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Jamal Lowe, a high school junior, has participated in the
Georgetown program for several years.
Still, there have been limitations in what these two administrators, despite their dedication, could do. Given the enormous needs of the students, the program could add a new cohort of kids only once every five years or so. And despite its successes, there has still been that 15 to 28 percent attrition rate. Brown-McKenzie says this isn't surprising. “Fewer than 20 percent of these kids engage in any extracurricular activities,” she says, “so we're happy to get the response that we do.” As Bullock continues to work in the Ward 7 community, he says many of the students who left the program talk with him about the dwindling resources in their community and the challenges of staying focused amid the harsh socioeconomic realities of basic survival.
The program works with the students for one year after high school to help them navigate financial aid, sign up for classes, and adjust to living away from home—unfamiliar intricacies of college life that can discourage first-generation college students, even when they are academically prepared, says Brown-McKenzie. She visits campuses to help the kids navigate the transition and sends “care packages” with food and school supplies.
And she helps them confront the unpredictable. One woman who graduated from the program in 2005 moved five family members with her when she left for college because of problems at home. The student stayed in school while her family resettled; she gave birth to a baby the next year. Brown-McKenzie used funding from the program to buy the young woman a laptop and printer so that she could work on assignments from home. The student is currently a junior in good academic standing.
While the program's formal help ends after freshman year, the informal support never stops. Even as he moves on, Bullock remains connected to the students he taught. “They reach out to me when they fall on hard times or just want guidance toward their goals. Because they still want to be successful, they come back seeking that support.”
And once they've successfully realized their goals, these young people reciprocate; almost every graduate returns to the program to give back. LaToya Walker, for example, comes in on Saturdays to tutor current students. Alumni care about the community created through the Georgetown program as well as their hometown community in D.C.'s Ward 7. Perhaps one of the program's greatest achievements is connecting the two.
Despite the neighborhood's limited resources and numerous problems, it is in many ways a nurturing environment that breeds loyalty. “People love to paint our community as if we're all savages and kids are stealing cars and getting killed,” says Cauley. “But we grew up in a community where somebody else's grandma would come outside and tell you to go into the house if it was too late. We watched each other's children.”
McCoy agrees. “I wouldn't change my background for anything,” she says. “I've gotten so much love and respect from the people back home.”
Moreover, the 24-year-old has met lots of young people in the neighborhood who wish to follow in her footsteps. “People come up to me saying, `You know, Britney, I've decided I'm going back to school' or 'I'm going to trade school. Can you help me?'”
Both McCoy and Cauley are willing to help, as both plan to return home and work in the community. Says Cauley, “I couldn't see myself anywhere else, and I want to do for others what somebody else did for me. Maybe I'll even be Tom when I grow up.”
Photo: Hector Emanuel