Saturday, December 26, 2015

Washing Away the Blood

As thoughts of domestic terrorism and police violence intrude on those in “safer” communities, we always need to be reminded that the specter of violence has always lurked in the communities RISE has served since 2003.  Five students in our programs have lost their lives to gun violence; I mention three of them in posts here, here, and here.  

For several years I have been mentoring two seniors at Anacostia High who are victims.  One student first lost his father, then his stepfather, to gunshots.  The other young man recently witnessed a murder outside his apartment building the night before I was to pick him up for pizza--a murder, incidentally, that was not reported in the local news.  When I arrived at the apartment complex at noon the next day, I was blocked by fire trucks which were washing away the blood of the victim who had lain on the ground for hours.

Amazingly, and no doubt thanks to supporters of RISE, these young men have positive outlooks and are headed for college.  They could not be more different.  One has a reading disability but has been lifted up by the WordSTARS program, and the other is a young man with incredible gifts: A MATHlete in our CollegePrep program, he is captain of his basketball team and will be choosing from top ten historically black colleges. Would our second young man be on the road to success without RISE?  I’m not sure.  On Christmas Day he called us “lifesavers” in a text message to me.

Our country may becoming more fearful and less optimistic, but supporters of RISE should take solace that RISE’s work results in more and more young people confident in their futures and with better outcomes after high school.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fourteen is Greater than One

It’s data time, to let you know how your money was spent last year and what RISE accomplished.  My favorite data point is the fact that after only the spring semester of tutoring at Maya Angelou’s Young Adult Learning Center, fourteen of Maya’s students passed the new GED, compared to a total of one in the entire calendar year of 2014.

Individuals donated a total of $145,000, and foundations $90,000.  Here is what you got for your $235,000:

2014-15 was our fifth year working with Anacostia High School students, and our first year at Maya and at Ballou Senior High SchoolAt those three schools, RISE monitored 105 students as part of our Keep Up/Village Watch programs and stepped in to intensively tutor 51.  Of those 51, only 3 failed to improve in either their grades or test scores.
Our four-year College Prep program (last two years of high school, first two years of college) serves an additional 35 students from Anacostia.  Of the 22 high school graduates, 19 students are still on track to graduate from a four-year college.  These colleges include North Carolina A&T University, Temple University, Johnson and Wales University (R.I.), and Norfolk State University.

Our Attendance Task Force monitored the attendance of fourteen Anacostia High School students with attendance challenges and made dozens of house calls for these students.  Of the fourteen, ten were successful in improving their attendance and engagement in school, earning positive gains in their grades. 

We worked with over thirty MATHletes at Anacostia and Cesar Chavez.  Twelve of these students passed a summer algebra II class, qualifying them for pre-calculus.  The other students met monthly for contests, problem solving, mentoring, and had their school performance monitored by RISE staff.  Many of these students ascended /will ascend to RISE’s College Prep program.

We worked with five WordSTARS from Anacostia and one recent transfer from Anacostia on a regular basis.  Five of the six students raised their reading level by at least 1.5 grade levels.


As part of our Graduate Services program, we reached out to 252 alumni to judge their career outlook, especially for those not on a career or four-year college track.  Forty-one RISE alumni changed their outlook from "negative" (i.e. no four-year college prospects, no livable wage job track), to "positive" (i.e. job prospects, job training, education) as a result of RISE’s efforts to re-engage graduates.

Why Aren't More Kids Finishing College?

As I wrote a couple of years ago, our students have a lot of obstacles to succeed in college.  When we first conceived of the College Prep program, we at first thought the primary need was helping our students make more educated decisions about where to attend college.  Some of our students "under apply" to colleges we think of as overly easy.  On the other hand it has been well documented that many of our low-income students arrive at a campus and are in shell shock from day one.  They start to doubt themselves; do they really belong there?

RISE's annual college trip allows students to see as wide a spectrum of colleges as possible:  HBCU's (historically black colleges and universities) and PWI's (predominantly white institutions), private and public, single-sex and co-ed, urban and rural, small and large.  Many of our students at first are reluctant to consider HBCU's given the negativity of African-American life they see around them.  But so many HBCU's impress us every time we visit:  Morehouse, Spelman, North Carolina A&T, just to name a few.  Most of our students end up attending an HBCU, if for nothing else than to lessen the culture shock that is freshman year.

RISE also helps our students with some incidental costs with enrollment and getting started.  Many of our students have no relative or close friend with a car to take them to college, and the $100 or so it costs to reserve housing can also be a huge obstacle.  Sometimes there is an emergency need like an expensive book.  Often low-income students will be shut out of classes because they owe a small bill, but with RISE they are a phone call away from a lifeline.

