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In St. Louis, Efforts To Help Low Income Students Go A Long Way

April 30, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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The last of this week's coverage from St. Louis examines education in the region. Judy Woodruff looks at a group's efforts to make college a reality for low-income students in the midst of the economic downturn.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, two reports from St. Louis, the final in our spotlight city series. Tonight, education.

I was there last week and profiled a group trying to make college a reality for inner-city students in the midst of the economic downturn.

The sun is not yet up in north St. Louis when 19-year-old Zebedee Williams starts his day at 4 a.m.

Given Williams’ story, he’s not someone you’d expect to have college as a realistic goal. His father wasn’t present in his life, and his mother has been out of work for two years. Williams takes a 90-minute bus ride to high school, where he’s a senior. It’s a struggle for him to come up with the $3 fare.

And until recently, the school he attends, Roosevelt High, struggled with gangs, poor attendance, and little discipline. Its problems weren’t unique among St. Louis schools.

Over the past several decades, St. Louis families have increasingly abandoned the public schools here, moving their children to county schools, to parochial and private schools, and to charter schools that draw per-pupil dollars from the public school system. In recent years, those moves have accelerated.

Steve Giegerich has covered local education for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He says the children who remain in the public system come from the neediest of backgrounds.

STEVE GIEGERICH, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Poverty, lack of health care, crime, violence, drugs, parental neglect, you name it. Every hallmark of poverty that you could name is what we’re dealing with, with a lot of these kids.

And it’s not that these kids are bad kids. They just don’t know how to get from A and — if college is Z — to get to Z. It’s not ingrained in them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Zebedee Williams, whose long days include football and band practice, is planning on making it to college.

ZEBEDEE WILLIAMS, student: Knowing that I’m going to go to college is like — it’s putting me on another level, because, you know, I feel like I can become anything I want to be.

It seems like everybody’s starting to look up to me now, because I’m doing things that my family hasn’t done. And it makes me feel like I’m actually, like, putting my print in history right now.

Group finds talented students

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of credit goes to the College Summit organization for finding and guiding kids like Williams.

BRIAN KRUGER, College Summit teacher, Roosevelt High: Only kids with near-perfect grades win scholarships. Talk it within your group. Is that fact or fiction and why?

STUDENT: Fiction!

JUDY WOODRUFF: College Summit partners with low-income schools and districts to boost post-secondary enrollment by creating a college-going culture. Brian Kruger is the lead College Summit teacher at Roosevelt High.

BRIAN KRUGER: Do you think you have to be a dreamer to accomplish great things?

STUDENT: I think that, before something happens, you have to actually know, like, have a vision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He teaches everything from how to dream to how to figure out which loans to apply for once they're accepted into college.

BRIAN KRUGER: What is the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans?

STUDENT: Subsidized loans are loans like where you don't have to pay interest on them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: College Summit operates in 13 states and 160 schools. And since 2006, it's been in most St. Louis public high schools. Stacy Clay is executive director of the College Summit program here.

STACY CLAY, executive director, College Summit St. Louis: It is far more challenging for these families to send students to college. Certainly, the financial resources aren't often there. Many of them have not gone, may never have set foot on a college campus, so the process is very foreign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The class navigates students through the process with computers, textbooks, practice applications, and even deadline lists.

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.

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 like you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Besides using teachers, College Summit targets and trains students, or peer influencers, like Williams, to guide their classmates through the college process.

STUDENT: What have you not done? Do they have your ACTs?

STUDENT: Uh-huh, I ain't do that.

Principal turns school around

JUDY WOODRUFF: Roosevelt High was also helped immensely by the turnaround engineered by no-nonsense Principal Terry Houston. He started three years ago and combines serious discipline with love for his students.

TERRY HOUSTON, principal, Roosevelt High: OK. OK. Just wanting to make sure everything all right. You OK?

STUDENT: Yes, I'm straight.

TERRY HOUSTON: Staying out of trouble?

STUDENT: Yes.

TERRY HOUSTON: We really push these kids to take advantage of the education, because you want to do something with your life. And nobody can blame you for where you come from, but you can be accountable for where you're going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And since Houston came, the students have more options for their future. Gang activity is down, test scores are up, and more kids are getting into college.

That's particularly significant in this city, where the unemployment rate is over 9 percent. Nationally, unemployment is twice as high for those without a college degree.

With more parents out of work, in St. Louis and around the country, Kruger's students face more competition to get money for school. Applications for federal student aid have jumped more than 20 percent from this time last year.

BRIAN KRUGER: Endowments have gone down. They are fighting to get donors to contribute the same amounts of money 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. 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: Student Shirley Petty, another of the peer leaders at Roosevelt, who's also campaigning for prom queen, has been accepted at five schools.

SHIRLEY PETTY, student: I didn't really think to go to college, but around my junior year in high school, I started getting college visits and college representatives coming to the school and talk to us.

And a lot of teachers, they were coming to me, talking to me all the time, saying that I would be great in college, I'd be great in college. And in my community, a lot of the children from high school, they don't go to college.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With a 3.3 grade point average, she'll be the first in her family to aim for a college degree.

