WASHINGTON – Minority and low-income children in the United States are suffering from an educational achievement gap. Only 51.2 percent of African-American students and 55 percent of Hispanic students earn a high school diploma in four years. Getting through college is an even bigger hurdle, with just 38.9 percent of African-American and 46.5 percent of Hispanic students graduating in four years—that is, if they’re lucky enough to attend in the first place.
The College Success Foundation, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, provides scholarships and a variety of other assistance to underserved youths, many of whom have grown up in poverty. On Wednesday, the organization released a report highlighting its success in preparing middle and high school students to enter college, graduate, and then return the favor to other young people in their communities who are facing the same challenges that they once did.
So far, nearly 11,000 students have participated in the foundation’s scholarship programs and received $107 million in financial assistance. According to the report, CSF scholars have a college completion rate of 68 percent, compared to a national rate of 38.9 percent for African-Americans and 46.5 percent for Hispanics. The foundation has helped 1,900 CSF scholars earn 242 associate’s degrees and 1,666 bachelor’s degrees.
“We help them with college applications, but we also teach them things about leadership, personal responsibility, initiative, and teamwork—the kinds of things that will really help them as they get into the rigors of the college experience. In the summer we also give them experience on a college campus,” explained former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who serves on the foundation’s board. “A lot of the students are the first in their families to go to college, so the process is so new to them. Giving them that opportunity to learn about it before they actually experience it is a good thing.”
CFS operates scholarship programs in Washington, D.C., and Washington state, two locations that have little in common except that each is home to too many students who are not being adequately prepared to succeed in college or in life. Seventy percent of the students served are minorities, and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-fee lunch programs.
CSF begins working with children when they are in seventh grade so they can develop the skills needed to successfully complete a college-preparatory course load as soon as they enter the ninth grade. In high school, the students receive mentoring, academic counseling, and college and career planning, and other assistance. The program is active in 16 school districts in Washington state and Wards 7 and 8, the District’s two lowest income neighborhoods.
“The CSF model works because it addresses a multitude of barriers,” said president and CEO Deborah Wilds at a news conference where the report was released. “Our approach is to intervene early with the supports that are needed to inspire students to have a vision for their future, to create that vision, and to provide the incentives and academic supports that are needed to make a degree possible and focus equally on college readiness, access and completion.” While in college, students continue to receive mentoring and any other support needed to get them through to graduation.
“CSF refuses to let me fail,” said Tommesha Scott, a Washington, D.C., CSF scholar who just completed her sophomore year at Trinity Washington University.
Scott has a remarkably bright and cheery disposition, especially given her circumstances. When she was 3 years old, her father murdered her mother. For the next few years, she lived with various relatives before settling in with an aunt who later also was murdered, leaving Scott to float among relatives and friends until she eventually ended up in a supportive foster home.
Scott began participating in the CSF program during her junior year in high school, “and, for the first time in my life, college seemed possible,” she said. “Knowing that I had people counting on me, supporting me, and helping me achieve my dream, I had to go to college.”
During her freshman year, Scott maintained a 3.5 GPA. She has experienced a few challenges this past year, but both CSF and her mentor have helped her overcome them and find the resources for her to go to summer school to get back on track. Scott says she plans to attend law school so that she can advocate on behalf of students like her “who just need someone to stand up for them.”
Currently, CSF is developing plans to expand to include six more districts in Washington state and additional Washington, D.C., high schools. In the next few years, the foundation also hopes to launch its program in other states that demonstrate a commitment to education reform and improving outcomes for all students, Wilds said.