Finally, someone on RISE's staff will visit each of our College Prep students once each semester for the first two years of college, making the RISE College Prep program a unique four-year program.  Sometimes the visit can serve just to boost the spirits, but often the RISE staffer can meet with a counselor or professor with the student and help work out issues.

Having said all that, not everyone has a smooth freshman year.  Many schools admit students for a January start, knowing full well that full beds will become empty ones after only one semester.  One of our students in the class of 2014 came home last October and did not want to go back.  (The lesson there was:  Never let them come home during the first semester; they will only get more homesick!)

Many of our students endure incredible trauma during their childhood, and as many psychologists have reported, that type of stress can not be easily undone.  Such students will have less confidence and more negative reaction to any adversity.  Imagine being abused by a family member for years and then getting your first D as a freshman.  I guess all that negative stuff was true, thinks the student.

The first RISE College Prep cohort, the graduating class of 2014, was a collection of particularly fragile students, particularly the males.  Only one of the males has a father that has not been murdered or incarcerated.  Three of the young men are now financially independent at age 19, that is totally on their own for housing, food, etc.

The second cohort just entered college this past August, and so far the reports are all positive, although we all know that can change.  RISE's goal is realistic:  a 75% completion rate for all the cohorts within six years, a rate that would far surpass the national average and also dwarf the rate of low-income African Americans, which hovers at about 10% nationally.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Am I Gandhi?

One of my students recently likened me to a combination of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi.  The student’s remark keeps coming back at me when I hear stories of our underserved mistrusting the ones in power, or the ones in power hurting the ones they are supposed to be serving. 

Our students don’t see a lot of positive events happening in their world, so if someone like Paul Penniman or any of our outstanding tutors or mentors decides to help them, our students sometimes feel they have died and gone to Heaven.  One of our challenges at RISE is to communicate what life is like for our students, even the more proficient, compliant students who have realistic aspirations to a four-year college.  Many of our students who are accepted to college have no one to take them to an all-day summer orientation, to deliver them to college in the fall, or visit during Family Weekend.  They cannot pay their small deposit to reserve a spot in their freshman class.  Their phone service is always tenuous, with someone different (maybe) paying the bill each month, so when they get to college and see IPhones everywhere, they feel out of place.

Our students who stay at home and look for jobs do so with great pessimism.  There isn’t much legal commerce in their neighborhoods, and the idea of their procuring the least interesting, lowest paying job, which they would love, seems remote.  Sometimes we need to drag them to the other side of the river to show them how good the economy is and show them that they, too, can get work.

Forty of our alumni received this type of career intervention during the past school year.  These were mostly alumni whom we had helped get to the high school finish line but are unlikely to make it to the four-year college finish line and had little notion of themselves as employable in a livable wage career.

Our students need to realize they are as able and as entitled as their brethren on the other side of the river, and it shouldn’t be so unusual for a Paul Penniman or other RISE staff to land in their lives to show them the truth.  RISE's supporters each year makes our presence in Ward 8 not seem so strange.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Three Months for One Point

The new GED, or Graduation Equivalency Degree, is befuddling scholars and school administrators across the country, as thousands of mostly young people hope for a second chance to acquire that elusive high school credential.

Before January, 2014, completing one's GED did not improve one's long term prospects for success.  In a study by James Heckman at the University of Chicago, high school dropouts and GED recipients fared about the same in terms of long-terms earnings and success.

Now, however, the GED is much harder to pass.  Students need to use higher order thinking skills which may have rarely or never been asked of them in the past.  GED pass rates as a result have plummeted.

RICH's tutors are working hard to improve on the pass rate as one of our partner schools, the Maya Angelou Young Adult Learning Center (YALC).  The YALC caters to students who might be taking an indirect path toward a high school diploma or who just need skill-building to qualify for a job training program.   RICH is extremely lucky to work with the YALC's talented, hard-working faculty, and we are lucky to have such equally skilled tutors to supplement the great work of the Maya staff.

RICH is working with many dedicated students, but in a number of ways, J stands out.  To pass the GED, you need to pass each of the four subtests:  social studies, reading and language arts, science, and math.  J has passed three of the subtests but is one point short on the fourth.  After recently taking this test, J must now wait three months before he takes it again.

