On a chilly early spring day, Taniesha Broadway and Rosie Martin sit on a sprawling green lawn at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. The two girls look the part of proud college sophomores. Martin wears a bright red Wisconsin sweatshirt and Broadway sports a grey Wisconsin zipup while sipping coffee from a UW Law School mug.
Ask these young women about their future plans and they don’t hesitate.
I’m going to graduate,” Martin says. “That’s a definite.”
I’m excited to go to law school,” Broadway adds. “I want to become a defense lawyer.”
With their confidence and energy, it’s easy to forget the obstacles these women overcame, as well as the challenges they will face until they graduate. The chances that a low-income Chicago Public School student will make it to a university campus—let alone receive a diploma—are slim.
In 2009, the high school dropout rate of students living with low-income families was approximately five times higher than the rate of their peers from high-income families. The 87 percent of CPS students qualifying as low-income are also significantly less likely to enroll in college immediately after high school graduation or to receive a college diploma. Just 10 percent of people from low-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25. Reasons for these disadvantages can include homelessness, family instability, and much more.
First generation college students, such as Martin, face additional challenges. They are more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework, and drop out. Furthermore, they often begin college less academically prepared than other students and are not more likely to receive help from their high schools in applying to colleges.
Nearly halfway through their college careers, Martin and Broadway are shining examples of why hardworking, intelligent students from low-income families deserve opportunities. They’re quick to share credit for their success with a group of dedicated supporters.
Comer really helped us,” Martin says. “Their motivation inspired us to be great. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be in this environment right now. We’d be in Chicago, not experiencing everything that we should.”
Comer To College makes a 10-year commitment to students on Chicago’s South Side—one of the city’s most impoverished areas. The program begins when students enters the sixth grade and finishes the day of college graduation.
Our motto is ‘redefining possible,’” says Chris Carlson, GCCP’s Director of Alumni Support. “It’s not acceptable that students who qualify and can attend some of the best schools in the country aren’t graduating.”
Comer To College serves approximately 900 students at Gary Comer College Prep, located in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, as well as 400 college students on campuses across the United States. To date, 100 percent of GCCP graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges or universities and 90 percent of these students are on track to graduate.
The program benefits both its participants and society, says Bill Schleicher, a director at the Comer Family Foundation. “If you look at that $1,000 per year per kid, your return on investment would be through the roof,” he says, citing tax revenue from graduates with a good income and a lack of social costs, such as unemployment and welfare. “It’s the social benefit of people being able to live fulfilling lives.”
At Gary Comer College Prep, a school created in 2008 through a partnership between the Comer Family Foundation and the Noble Network of Charter Schools, students work with committed staff to prepare for college through rigorous courses, visits to universities around the region and participation in summer enrichment programs on college campuses. As juniors and seniors, students receive application assistance, support with their FAFSA and the financial aid process, classwork that includes admissions essays, and preparation for standardized tests required for admission. The investment led to impressive results: As of 2012, GCCP claimed the second highest ACT scores out of 116 non-selective public high schools in Chicago.
Through Comer To College, the team aims for every former GCCP student to receive a college diploma—an ambitious task given Noble’s previous alumni graduation record of 30 percent. To achieve the goal, Comer staff must provide the support that students often lack from their families and universities. “I don’t think higher education has a good grasp on how to serve these kids,” Carlson said. “They can’t just go to the minority affairs office.”
Comer To College ensures each student will receive campus visits from Carlson or other staff, engages with peers through the GCCP alumni social network, takes part in special events over school breaks, and receives mentorship from a network of volunteers who are tied to the university or have previous connections to the Comers.
“These individuals go far beyond their title as ‘mentor,’” Carlson says. “They attend students’ shows, check on their grades, tutor students, open their homes to students who can’t go home for the holidays, and ask nothing in return.” In addition, each student receives a subsidized smart phone for 24/7 assistance. This way, the Comer team is ready to field questions from students adjusting to college life.
For Broadway, Martin and other GCCP graduates, the transition wasn’t easy.
I got here and it was like culture shock,” Martin says, describing her first few days on campus. “We weren’t used to living in this type of environment. We’re still getting used to it.”
Carlson is never sure what to expect when he answers the phone, but he said he’s no longer surprised by any request. He’s helped students buy winter clothes, defend their scholarships, coordinate rides to campus, do their taxes and more. “If we weren’t here, I wonder what would be happening,” he says.
Low-income and first-generation students often don’t know who to call when things go wrong, says Schleicher, who was the first person in his family to attend college. “People take for granted the amount of support they have and the experiences they can talk to their parents about,” he says. “A lot of people don’t have family who can understand what’s happening. They need to have someone to go to when everyone else fails.”
Broadway, for instance, often struggles to communicate her experiences when she calls home.
I can’t talk to my mom about certain things,” she says. “She can’t believe it’s happening or she can’t [imagine] this environment because she’s never been here. This program provides support. It provides relationships that are almost like family. You call on them for everything and when you need help, they’re a great resource because these people have been to college.”
Given the lack of familial support, it’s no surprise that many low-income, first-generation students face emotional obstacles. According to the common feelings include anxiety, shame, confusion and depression.
Thanks to support from Comer, however, Martin and Broadway’s biggest challenge is a happier one: time management.
“I can’t say no to an opportunity, so I run myself crazy,” Broadway says. She is studying, working and participating in UW’s highly competitive program First Wave that focuses on urban arts, spoken word, and hip hop.
Martin recently received a promotion with The Human Rights Campaign to manage efforts for LGBT rights. “This school is really helping me when it comes to finding a job, studying [and] getting myself together,” she said.
As students such as Broadway and Martin graduate, they will represent a new cadre of mentors for incoming Comer freshmen. Given the success to date and self-sustaining model, Schleicher sees the potential to serve many more low-income, first-generation students with similar programs.
There are so many kids who want to succeed and so many ways that all of us can help,” Schleicher says. “We think this endeavor of Comer To College could be a national model.”
Story | © 2014 Megan Morrison | Comer Family Foundation