What motivates these students to give up their Saturdays? The promise of a brighter future, for one. And two exceptional role models, Thomas Bullock and Charlene Brown-McKenzie, who inspire students' minds and spirits and help turn their lives around.
Bullock, a mathematician who grew up in D.C.'s Capitol Heights section, the son of school teachers, heads Georgetown's Institute for College Preparation (ICP), which has been supported by HHMI since 1992. Brown-McKenzie, a clinical social worker, is the program's only other paid staff member. Yet, with the help of dedicated volunteer faculty and students from Georgetown, determined parents from Deanwood, and alumni of the program itself, they have managed to send 92 percent of the more than 100 students who have participated in the ICP to college—from a school district where only one out of two students graduates from high school.
Once enrolled, an impressive number of ICP students stay to complete college. Of the program's first class, which finished high school in 1995, 85 percent have earned a college degree.
How do Bullock and Brown-McKenzie do it?
For one thing, "we make ourselves part of their communities, part of their lives," Brown-McKenzie says. They go to Deanwood's christenings, weddings, and funerals. They meet with parents and visit homes. They tutor seventh-graders at Ronald H. Brown Middle School, and Brown-McKenzie meets with seventh-grade teachers and special-education teachers there to help them design interventions for other at-risk students.
ICP's leaders inspired a Georgetown biology professor and her class to partner with the science teachers at the middle school. Twenty-five Georgetown sociology students are working with the middle schoolers to do what sociologists call "community asset mapping"—combing Deanwood for assets that might help it attract businesses and improve real-estate values. Two such assets are that the neighborhood is near a river and sits on a hill, much like affluent Georgetown. "What happened to Georgetown can happen to Deanwood too," Bullock tells them.
Basically, "the students see an environment around them that feels hopeless," says Bullock. "We give them hope."
At the ICP Saturday Academy, students study English, math, Spanish, chemistry, and Washington, D.C., history. In the class Success Skills, they learn how to manage their time, take notes, and apply for college and get financial aid. Once a month, parents attend the ICP, so that they can learn how to help their children prepare for, get into, and succeed in college. "We are trying to help parents face their fears and anxieties, to understand that college is a good and possible thing for their children," Brown-McKenzie explains.
Bullock and Brown-McKenzie, too, are willing to do whatever it takes to get "their" kids into college. When Christina Olukunle was accepted to Bennett College in North Carolina, her mother, a single parent with a younger daughter at home, lacked the resources to transport her there. So Bullock and Brown-McKenzie rented a van and drove Olukunle, accompanied by her mother and sister, to Greensboro. Now Christina has completed her junior year, and her sister Alice just finished her freshman year at Bennett. "We got two to college for the price of one," Bullock says with a grin.
If they stick with ICP—and most participants do—teenagers who have rarely ventured beyond their neighborhood go abroad during the summer between tenth and eleventh grades. One class went to Ecuador and another to Belize, where they studied biology, language, and culture. Now one student is applying for a music internship in Russia, another has traveled to Ghana, and a third is planning to enter the foreign service. "These are kids who had never been on a plane," says Bullock. "But now their career interests have just exploded."
ICP also takes students and their parents on college tours. Often they are hosted by ICP alumni, such as Nolen Wren, a junior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and Cedric Southerland, a junior at Hampton University in Virginia.
DeAngelo Rorie is one of ICP's many success stories. When he was growing up in Deanwood the only thing Rorie knew about Georgetown University was that it had a good basketball team. Now he's a graduate of Georgetown, mentoring another generation of D.C. kids, and planning to apply to the police academy.
Latonya Bell grew up in the same neighborhood. She attended Ronald H. Brown Middle School, where at least once a week a teacher's car was vandalized or stolen, and the playground faced a street where drugs regularly changed hands. By sixth grade, she had developed a "why bother?" attitude and was earning Ds and Fs. Now a junior at Georgetown, Bell is majoring in sociology and gaining fast on a 4.0 grade-point average. She spends one afternoon a week at her old middle school, working with seventh-graders.
Bullock and Brown-McKenzie, who see what they are doing as a successful model for urban school reform, are now hoping to use it to change an entire school system. Their plan is for nine of the D.C. members of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area to each adopt two high schools and their feeder middle schools. Partnering with businesses and philanthropies, they will spread the ICP model to all of the D.C. schools.
"We want D.C.'s kids to realize that they can go to college," says Bullock. "We want them to go. We want them to stay. We want them to graduate. And we want them to help the next generation do the same thing."
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Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
Summer 2004, pages 40-41.
©2004 Howard Hughes Medical Institute