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Motivation, Moxie, and a Shot at College

Helping High-Achieving Poor Students Persevere

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Where I live, in western New York state, high school graduates are feted well into August. Tents go up for picnics. Families are convened from afar. Friends and neighbors bring cookies along with money for college. We give the graduates a thumbs-up—and this year, the newly fashionable “fist bump.” While hugging the graduates, I think about the high school dropouts—more than a million each year—for whom no family gathers.

As the board chair of Greatschools.net, an organization that helps parents put their kids on a path to college, I stew about our dropout crisis more than your average Jane. After umpteen decades of “school reform,” I’m angry we’re still slogging in place.

So I look forward each spring to the call from a New York-based family foundation with a boldface name asking, “Do you want to review scholarship applications?” I drop everything to pore over submissions from high-achieving, low-income New York City seniors who, if chosen, will get a free ride to college. Each year, I wonder: How did these students persevere when so many with so much more fail? What’s in their secret sauce? Can we bottle it for others?

This year, I studied the common ingredients. I’ll call them the four M’s: mentors, moxie, motivation, and Moms.

Mentors: Each applicant had a strong advocate within the school, a counselor or teacher, who reminded them daily of their potential. Each participated in high-enrichment activities or internships outside of school. They benefited from organizations such as the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, known as LEDA, Jeter’s Leaders, Youth Bridge, the Summer Youth Employment Program, Building with Books, Prep for Prep, the ROTC, and programs affiliated with their houses of worship. Many had been prepped early for challenging high school courses. They’d visited university campuses, literally to see college in their futures. Guides helped them navigate the college-application process. Their mentors were force multipliers, steering them between the Scylla and Charybdis of poverty’s disadvantages and the anti-intellectualism of teenage culture.

Moxie: The students who won scholarships had a full-tilt combo of energy, determination, courage, and know-how. One girl, whose losses were as painful as her dreams were hopeful, regained composure after a question that we could not know would recall a cruel memory. She paused and regained her composure more gracefully than we and continued to make her case. Others, like the young woman who presented an original poem telling us to cast away our fears, or the young man from the Middle East who outlined his plan for world peace, used the interviews to showcase their leadership. From the marrow of their bones, they sent us a message: Place your bet on me.

Motivation: Teachers often find keys to students’ motivation in their resilience skills. Psychologists refer to resilience as “inoculation from the inside.” Resilience helps kids bounce back from the most trivial of slights and the most horrible of traumas. Contrary to popular notion, these skills can be taught. They are shaped by goal-setting, planning for success, and developing confidence through real achievements. In other words, planning for success, and then succeeding, brings more success. A desire for a better life helped these students set their bars high. They were motivated to take the toughest courses, get high grades, ask for extra assignments, and work at challenging jobs out of school. They were determined not to allow current constraints on their lives follow them into their futures.

Moms: When we asked, “Who is the person most influential to your school success?” these students overwhelming cited their mothers. Perhaps if more fathers were in their lives, we’d have heard about them, too. But mothers who had low levels of literacy, who spoke no English, who were 10,000 miles away, who were ill and dying, who insisted that “you will be the first to go to college,” were so potent a force that they defined these students’ schedules and behaviors. None of this will surprise those familiar with the work of the Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg, whose research shows that a student’s academic success has as much or more to do with high parental expectations and an authoritative parenting style than income, ethnicity, or the parents’ level of educational attainment. For our applicants, each night, and each morning, there was a parent, or a memory of one, prodding them on.

Not everybody has the time or the skills to help push uphill the big boulder of districtwide school improvement. But many of us can help pull more students through the eye of the needle. Here’s what you can do:

Volunteer to mentor. Call the counselor at your local high school to volunteer directly. Or make a long-term commitment to a middle-schooler, or help a senior with potential get through the arduous application and financial-aid process.

Provide leadership opportunities. Many institutions and businesses offer internships to students, coach them in professional skills, and sponsor programs that range from moot-court competitions to enterprise development. Get involved and save these programs from budget cuts.

Ask two things of your district. Request that the district expand the number of counselors in middle and high schools, and ask it to focus less on getting parents to meetings than on getting them to buy in to the notion that high expectations for achievement trump everything. Parenting to put kids on a path to college is a skill that can developed.

Write a check. Support organizations that open our poorest high-achieving students’ eyes to life outside crowded classrooms. Three that do a good job are Prep for Prep, Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, and the Posse Foundation.

Many of us are builders and doers, but none of us alone can slow global warming, stop the slide of the dollar, or eradicate poverty. But we can invest in our poorest high-achieving students. They’re dreaming of ways to get these jobs done.

Vol. 27

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