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Week of 4.25.08

Transcript: College Summit

BRANCACCIO: Wealthier parents help their offspring in many ways - including getting into college. But an outfit called College Summit has set out to even the playing field a bit, by giving opportunities to promising kids at the other end of the financial scale. We spent a year following some determined high school seniors who are enrolled in the program. Kira Kay produced this report on social entrepreneurs at work, part of our series that we call Enterprising Ideas.

Stasia Jones is in the thick of it: a senior in high school, in Denver, Colorado. She's into theater... performing of all kinds.

JONES: I'm not trying to fess up, I'm just a child that got left behind, trying to catch up, yes I messed up, but I learned my lesson, but in spite of my transgressions, my pen is my only weapon.

BRANCACCIO: After a full day of school and a shift at a local drugstore, Stasia comes home, does chores and then gets going on the homework.

But despite all of this on her plate right now, Stasia is hellbent on getting herself into college.

Do you ever get pressure from other students or anybody that questions whether or not you should go to college?

JONES: I get pressure from a lot of my peers. Like, well, you—you're talented. You can do this and that and that. Why go to college? Why waste your time? Why? But there's a lot of other talented people out there just like me who can draw, who can sing, who can rap, who can dance or whatever. But not that many people go get their Ph.D. or their master's or their bachelor's and have that education.

BRANCACCIO: Pressure from her pals isn't the only kind of pressure Stasia is feeling. She also has extra burdens from family life that have hurt her grades. What kind of burdens? Well, how about this one: Stasia Jones has moved homes 13 times over her high school years. Thirteen moves. And even when she wasn't being uprooted, she still had to shoulder a lot of responsibilities even as her mom worked hard to provide for the family.

JONES: I have eight brothers and my mom was working two jobs. So I had to cook and I had to clean. And my older brothers didn't take care of my younger brothers. So it was up to me. And by the time I was doing—done doing whatever I had to do, it was 11:00 and I'm up doing homework at 11:00. So I had to choose between life and school.

BRANCACCIO: Over the last ten months, we've been following Stasia and some of her classmates here in Denver as they work through their final year of high school... and take part in an extraordinary program that is helping make their dream of getting to college possible.

SCHRAMM: There is a terrible correlation between what zip code you grew up in and whether you go to college or not. That is not gonna work for America to be competitive globally. Because talent doesn't reside in zip codes.

BRANCACCIO: Education expert J.B. Schramm knows about the low-income college enrollment gap. He saw it first hand in the early 1990's, when he went to work running a teen center in a housing complex in Washington, DC.

SCHRAMM: I saw students who were college capable, every year not go on to college. And as we looked at the data, this—this wasn't a DC issue, this was a national issue.

BRANCACCIO: What was missing?

SCHRAMM: I think it's helpful of people to think of how you build expectations around college in the middle class. Now what we see is young people are, you know, in families, talk about college at an early age. It's just part of the rhythm of the family. And then, for senior year, we've got parents who have been to college themselves, that really understand the process still feeling it's a part time job to help their child through the process. Well, now apply that in our first generation communities.

BRANCACCIO: First generation being students who don't have parents, or any other immediate family members who've been to college?

SCHRAMM: That's right.

BRANCACCIO: The statistics on low-income kids and college attendance are appalling. For starters, the smartest poor kids go to college at the same rate as the worst students from wealthy families.

And, according to the U.S. Department of Education, only seven percent of low-income students earn a college degree by the age of twenty-five, compared to sixty percent of their upper income peers.

J.B. Schramm's big idea was this: a program to guide low-income kids through the complicated maze of applying to college. And in the process, turn those kids into role models and mentors to fellow classmates. In this way, student by student, the program could create a college-going culture. Schramm calls the program "College Summit".

COUNSELOR: "How many of you want to go to college? Raise your hand."

BRANCACCIO: Last summer, we sat in on a-four day "boot camp" for low-income students, one of 60 workshops College Summit runs across the country.

COUNSELOR: "What are some of the things that we're involved in school, outside school?"

BRANCACCIO: J.B. Schramm defines these kids as "better than their numbers" - whose lower grades and test scores might be hiding otherwise first rate college material.

That includes Stasia, and about 40 of her Denver high school classmates, all between their junior and senior years. Like Daniel Ward, who sees getting a college education as a permanent way out of his earlier gang lifestyle.

WARD: Life as it's going now, you got to have a college degree in order to have a job. So, you know, why would I want to just be able to work at McDonald's and make minimum wage, when I can go to college and get a degree, that's gonna be able to make me either six digits or at least even two digits.

