Middle Schoolers Visit Colleges, Touring their Future

August 1, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Poverty is often cyclical in nature.  The American Dream has always centered on the chance to have a richer and fuller life with opportunities according to ability, regardless of economic status.  This dream includes a decently well-paying job, home ownership, watching football on a plasma-screen television, steak for dinner, the works.  Unfortunately for most people, this American Dream is completely unattainable.  It is so unattainable that many people living in poverty cannot even picture themselves doing these things.  And the worst part is, they cannot imagine their children having a life that is any different from their own.

In this day and age, most Americans know that in order to live the American Dream (or at least a portion of it), they need not only to graduate from high school, but to earn a college degree.  But attending a university is expensive; even for all those mottos touting the idea that you can achieve anything as long as you work hard, there simply is not enough financial aid and scholarship money to go around for all the students who could go to college but cannot afford it.

This problem of the cyclical poverty, where generation after generation fails to attain the necessary education to have a well-paying career, hits home in the East Austin Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, of the 5,776 residents aged 25 and above in the Govalle/Johnston Terrace (78721) neighborhood, only 53.1% have a high school diploma or higher, and only a miniscule 7.3% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.  The result?  One in five families (21.4%) lives below the poverty line.

What students from this historically poverty-stricken, educationally-stunted neighborhood need is a place to start.  And for many of them, that place is the East Austin College Prep Academy.

Upon entering the East Austin College Prep main school building, it immediately becomes clear that this is no ordinary middle school.  Hanging from the ceiling along the central corridor are banners from universities all over the U.S., some perhaps more familiar to Texans (Rice University, UT, Texas State) and some that may be a little more foreign to the middle schoolers (Dartmouth, University of Washington, Yale).  Each classroom door has a sign indicating who teaches in that particular room and what college they graduated from.  From the moment a student begins their academic career at East Austin Prep, the expectations are set: each student must graduate from high school and be accepted into college.

On a tour of Baylor University

In order to facilitate this college-bound culture at East Austin Prep, field trips were taken to various Texas universities throughout the 2010-2011 school year through a program called “College Connections.”  The trips were funded by the State Farm “Breaking Barriers Through Success” grant, which aims to teach students about “disparate education, achievement gaps, and the barriers faced by particular sub-groups in receiving advanced and higher education opportunities” through a “direct service learning project developed by youth” to achieve greater awareness that “all students, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status, should have access to higher education.”

To get the gears turning in students’ heads, East Austin Prep’s College Coordinator, Kristan Silva, had students complete a project researching educational disparities that affect their immediate community and the state of Texas.  (Read more about this project)

Inside a classroom at UT

Fueled by the college focus of their school and the new insights gleaned from their research, the students were ready to see for themselves what college was like.  Ms. Silva arranged for the 7th grade students to visit six Texas universities: UT San Antonio, Texas Christian, UT Austin, Texas A&M, Texas State, and Baylor.  Parents were invited to join their kids on trips as well since they would be sharing their child’s journey to college.

Each college trip had a similar agenda, including a student-guided tour, lunch on campus, dorm visits, and a free university t-shirt they could wear on Fridays to school.  To give the middle schoolers a sense of the financial reality that comes with attending a university, the tour guides would touch upon the costs of attending college and the various means through which one can pay for college.  Afterwards, the students had a group discussion where they could gain a better understanding of the college and any remaining questions could be answered.

The engineering department at UTSA

One of the most distinctive moments of students’ college trips was their visit to the UT San Antonio engineering department.  As they gathered around, a professor from the department talked to the students about engineering and the importance of math in science.  Afterwards, she showed them some of the robots that her undergrads were working on.  Throughout the demonstration, the students were quiet, respectful, and completely engaged in what they were learning.  It was clear their encounter with college-level engineering had firmly established interest among the students in careers in a scientific field; upon returning to school the next week, several started talking about becoming engineers.

During their trips, students see first-hand what being in college entails; the experiences will undoubtedly represent a tangible end-goal for their academic careers.  The students were in awe throughout their time at the universities, picturing themselves as future college students.

A stop along the tour at Texas State University

The middle schoolers at East Austin Prep have a long way to go before they become full-fledged college students, but their curriculum and classroom experience at East Austin Prep keep the idea of college at the forefront of their minds.  By emphasizing the importance of college, addressing barriers the students may face, and introducing them to the college environment, this innovative middle school prepares its students for the challenges that await them in applying to college and beyond.  Students at East Austin Prep are given the skills, support, and encouragement that has been lacking in the past so that these bright youngsters can succeed in college and help bring an end to the cycle of poverty.

The whole group at TCU

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern
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Entry filed under: East Austin Children's Promise, EAustin College Prep Academy, Education.

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