Our students tend to be underserved and neglected by society.  Schools do not provide advanced classes or adequate facilities.  Housing is often substandard.  Children can be left with no sense of belonging or identity.  Not guided properly, our young people might make mistakes that they make up for years ago.  In J's case, we don't know why he is attempting his GED at his age, but RICH will continue to be with him every step of the way until he is on the path he is seeking.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Joy of College Mentoring

This guest post is from Rhonda Presser, a volunteer mentor and Board member:

I’m in my second year of serving as a college mentor for an Anacostia High School student.  My first attempt, with a senior girl,  was largely unsuccessful and wholly unsatisfying.

Given my first experience, I’m not completely sure why I agreed to try again, but I am so glad that I did.  I am now working with a junior boy who is utterly delightful.  He is a really hard worker, extremely polite and well-spoken, with a great sense of humor and a strong rooting in family and faith.  We meet about twice a month, and discuss all manner of topics.  Because he is a junior, we have some time to develop a relationship before diving into the college admissions process.  Which brings me to the biggest irony of this endeavor—my current student is pretty sure that he doesn’t want to go to college!

I am utterly convinced that college is the right path for my student, so I am working hard to ferret out the reasons for his objections to continuing his education, and doing my best to debunk them.  I also stress the importance of leaving himself with choices, since he won’t have to decide what to do or where to go for almost a year and a half.  He loves his native city of Washington, so I try to emphasize that the best way he can “give back” is to get an education and return with the tools to help other, less fortunate Washingtonians.

At this juncture, all I can conclude is that mentoring students is not a whole lot different than dealing with your own mercurial teenagers.  (Yes, thank you, our whole family survived those years intact!)  While I keep asking for guidance from RICH,  I realize that there is no rulebook that would be applicable to every child.  I just have to keep building on the foundation of trust and respect that my student and I  have established.  I also have to accept that my student might not go to college after all, and be satisfied that this wonderful young man has come into my life.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

In the Literacy War, Let's Not Forget Our Secondary School Students

Mayor Muriel Bowser is taking aim at several issues facing our young African-American students. Her recently announced strategy to combat low literacy rates among students in D.C. Public Schools is a step in the right direction for our most disadvantaged youths. However, I’m concerned the proposal is missing a key component of ensuring literacy among students who need the most support.  


Although the Mayor has not announced details of the implementation of the plan to promote literacy, her preliminary announcement makes it clear that the focus will be on the achievement of elementary school students. Two reputable organizations, Literacy Lab and Reading Partners, will lead the efforts to pair up tutors with students with reading challenges.  


(Disclaimer: I know the Executive Directors of both these organizations, and RICH partners with DCPS to provide services to students at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School.)


The Mayor's plan may in fact greatly decrease the number of students in elementary school who do not approach functional reading level (sixth grade) by the time they enter middle school. At present, in Ward 8, a clear majority of elementary school age students are not at grade level, including about one third of students who are several grades below grade level when they leave elementary school.


The trouble lies in our ignoring the problem of illiteracy at the middle school and high school levels. The percentage of students in Ward 8 on grade level who leave middle school is approximately 20%. In tenth grade, the number goes down from there. Ten percent of freshmen read at the first grade level or lower. Many of the students in this predicament are enrolled but have stopped coming to school.


No proposal has been put forth to address this gap in literacy and school attendance for those who have moved on to the second half of their primary educational career.


I recommend the following model for our neighborhood middle schools and high schools, with some similarities to the Mayor's plan, but with some adaptations.  


In middle school, any student more than three grades below grade level needs an intervention. Smaller classes, reading circles, and peer tutoring have unproven track records. The students we’re talking about need experienced, professional tutors to teach phonics or whatever strategy needed to help unlock the mystery that is reading.  


The level of intervention I’m suggesting won’t be easy. Three hours of tutoring weekly during school time could properly assess a student quickly and put such a student back on an optimistic, improving path. It might take two years, but such a student could improve to functional reading level inside that time frame.  


You would need tutors who are reading specialists. Learning how to read does not happen by osmosis for these students; they see a huge cipher they need help solving by a trained, experienced professional.


What are the costs for an intensive tutoring program?


Tutoring can be expensive. RICH has been able to hire tutors at $40/hour, well below the market rate, but these tutors have a mission and a personal passion for helping low-income students.  


Tutoring for thirty weeks for $120/week comes to nearly four thousand dollars. We could save money by creating student pairs or even threesomes. As we know, the cost of not teaching someone to read is much more daunting. One quarter of our freshmen are incarcerated by age 35. Most of these prisoners have learning disabilities and may have had many of the struggles in school we see our students have everyday.