BRANCACCIO: Did anybody else in your immediate family, have they gone on to college already?

WARD: No, I don't think so.

BRANCACCIO: So you'd be the first.

WARD: Basically, yes, I think so.

BRANCACCIO: And Caitlin Larson-Rios, who says her first goal is to not end up like her brothers and sisters, who have encountered jail, drugs, alcohol and pregnancies. She sees college as a way to learn to serve the greater good, in part, by building on her own difficult family experiences.

LARSON RIOS: I've actually had the plan to go to college since I was 8 years old. I've wanted to be a lawyer since I was 8 years old!

BRANCACCIO: You don't want to be a lawyer anymore?

LARSON RIOS: I do, that's kind of, actually criminal justice and criminology but mostly criminology. I was thinking about getting into family law too.

BRANCACCIO: That's interesting. You're interested in going into family law?

LARSON-RIOS: Yeah, because so much has happened in my family, I want to help.

BRANCACCIO: Caitlin, Daniel and Stasia are all at the boot camp to learn the nuts and bolts of putting together a winning application and finding ways to pay for college.

One very practical part of this is getting students ready for, what I guess I would call, the game of college admissions. There's a whole system to trying to figure out how you can present an affective application for college. And not everybody's in on this secret.

SCHRAMM: What we need to do is open the blinds and let all the talent in our communities in on those secrets. It's not rocket science.

TURNER: "Punctuation, your grammar, making sure words are spelled correctly is tremendously big."

BRANCACCIO: Jabari Turner once occupied the same seats these high schoolers are in now - a few years ago he was the one in the program.

TURNER: Coming into the program refocused my life. Because I had a really low GPA in high school and my senior year kind of turned around after coming here because I really started to focus more.

BRANCACCIO: Turner is now about to graduate from the prestigious University of Missouri. And so, he's giving back, volunteering with College Summit. For Turner, it's personal.

TURNER: One of the student's stories was similar to mine and it really touched my heart. And I wanted to show him there's more to it, there's life on the other side of this you can end up like me. All the struggles with your confidence all the struggles of not having a father, like yeah those are real we'll face those, but at the same time there's so many things that can come from that.

COUNSELOR: "I'm going to ask you to get registered for these exams by next week."

BRANCACCIO: In one-on-one sessions, volunteer college counselors work with the students to strategize about standardized tests, class loads and transcripts.

MANDEL: We help them figure out where to apply to college, you know, based on their academics, and also their wish list for what they want from a college.

COUNSELOR: "Admissions officers get stacks and stacks of applications and the one way that you get to really, really let people know who you are that is past your grades test scores, or anything, is that personal statement."

BRANCACCIO: The heart of the College Summit boot camp is about crafting that essay—key to so many college applications. They are windows into these kids' lives that allows them to make the case in their own words that they are truly "better than their numbers".

The pressure's on for students like Daniel, who has some making up to do for some bad grades early in high school.

COUNSELOR: "How's it going with your essay?"

BRANCACCIO: The group's writing coach, volunteer Caitlin Bales, says it was a slow start for Daniel's essay.

BALES: At the beginning of this, he was very reluctant to just put the words on paper. It's easy to come into this program with an idea of what an essay should be and sort of a big obstacle is just getting past the reluctance to write an essay.

BRANCACCIO: Through a series of sessions, one-on-one and in a group, Daniel starts to realize his complicated life story might actually hold some clue to his true character.

DANIEL WARD READING TO CLASS: I was one of the best thieves I know, I was able to steal things from a lot of places and never got caught. I know I was one of the best fighters on my block too. But as I got older, I started seeing things that was going on in my life, so I decided to make a change.

BRANCACCIO: A life-altering moment becomes the focus of Daniel's essay.

WARD: My friends, you know, they was talking about, "We should go to this party." And I was like, "I don't want to go to this party, because I know something's gonna end up happening." You know one of my friends up getting shot.

VOLUNTEER: You really want to create for us a picture in words so, you know, try to remember back to this scene, right, what was going on, where you were, real details, even details that might not seem real important but they help the reader—

WARD:—to imagine, put themselves in that position? Right, ok, I got you.

BRANCACCIO: Did you feel you learned anything from the process of putting down this intense story of yours?

WARD: Yeah, I think I did, because when I wrote this story, and after I was done and I read it a couple of times, you know, it made me realize that I'm almost to my goal, look where I'm at now. I'm here, still doing good. I'm not dead, jail, anywhere else. I'm still in school, doing a lot better, and I'm almost to the point where I might be in college.