ANGELIA PETTY, mother: This experience is going to be -- it's going to be life-changing for her. She'll be able to give her children things, an experience that Willie and I wasn't able to give to her. I'm glad that she'll be able to step up one. Instead of stepping back, she'll step up. It just makes me -- I'm proud.

Financing a college education

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shirley Petty plans to major in culinary arts at Sullivan University in Kentucky, but still isn't sure how she'll pay for it.

WILLIE PETTY, father: All right, going to head out, get back to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Her dad, Willie Petty, is a housing subcontractor, and his business is down 60 percent from what it was a year ago.

WILLIE PETTY: We will help as much as we can, but if she really wants to do it, you know, she'll get into programs where they have jobs, and they've got grants, and they've got, you know, partial scholarships.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shirley Petty also plans to get a job to help defray some of the costs. It's a question many families are grappling with, as the cost of tuition continues to rise at a rate of about 6 percent a year for a four-year college.

Three hundred students, parents, and administrators came to hear what the new administration would do to help at Vice President Biden's town hall meeting at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, in mid-April.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: College is getting harder and harder to afford, and it's our objective to change that. Everybody knows that the single best ticket to the middle class is a good education, an education beyond high school. That's how people get better jobs. It's just a fact. It's a new world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The administration's plan would increase Pell Grants for the most needy students to $5,500 by 2010, the largest increase in a quarter century. It also aims to simplify the financial aid application process and cut out private lenders as middlemen for student loans.

Many were pleased with the administration's plan, but some had their doubts about it. Single mom Wendi Elmore.

WENDI ELMORE, single mom: I don't think that it'll ever be enough unless they just stop increasing, you know, tuition and things like that. But I definitely believe that it will assist parents and students. College is not affordable; I have to make a lot of sacrifices to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Brian Kruger knows for his students, most low-income, their sacrifices won't be enough.

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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Zebedee Williams has been accepted to two colleges, but he's still not sure how he'd pay for it. He was laid off from his after-school job last week and is pinning his hopes on more grants and scholarships to come through in the summer months. If he can make it to college, he wants to help others.

ZEBEDEE WILLIAMS: If I could give back to the community like that, it would like, you know, make me feel better and help out the community that I came from.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's one of the things that keeps Kruger going.

BRIAN KRUGER: The heroes in my life right now are these kids. 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. And they're fighting, in many cases, fighting like heck to get it done, to have a better life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two hundred and fifty of the 280 seniors here at Roosevelt High School are accepted into colleges this fall, but a number won't make it because they don't have the money.

Town hall meeting on education

JUDY WOODRUFF: Solving problems in the public schools was one issue raised in Gwen Ifill's town hall meeting in St. Louis earlier this week. Here's an excerpt.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'm an attorney that deals with special education and educational issues here in the St. Louis area, and I'm curious to hear the panel's thoughts about whether you believe this administration is going to make some real changes in how public schools are administered throughout the United States, moving away from things like No Child Left Behind, more toward standards where children really will be learning in the public schools.

GWEN IFILL: Chris Krehmeyer?

CHRIS KREHMEYER, community activist: Again, I think that the language is everyone wants to see public education get better. I have not heard a remarkable number of new things coming out of the administration.

Again, I'll go back to my earlier point about linking strength of family, strength of neighborhoods. We can do everything we want inside the four walls of those school buildings, but unless we're dealing with the weight of poverty, the struggles that neighborhoods face each and every day, everything else we do, quite frankly, will be tinkering at the edges.

Yes, the school system has to be better, the teachers have to be accountable, there have to be some standardized testing to make sure we're being successful. But if we're missing what's happening in that child's life day in and day out, then we're missing the boat and we're going to go through another set of gyrations and more resource delivery and some more programs that still won't get us to what we want, and that's having that child be successful in life.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you say "we." I wonder whether you say "we," Congressman Clay, here, as the federal government, or you hear some other responsible party?

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR., D-Miss.: Well, we are all responsible for public education, when you think about it. The federal government contributes about 17 percent to public education in this country. The rest comes from state and local taxes.

As you can see in St. Louis city, we have a special administrative board where the local school district has been disaccredited. They've lost their accreditation because they did not perform.

When you look at the inner-ring suburbs of this community, those school districts are also in trouble, because they are not imparting knowledge to their charges, the children.

We have to be serious about educating all of our children in this country, not just those who can afford to live in a community that actually -- where those school districts actually perform, but we have to look at how we take care of all of our charges, which are our children.

GWEN IFILL: I think it's an important question. I'd like Mayor York to weigh in on it, as well.

PATTI YORK, mayor, St. Charles, Mo.: We see, I think, what Chris says, that when you have your community, your parents involved, the school is more successful.

You know, my concern is, is that we keep putting a lot on teachers and we say, "Well, this doesn't happen because the teacher didn't get all of these things done," whether it's the testing, et cetera, and then at the end of the day, how much did the children actually learn?

So, again, it's engaging your community. And I think that's what a lot of school districts have found, is that, if the community is involved, if the parents are very involved, then the children learn, because everybody really wants to make it work.

But that's hard to do in today's world. It's really hard to make parents understand that it is really up to them as much as it is up to the teacher and the rest of the community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was all part of our coverage this week from St. Louis. Thanks to everyone involved, especially our PBS colleagues at KETC, the public television station there.