For the huge number of students arriving in high school with low reading levels, life is indeed precarious. Already mentally disengaged from school, they start to physically disengage. Intervening at this late stage is a relatively low percentage endeavor, but that should not be a reason to forgo creating a plan addressing these students.


Similar to my middle school plan, trained, professional tutors need to see these students on a regular basis. In RICH's history, almost all the low readers we see with relatively good attendance (80% or more days attended) make significant reading gains for the first time in years. Unfortunately, there are usually students who cease coming to school; the experience becomes hard and overwhelming.  


These students who stop coming to school need immediate and creative intervention. We must visit their homes to try to get them to come back to school to tell them there will be a tutor to shepherd them. In our first four years working in DCPS high schools, RICH was able to get dozens of such students to return, but it takes a well coordinated effort among school administrators and supplemental service staff. A truant, dyslexic child cannot wait for the bureaucratic process currently in place, in which letters are mailed, threats are made, and meetings are scheduled. At present, few adults do any real outreach, troubleshooting, or problem solving on behalf of these students.


I commend the Mayor for making plans to help our elementary school students who have reading challenges. For the safety, security, and humanity of our city, we need a robust plan to help our secondary students as well. I hope our city will create a plan for these students as well. They need it and deserve it.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Why I want to Go to College"

This is from one of our seniors, Elijah.  He won a city-wide contest with this essay.

"Reality hit me in the back of that police car, cuffs cutting off the circulation in my hands, headed
towards the nearest detention center. At that moment, in my eyes, my life was completely ruined and
there was nothing I could do about it. All the wrongdoings I was caught up in had finally caught up to me. . . .

At 15 years old I began to get in trouble at home and at school, not unlike many children my
age. My mother, who had enough of me, sent me back to live with my father. I ended up right back in
the streets of Southeast, D.C., the same place my mother had worked so hard to keep me away from. At first, and for a long time, it was difficult adjusting to living with him when I had been raised by mother for the majority of my life. It was not until I moved in with my father that I began to understand him as a person. With the newly found freedom that came with living with my father, I began to fall of track more and more. Slowly but surely, I was becoming a product of my environment. I found myself smoking and drinking, skipping school, and hanging with a crowd that could do nothing but bring me down. More than a year later, I woke up in a jail cell not knowing when I would be able to see the light of day again. I found it ironic how in a place that drives some people crazy, I found peace. I was tired of walking down the wrong path, tired of trouble finding me, and more than anything I was tired of seeing my mother hurt because of what I was doing. It was inside those walls that I decided thatG6J7W7 I wanted more for myself and something had to change.

I came out, not yet a new man, but one with a plan for success. My first step to getting back on
track was to begin attending school regularly. Thankfully, school had always come fairly easy to me so my struggles with life weren’t reflected by grades too much. Secondly, I began to separate myself from the people who were holding me back from unlocking my true potential. It was not until I began to focus on myself that I realized how misguided my former friends were and how much just being around them impacted me as a person. Last but not least, I decided to lead a life free of drugs, alcohol, and any other substance that does damage to my body. I began to excel in the classroom, my relationships with family members improved, and I began to feel more alive than ever. I now look at every obstacle I faced as a blessing in disguise. I stayed strong through everything and used it to my advantage. Simply put, I would not be the young man I am today if I did not experience those hardships. To me, that is the beauty of life, something good can come from the darkest places and most difficult situations.

 With my newfound direction, I would like to attend college and study business administration
and management. Since a young child I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit, from selling my artwork to my peers in elementary school to now selling snacks and drinks in between classes while at school. What I do now is small in comparison to my dream of one day owning my own businesses, such as a barbershop and my own personal training facility, just to name a few. More than anything, I want give back to the youth of the world. On a daily basis, I am surrounded by misguided youth, children who just simply need someone in their life to show them they care and they would like to help. I don’t like to think of myself as better than anyone else, but I feel as though I am truly blessed with great wisdom for my age and I would like to share everything that I know with others that are lost like I once was. I would like to mentor young children who grow up in troubled areas and grow up without strong father figures in their life. I want to put myself in the position to be able to give money freely to those in need and I also would like to start a scholarship fund of my own.

There is endless potential in neighborhoods like mine that nobody takes the time to visit, but I
plan on visiting them and helping to turn that potential into something positive. When it is all said and done, I will help others to choose the right path in life. In the meantime I will stay on the right path so that I accomplish my goals. That path is now leading me to college. College is the best option that will allow me to fulfill my dreams! This is “Why I Want to Go to College”.