BRANCACCIO: What do you hope that essay says, to someone who reads it at the college?

WARD: What I want it to say to them is this person is, you know, he changed his life around. He's a good person. And he's on his way of doing big things, and he wants something for his future and his life.

BRANCACCIO: Students who don't have the top numbers for GPA or for test scores, who've moved around a lot and had some trouble in high school, they can actually compete with the—high-performing students who have trips to Central America every summer and internships on Capitol Hill on their college applications?

SCHRAMM: The young people who grow up in LOW-INCOME

neighborhoods often develop very powerful skills and focus in overcoming obstacles, in problem solving. We call it heart beat. They're able to write an essay that's got a heartbeat. That is a very effective way for admissions officers to get a sense of the character of that student.

JONES: "Moving away from my father and living with my mom and 8 brothers made me more independent, self reliant and responsible for my own life."

BRANCACCIO: The writing instructor wanted authenticity to come out of that page.

JONES: Exactly. When I was writing my personal statement, I kept trying to put on a façade and write cliché. "I'm Stasia. And I wanna go to college because this and this and this." And she just kept pushing me and pushing me. And she got the real out of me. And it turned into a wonderful essay.

BRANCACCIO: Another part of the program is giving the kids the tools they need to find the money for the high cost of college. The goal is to keep them focused on getting in, and on the lookout for ways to pay.

Stasia Jones has set her sights high: she's preparing to apply to several good schools, including the private and expensive NYU, New York University.

JONES: College, I'm ready for it. The experience, the diversity of people, the whole networking, social, everything.

BRANCACCIO: But there's a couple parts to this though. There's first getting into a college. And there's, I suppose, figuring out how to pay for it so you can go.

JONES: Yeah. Paying was the part that I was worried about the most. 'Cause, for instance, New York is $45,000 tuition a year I think. And I have no—I've never even seen 45,000—I can't even imagine $45,000. So I was kind of doubting going to college. But another thing College Summit helped me with was scholarships. And pretty much every place has a scholarship. Your own school, East High School has a scholarship. So I kind of got very hopeful when I found out that there's money everywhere just to—just to give.

In the fall, our students head back to their Denver high schools, carrying what they learned over the summer session back to their classmates...ambassadors for the idea that going to college is possible.

SCHRAMM: We've seen over and over the most influential person to a 17 year-old is another 17 year-old. So what our high schools do is they identify the most influential students in the school. Not necessarily the top students. Often the top students aren't that influential.

BRANCACCIO: These are kids actually with leadership ability is what you're describing.

SCHRAMM: It's—it's leadership ability and a kind of demonstrated strength. So that when September rolls around, we've got in every senior classroom, you know, four or five students who are equipped to—support their peers, and also to go out and work with the ninth graders and the tenth graders and the eleventh graders. To build that expectation of college.

BRANCACCIO: In recent years, the program has expanded beyond these summer sessions into an in-school curriculum that regular teachers can use with all students during the school year. Schramm says the program reaches 13,000 students a year this way.

TEACHER: "Turn this paper over and write the word 'career.'"

BRANCACCIO: In the Denver public schools, there's a lot of work to do. The district has over seventy thousand students...more than two thirds meet the federal definition of poor. Also, the high schools in the district average one college counselor for about every 400 students. College Summit says it can make a difference here.

SCHRAMM: The high schools get these tools that help them get measurable increases in college going, and—and they also get significant dollars from foundations and corporations. But what they commit is paying their fair share of the fees.

BRANCACCIO: You see, College Summit is not just a charity. It's a social enterprise, with its own business model to help it keep going.

SCHRAMM: We have seen when folks get charity they get passive. And impact—especially impact that sticks and—and—and—and stays in a community is—is all about the opposite of passive. It's about commitment.

BRANCACCIO: College Summit is one of a new breed of organizations that are putting a twist on doing good: rather than relying only on donations, College Summit builds itself up through the fees that it charges. While it remains a non-profit, its way of doing business has attracted the attention of big corporations such as the accounting firm Deloitte and the bank Capital One, that have been willing to quote unquote "invest" with cash and management help. The return being a more promising workforce and a more promising society.

So this is very key idea that you're sharing with me. Because there's another way to run a charity, which is it's the right thing to do and we should keep pouring money into the issue to keep ameliorating it. You're saying that what you do has to be efficient so it can serve more people.

