How One Teacher Makes 'Impossible' College Dreams Possible for Students

Iishe Davis,  a sophomore at Scripps College, is working this summer at the college campus in Claremont, Calif. Originally from Louisville, Ky., Davis got guidance on choosing a college through Ivy Plus Academy, a special program at her high school.
Iishe Davis, a sophomore at Scripps College, is working this summer at the college campus in Claremont, Calif. Originally from Louisville, Ky., Davis got guidance on choosing a college through Ivy Plus Academy, a special program at her high school.
—Patrick T. Fallon/Education Week
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As a teacher, Beau Baker has a lot to be proud of in the just-graduated class of seniors from Ivy Plus Academy in Louisville, Ky.

Of a class of 26 students, 23 will be attending private colleges or universities in the fall, and 19 of them will be at out-of-state schools; one chose the U.S. Marine Corps. And just two of those students will be paying more than $10,000 in tuition. Five students will only be paying for their books and fees.

Before joining the academy, Baker’s students hardly thought they would be able to attend the University of Kentucky, with its approximately $12,000 price tag, let alone private institutions costing up to $60,000 or more.

Ivy Plus Academy is a special program offered by Fern Creek High School, a 1,760-student public magnet school. More than 80 percent of Fern Creek’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, or are considered to be racial or ethnic minorities, or qualify for special education or English-language instruction.

The academy program works to match selected low-income, first-generation students with colleges and universities that can assist them with financial aid. Baker, an AP Language and Composition teacher and the dean and founder of the academy, is that matchmaker.

Students of Ivy Plus are required to take specific advanced math, English, science, and social studies classes, in addition to AP courses and electives. They also meet with Baker before, after, and sometimes during school to learn more about opportunities available to them after graduation.

The seeds for Ivy Plus were planted 15 years ago when Baker got into teaching. He remembers asking his students about their pursuit of higher education, their applications for college, and the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). He found that most had little knowledge of their options and the admissions process.

“What they lack the most is confidence,” Baker said. “Most of my kids are first-gen kids, they’re from low-income families. They think, ‘Yeah, but that’s not for a kid like me.’” Of the 51 total graduates of Ivy Plus Academy, 43—or 84 percent—are first-generation college students; 35—or 68 percent—received federal Pell grants; and 19—25 percent—are members of minority groups.

One-Man Operation

So Baker began meeting with students and parents individually on his own. On top of a full class schedule at Fern Creek, he was also acting as a college counselor to his high-achieving students.

“[The other students and I] always joked how he was kind of a father figure,” Amaya Bradford, who graduated last spring, said. “He wouldn’t walk our steps for us, but he would walk right next to us.”

Bradford said that before she entered the Ivy Plus program, she only knew of the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky. She will be attending Davidson College, a private liberal arts school in North Carolina, in the fall.

Four years ago, things changed for Baker. Although he was, and is still, the only Fern Creek teacher working directly with Ivy Plus students to plan their schedules and find their right college match, he gained the support of Fern Creek Assistant Principal Rebecca Nicolas, who took on some of his administrative tasks, gave funding to the program, provided Baker with an extra planning period, and helped establish the now 200-student strong Ivy Plus Academy within the school.

“We really are capitalizing on something that I don’t think a lot of other schools are addressing: undermatching,” Nicolas said.

High-achieving students are “undermatched” when they choose less-demanding colleges over more-selective ones or don’t attend college at all. According to 2014 research by Matthew Chingos, the director of the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Program, 27 percent of high-income students and over 50 percent of lower-income students undermatch.

“High schools can help students understand the opportunities available,” Chingos said. “But high schools, a lot of times, don’t have a lot of resources.”

Additionally, according to Chingos, many competitive colleges will choose to recruit students at more affluent, high-achieving high schools, rather than low-income schools, because they are able to access a greater number of potential candidates easily.

Travel to College

Baker said that his main goal throughout the process is to help as many students as possible find the right match for them upon graduation, and outside funding helps further enhance that mission.

