When Susie Kay left her job as a Capitol Hill aide in the late 1980s, got an emergency certification, and wound up teaching history and government at Howard D. Woodson Senior High, a poor, nearly all-African American school in Washington, D.C., she thought she could make a difference. And she did, to a point. Up against racial obstacles and the city’s surging crack epidemic—she attended 10 students’ funerals in her first year—Kay made significant headway with the initially wary kids in her classroom. But no matter how bright they were, college was financially out of the question, something she felt she had to change.
That’s why she started Hoop Dreams, a foundation named for, but otherwise unconnected to, the 1994 documentary about two boys’ dashed dreams to escape the ghetto with basketball scholarships.
Starting in 1996, Kay used her Capitol Hill connections to organize an annual basketball tournament: her students versus U.S. senators, Hill staffers, and others to raise money for scholarships. Just as important, she set up SAT-prep tutoring, internships, and paired community-leader mentors with her students to teach them all-important “soft skills.”
Kay quit teaching three years ago to work full-time at her nonprofit, which has raised $2.5 million in the last 10 years, helping nearly 1,000 students afford college. Teacher Magazine recently spoke with Kay about the boundaries of the classroom, the limits of money, and why she misses teaching.
Q How did you convince students to focus on learning about the Supreme Court or the Bill of Rights when they were surrounded by poverty, violence, and drugs? Did outside forces interrupt classroom learning?
A All the time. To really teach effectively, you had to approach things very differently. You needed to make sure everything else was in order in these kids’ lives so they could focus and believe there is a tangible future ahead. The first thing is to not get defeated by the abyss—how daunting and overwhelming and, frankly, depressing it can be sometimes—and to not give up hope. Because when you do, then it’s game over for the kids, too.
Q So how involved were you in students’ lives outside the classroom?
A Extremely. ... Particularly when I first started, I was a lot younger and so was very much a friend and confidante. I would try to think of activities over the weekend, like going to museums or educational movies or political rallies. I would have them over for dinner. I’d get to know a lot of their families. I’m Jewish, but I’d go to church services. One of my first students had me be the godmother of her child. I forged some very, very deep relationships that still exist almost 15 years later. Sometimes I feel like if I opened myself up, [I] would just see all of these kids.
Q Do teachers in disadvantaged schools need to get involved in students’ lives outside the classroom in order to be effective?
A They don’t have to. Teachers shouldn’t be asked to be martyrs or saints. They have their own lives. I think so many teachers, though, do become much more involved.
Q What are the biggest factors keeping inner-city kids from going to college?
A I think it’s the totality of their lives—shorter life expectancy, very inadequate health care, inadequate resources in an overwhelmed school, and all the other social and economic issues. This is such a big one: trying to get them focused in a believable way that there is a future. When you see your peers killed or dying, it changes the whole paradigm of working toward a future. We had one student last year who lived in a housing project, and it burned down the day her Hoop Dreams application was due. She came to our office and got a copy of the application. She was somehow able to extricate herself from her immediate circumstances and keep that eye on the prize. That’s a hard thing to ask of a kid.
Q What was the fate of your students who didn’t make it to college?
A Not good. So many students were killed, so many ended up in jail. Students ended up homeless, and students ended up as young single mothers. I just ran into two of my students yesterday. We helped send them to college, but they didn’t make it, and they had been up all night looking for construction jobs, just walking around the streets. These were two good, hopeful students. Even if the money’s there, it’s very difficult for our kids. The realities of their lives do not go away.
There was one young man who had all the hope in the world. He got a scholarship to go to California to play ball. He came back over the summer, and the reality of his life here just took over. He took part in a crime [as an accomplice in a holdup in which someone was killed], and he is in jail. It’s devastating. He almost miraculously was going to turn things around, and now he’s in jail for most of his life. I’ll never forget testifying at his trial [as a character witness]. We had been so close, he couldn’t even look at me.
Q What kind of a toll does that take?
A Even after just a few years, I probably wasn’t the same teacher I started out as. As a country, we’re too quick to blame teachers. We want to always blame something rather than taking a good hard look at all of the issues that contribute to an education system that isn’t working.
Q Why did you quit teaching?
A It was just the reality of working nearly 24 hours a day on Hoop Dreams, because that’s what it took to keep it going. I was being pulled in a million directions.
Q What’s more important, providing scholarships or pairing kids with mentors?
A You can’t go to college without money, but the scholarships are now the least of what we do. We’ve cultivated about 800 relationships between regional businesspeople and inner city D.C. public high school students. You cannot put a price tag on human support and involvement. While it can’t be done without the money, the most powerful thing we do is the wraparound part, including the internship, mentoring, and SAT prep. It’s the tangible support system that comes from our staff and the mentors and a broader community of people. The “oomph” of what we do is build this network we hope can lobby and advocate on behalf of our kids.
Q Are you accomplishing more at Hoop Dreams than you could have in the classroom?
A I’m able to get a lot more people involved. I feel like I am able to do what I do well, which is to lobby on behalf of the kids—to use my passion for them and my belief in them to get others to feel it as well, and to bring people together. The reach is much, much broader. But it’s apples and oranges. I miss the intensity of being with the students all day long. It’s very different than running an organization where I need to raise $1.3 million a year.