Roosevelt football game on a Saturday afternoon, these students will come up and hug me and you know that's, that's worth more than a paycheck, right? And I know just this past week a young lady from University of Missouri, Kansas City, a former College Summit peer leader named Kira Caldwell called me up, said Mr. Kruger, Mr. Kruger, Id love to come back to talk to your students. And I said, Kira, Id love to have you come back to talk to my students. And so we started this you know on the phone, I asked her about her first year at college. She started talking about the highs, the lows, you know the roommate thing being the low, but she was just so excited about finishing her first year of college. She was so, she said so well prepared because of College Summit. She said she knew how to write papers, she said that she now has an internship, a job this summer where she's going to be helping disadvantaged people and even adults put together resumes and she learned how to do that in College Summit.

So there are absolutely some powerful marketing tools, skills that they learn in College Summit and as I said, I was just thrilled how confident and how mature, I was you know proud as a father when she called me up and told me how she was doing and that she wanted to come back to Roosevelt and give back to this years class of 2009. And I have other stories like that where students, alumni, just a year out of school are just really, really appreciative of what this school, and what College Summit did for them and they're willing to come back and help.