SCHRAMM: Some people make a false dichotomy between the economic side and the intervention side. But big scale change, systemic change requires that you've got an innovation—intervention that works and that it's affordable.

BRANCACCIO: The business folk who you go to must love this kind of talk. You're speaking their language.

SCHRAMM: We're speaking the language that we are increasingly hearing from superintendents. Superintendents are managing billion dollar corporations. You know, in some cities they are the largest employer. They have—have the largest square footage of any company in the city.

BRANCACCIO: It's now crunch time for both J.B. Schramm's enterprise and students at Denver public high schools as they put the finishing touches on their college applications ahead of December deadlines. Stasia Jones's first deadline is the University of New Mexico.

So how's it going with your own applications? It's—we're speaking here—between Thanksgiving and Christmas of your senior year.

JONES: Yes. Applications are going good. I've applied at New Mexico for early admissions. I am still working on my portfolio for New York University, but their deadline's in January. I'm looking at North Carolina. I heard they have a good journalist program there. And that's another major that I'm thinking about getting into. Communications.

BRANCACCIO: How has it been doing the applications?

LARSON-RIOS: Somewhat stressful because you always have the deadlines and can never think to meet those with all the school work and all that.

BRANCACCIO: Would you say your experience with College Summit made it more likely you would get your applications done? More likely you would actually go to college?

LARSON-RIOS: Yes, I know what's required!

BRANCACCIO: While our students were struggling with their application deadlines this spring, word came that College Summit was also waiting to hear about its future in Denver.

Turns out that some Denver school principals are concerned about demands the College Summit program places on teachers and they are leaning towards hiring more guidance counselors with the money. So far, only two principalsout of 11have signed up for another year of College Summit.

SCHRAMM: We and our partners in Denver know that school reform work is hard work. Especially during the first year of a district partnership. And when we work with school districts we chart out a multi-year horizon. Because we know it doesn't happen overnight. We are working with our partners in Denver to learn, improve, so that we can see the kind of growth in Denver that we are seeing in New York City and Miami and Oakland and West Virginia and St. Louis—also in Denver.

BRANCACCIO: Vic Davolt, the director of admissions at Regis, a four year, private university in Denver say he clearly sees the benefit College Summit brings to his campus.

DAVOLT: We've seen a change since we started working with College Summit. We had about 10 to 12 percent of our enrolled freshmen from ethnic backgrounds other than Caucasian about 8 years ago. We're now at almost 25%.

BRANCACCIO: He's such a fan, he hosts College Summit students for special campus tours and introductory sessions with admissions officers. Davolt says in exchange, he gets an early crack at what he considers an enormous pool of talent.

DAVOLT: And the more students that are considering us, the better it is for our school in terms of an inclusive campus that educates leaders in the service of others.

BRANCACCIO: You see society's interest in this, don't you? That this is not just a personal mission. That there is an interest in society of increasing that percentage of students who go on to college?

SCHRAMM: They're gonna make a million more dollars in the course of their career. They're going to have children who are gonna be almost twice as likely to go college themselves. So there's irreversible progress.

BRANCACCIO: Which brings us to now: April 2008. Senior year is wrapping up fast... with proms, final exams, and yes, those long awaited college letters of admission... or rejection. For Stasia Jones, it looks like she's not going to NYU...

But she says she did get some good news from the University of New Mexico, and that pending a final transcript, she will be heading there in September.

JONES: This has been a dream of mine forever. Like, I see everyone in my family try and they always try but they never make it, and me, actually going to make it? That's just unfathomable.

BRANCACCIO: But college isn't working out this year for Daniel Ward. His spring semester has been tough... he told us his grades slipped and he's focused first on getting through to graduation, and putting off college until he can earn some money to pay for it. Real life is sometimes too tough a challenge for all College Summit kids to overcome.

But Caitlin Larson-Rios, like Stacia, is college bound...she'll be at the community college of Denver, with a view to fulfilling her dream of studying criminal justice and music.

LARSON-RIOS: I'm going to be a singing lawyer!

BRANCACCIO: College Summit says it has data showing almost eighty percent of its summer ambassadors end up going on to college... and 65 percent of all program participants end up staying in college until at least their sophomore year...numbers that show College Summit is closing the gap in low-income college enrollment.

JONES: If you really wanna get into college, you can. Just apply yourself. Just try. There's an opportunity for everybody. There's colleges for everybody, whether it's community college, university, two-year, whatever. There's higher education out there for everybody.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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