With donations from the school’s alumni association and outside supporters, Baker organizes two road trips each summer so students can visit schools that they may be applying to, or see campuses similar to the schools they hope to attend. Each year, Baker chooses a different region of the country to visit. If students go on the trip all three summers they are in the program, they may see up to 40 different campuses without having to pay for their travel.

But for the students who may not visit the school that they wish to attend on the road trip, Baker makes sure to find funding for individual visits. Baker’s rule is that students are not allowed to enroll until they have physically visualized themselves on that campus.

For Baker, it is not enough to get a student to the school of their choice, he wants to make sure they succeed and are happy when they get there.

“I remember what I felt like as a first-gen college kid. I kind of felt like, did I trick these people [into accepting me]?” Baker said.

That feeling is why the rest of the funding that he has, the amount that does not go towards paying for applications and sending transcripts, he uses to make sure students have what they need to get adjusted on campus. In the past, this has included luggage, bedding, a dorm fridge, and even a winter coat for a student attending school in Vermont.

Helping Students Persist

Even after his baby birds are out of the nest, Baker calls them throughout their freshman year to make sure they feel like they belong.

“That school saw value in them. They saw worth in them,” Baker said. “For a lot of my kids, they don’t get that on a day-to-day basis.”

Iishe Davis, now a rising sophomore at Scripps College, a liberal arts women’s college in California, said that she recieves five messages a semester from Baker, which are especially encouraging considering how far away she is from home.

Before Ivy Plus, Davis was initially set on attending a small school in India after graduation, but going to school in California has allowed her to pursue her other passions.

“Being away let’s me reflect on the things that I experienced, being a person of color,” Davis said. “There weren’t many opportunities for me to get involved in social activism [in Kentucky].”

Baker admits there are still some limitations in his program. For one, students apply to join when they are just out of middle school, when they may not be considering higher education yet. Others may go through three years of Ivy Plus only to find that they may not want to pursue college at all. For Baker and his students, it is trial and error.

Still, more than anything, Baker wishes that he could take in more students. Ivy Plus serves about 10 percent of Fern Creek’s students now. In the next couple of years, he hopes to increase this percentage to 20.

As a magnet school, Fern Creek High School brings in students from throughout the district. If a student attends the school for one of its other magnet programs, like Marine JROTC or Computer Science, he or she may additionally take part in Ivy Plus Academy, but the academy is not a magnet program on its own.

In the future, Baker hopes to expand the academy within his school by making it a magnet program and to encourage other schools to create a similar program.

Nicolas shares Baker’s goals to expand and hopes to further embed the program into classroom instruction as it grows.

“It’s really a duty we’re going to have to share among all of our teachers and classrooms,” Nicolas said. “It can no longer just be the Beau show.”

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Baker’s passion for matchmaking developed not from teaching, but from his time as a naval officer. He remembers asking his right-hand man, “Why didn’t you go to college?”

“He looked at me with a straight face and said, ‘You know what, Lieutenant? Because you’re the only one that’s ever said something like that to me’,” Baker said.

That moment stuck with him. He still sees Officer Tim in the students who do not think that college is a possibility for them, but Baker knows his work is worth it when his students get their college acceptance letters and, with tears of joy streaming down their faces, realize it is a possibility after all.

In the spring, as the graduating seniors of Ivy Plus Academy beamed with excitement, ready to head off to the colleges and universities of their choice, Baker sat them down, and asked them to write letters.

These letters were not for him, another student, or for parents. Baker wanted his students to write letters to themselves, to remind them of the excitement that they felt in the last months of their senior year; to remind them that they had made possible what they thought was impossible. He plans to mail them to his students right before their first-semester midterms, when they may be underestimating themselves the most.

“These kids need to understand what value they have. These kids have made me a better man and a better teacher because they showed me what resilience they have,” Baker said. He laughed, “I can’t believe they pay me.”

Vol. 38, Issue 02, Page 8

Published in Print: August 1, 2018, as Teacher Links His First-Generation Students to Colleges
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