The young man told his classmates that after graduating from high school, he wasn’t going to college or even get a job. He said he was going to sign up for disability.
The teacher thought he was just being a class clown, so she pulled the student out of the classroom to chastise him, to admonish him for planting such a foolish seed in his classmates’ heads.
But, no, he said, seriously, that was his plan. That’s how he was told he could add to his family’s income.
The young woman stood in the gymnasium and shared with the small group of students around her that, yes, she was going to college, but soon thereafter she was going drop out.
The counselor stopped her before she could say why, before she could say being the first one in her family to go to college was more important than being the first to graduate from one.
“Hold up,” the counselor said. “Don’t call that up. Don’t give that thought life.”
“I want to be a welder,” another young woman said, though her tone conveyed some trepidation.
“But …,” she added.
Classmates told her welding was not an acceptable profession for a girl.
“Girl, I need you at my house,” the counselor said.
The student’s eyes lit up, a smile filled her face.
Think about trying to change perceptions deeply embedded in young minds, to alter generations of misconceptions about education, about work, about family.
Try flipping the switch on behaviors that all but perpetuate poverty and hopelessness, behaviors learned from parents, grandparents and beyond.
Try broadening the horizon for students who’ve been told little about what lies beyond the county line, and even less about how to stride beyond it in pursuit of a dream–a career, or a life much different than the one they’ll leave behind.
Now, think about trying to accomplish all of that with 10,808 young people at 43 high schools in 17 counties we know as the Black Belt–a more-than-7,500-square mile swatch across our state where residents are too often overlooked, forgotten or left to do what they’ve always done, to know what they always knew.
Assessing the Black Belt
It’s a place where education has not been as valued as it is elsewhere and thus has not moved the needle for generations of students.
In the Class of 2016, all but four Black Belt districts graduated students at a rate exceeding 90% percent, comparing relatively favorably with the state’s rate of 93%.
Yet those numbers belie the disturbing reality that being a high-school graduate from a Black Belt school too often means little-to-nothing beyond graduation day.
At many Black Belt schools, fewer than half of the 2015 graduates were deemed college or career ready (a statewide measurement based on a student achieving one of six indicators, ranging from test scores to enlisting in the military).
At some schools, barely two in ten graduates were college or career ready.
And those numbers do not even begin to measure how many of those students who do reach college or begin a career actually stay in college (let alone graduate), or who achieve a sustainable career that elevates them beyond the conditions from which they came.
That is the gargantuan task undertaken by UAB’s Dr. Tonya Perry and a team of educators from UAB and elsewhere at Gear Up Alabama, a seven-year initiative funded by a $ 60-million U.S. Department of Education grant through the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships.
Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is a national program that seeks to raise college- and career-readiness among students from low-income households by targeting them no later than 7th grade and providing them, their families and schools with much-needed resources, guidance, and inspiration through their first year of college.
“Five things move the needle for children,” says Perry, at UAB associate professor and principal investigator for Gear Up Alabama. “Comprehensive mentoring, counseling and advising, financial awareness and advice, a rigorous curriculum, and tutoring, test prep and ongoing support.”
Introducing the Black Belt Gear Up students
Black Belt Gear Up students are now in the 9th and 10th grades. During their first two years in the program, administrators largely gathering data and evaluated the learning environment.
“We go into every classroom and see their teachers,” Gear Up project director Dr. Samantha Briggs. “Where are they regarding professionalism? Where are the children academically? And we continuously let them know we’re here for seven years.
“Now,” she says, “we’re in the possibility phase.”
That includes more intervention, including college tours, excursions most Black Belt schools simply can’t afford.
It also includes so, so many things–like providing cash-starved schools with personnel and funds to purchase more classroom equipment and books; educating parents so they can better support their child’s education journey; teaching students what “better study habits” really means; and much more.
Like instilling in students that they can do better than their parents and grandparents.
That their lives to not have to follow the same script–working at an early age, never considering college as a viable (forget necessary) option.
“A lot of children from poor urban and rural areas don’t think college is a possibility because they need to work and provide income for their families,” says Briggs. “They’re just following the path their parents and grandparents laid out before them.”
“They think, ‘I may graduate from high-school.’ or ‘I may get to college.’ College is so far-fetched to them, it is something ‘they’ do, not ‘we’.
“We’re trying to get them to see they are the ‘they.’
The uneven journey to “they”
The bumps in this task are sometimes unexpected.
Gear Up administrators recently had to find sheets for students who said they couldn’t attend a summer-enrichment program on a college campus because their family couldn’t afford the bedding they need to stay in a dorm. Some parents showed up with their children, only to turn around and take them back to the Black Belt because they’d never before spent the night away from home.
“We don’t always remember how daunting college is,” says Perry. “And we forget the parents often need help, too. We have to try to be prepared for anything.”
A few weeks ago, Perry and Briggs and about a dozen other UAB professors and administrators–including Dr. Lynn Kirkland, interim dean of the School of Education–boarded a bus in in the pre-dawn darkness for the 100-mile ride from Birmingham to R.C. Hatch High School in Uniontown, one of only two schools in Perry County. (The other is Francis Marion; both are K-12 and both are vastly underperforming relative to statewide standards.)
Perry and Briggs visit a Black Belt school every Tuesday.
“The only way to do this work is to touch it,” said Perry. “Doing so helps you know and understand. I don’t think anything takes the place of human interaction.”
They brought boxes of books and other supplies–and a genuine enthusiasm for the day’s events, particularly among those who make this similar journey to a Black Belt school once each month and who are now seeing youngsters they’ve been working with for almost four years.
“When children see you a second time they almost always say, ‘I didn’t think you’d come back,’” Briggs says.
Hatch vs. Marion, the rivalry
Not surprisingly, Hatch and Marion are staunch rivals, in almost every everything.
On this day, however, Marion’s Gear Up students came to the Hatch gym to celebrate their collective journey with their Hatch counterparts as part of an event designed to sustain the students’ enthusiasm and provide at least a few minutes of one-to-one mentoring from the UAB administrators.
But not before there was at least some competition–a battle of the bands that was as spirited as any you’ll see at a football game between historically black college rivals.
(In fact, you’ll someday see Marion drum major Christavion Henderson leading an HBCU band one day, write it down.)
Afterwards, Perry, a former Alabama Teacher of the Year, fired up the students with chants, then shared her own personal journey from rural Farmers Union, N.C., in the eastern part of the state, where land was parceled off to freed slaves. “It still doesn’t have a zip code,” she says.
Perry is among more than 5,000 descendants of Benjamin and Edith Spaulding; he was mixed-race and born a slave, she a Native American from the Waccamaw and Cape Fear tribes.
Farmers Union history
They acquired a farm and a mill in Farmers Union, had nine children and 76 grandchildren. Both of Perry’s parents were teachers, but they were also farmers.
She once took her father to a Japanese restaurant where he tried Miso soup. “It’s a good thing I didn’t have to plow with a mule after eating this,” he said.
“We had to make the best of everything we had on the farm,” Perry said. “So, I know what it’s like to have dreams–and a spittoon.”
Briggs, by contrast, is a fourth-generation college graduate whose father is former Missouri state special assistant attorney general Forriss Elliott. The “baby” of five children, she taught kindergarten and earned a Masters degree in women’s studies and a Ph.D. in instructional leadership.
Her husband, however, is one of 10 children born to a mother who possessed only an eighth-grade education. He never met his father.
“He had to carve his own path to get out of poverty and crime,” Briggs said. “He’s the only one of his 10 siblings not to go to prison.”
Dr. Calvin Briggs is now director of the STEM program at Lawson State.
Hatch principal Leslie Ford-Turner, a 1991 Hatch honors graduate, shared with her students that she was once a fighter. (“I don’t do it anymore,” she told the students, “unless I have to.” They laughted.)
Then she became emotional when she told them about her two nephdews who were killed in a car accident three years ago.
“Even when things don;t go your way,” she said, “You still have to persevere.”
It’s important for Gear Up students, Perry says, to know that many of the successful people working with them have endured similar struggles.
“They sometimes think people magically appeared where they are,” she says.
The Gear Up team–top to bottom
Such a massive undertaking requires a significant infrastructure to even a modicum of a chance at success. Beyond Perry, Briggs and three others work on the program at UAB, there are six regional coordinators overseeing 39 retired educators working 20 hours per week in each of the schools. “They work a lot more than that,” Perry says.
There are also team leaders in each school; they are administrators, counselors and career coaches or classroom teachers. All told, Gear Up supports about 89 part-time employees.
At each school, they work with a “Gear Up team” that includes the principal, guidance counselor, three school employees, a member of the local business community and parents. The group approves all Gear Up work that is conducted inside the schools, as well as field trips and programs.
Finally, the program relies on volunteers from Auburn, the University of Alabama, Alabama State and the Black Belt Community Foundation to “figure out gaps and where we need to go,” Perry says.
Hatch principal Leslie Ford-Turner, who graduated from Hatch in 1991 with honors, says she sees the Gear-Up effect in her 10th-grader. “Students are more focused on graduating from high school, and they are more aware of their options,” she says.
Some of which may not cost them a single penny. Gear Up graduates will be able to attend any Alabama two-year college for free; qualifying parents, as well, are eligible for a tuition waiver at two-year colleges.
“This alone eliminates excuses for not attending college and their parents’ financial responsibilities,” says Ford-Turner. “Our students and parents are very fortunate to be a part of this grant.”
Gear Up success
Nationwide, Gear Up has seen success, though typically with smaller groups of students.
In 2007, nearly half of the Gear Up ninth-graders in a low-income school in the Bronx, New York were accepted into one of nine of the most prestigious and competitive public schools in the city. The overall acceptance for New York City middle schools was 20 percent; for Bronx schools, it was two percent.
In Oregon, Gear Up students took AP course exams at a rate 44 percent higher than their predecessors. Also, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding 10th-grade reading assessments climbed 16 percent; in math, the increase was 13 percent.
“I’m taking engineering classes,” the student began. “But the environment isn’t very good. The teacher gives me a worksheet and just tells me to do it. She doesn’t teach. I have to go home and teach myself.”
Perry and her team aren’t naive. They know their challenge is steep and broad as the Black Belt itself. Yet, of course, they are undaunted.
“I expect to see growth,” Perry says. “While we may not impact all 10,000 students, we will impact a large majority in some form or fashion. Some might choose a career or trade school; that’s an impact. We expect kids to be more informed about the college applications process and what schools actually look like. And we expect they won’t have to take remedial courses once they get to college.
“That’s a big challenge in Alabama.”
During the program at Hatch, Jimeria Smith, a Marion student, shared a poem.
It read, in part:
Success is a failure turned upside down
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt
And you can never tell how close you are
It may be near when it seems far
So, stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.