By Rob Schroeder
“If the goal is for students to leave high school and move on to be productive citizens in America, we have to be responsible for how we help them do that. If we know they come from a truly low-income background, and we know they won’t have the supports at home to do it, who else is going to do it, who else will be the advocate?”
Darryl Warr’s high school years are a model of the stereotypes of teen life on the south side of Chicago. By the age of 17, Warr was on the verge of becoming a walking, talking statistic. Failing grades? Check. Nearly kicked out of school? Check. Run-in with the police? Check. And then there was the hand wound caused by police gunfire during an unarmed break-in. Polish off that resume with the demographic scorecard as a student from an impoverished neighborhood at historically challenged Bowen High School, and nearly every conceivable social barrier stood between Warr and enrollment in college.
In spring 2015, Warr is entering his second semester at Paul Quinn College in Dallas. Some might claim this bucks the south side teen stereotype. This is not a feel-good “look what you can do too” story, although Warr hopes his story can be an example to youth in his neighborhood. This is a “look what a school can do” story, a tale of intentionally-built support services and interventions engineered by the school’s principal and staff that quickly tear down both barriers to college and stereotypes and have transformed Bowen from a literal outpost on Chicago’s southern fringe to a locus for college readiness and persistence.
There’s another reason why this is not a feel-good story, and that reason takes the form of garbage bags.
Nia Abdullah is the principal of Bowen High School and the architect of the school’s post-secondary support systems. Principal, architect, stand-in mother, chauffeur and, when the garbage bags make their first appearance, concierge.
“A lot of times, we have to buy our alumni a Greyhound ticket [to get to college], and then we find out we need to take them to the station as well,” Abdullah (photo below, right) said. “So I pick them up, they are about to go away to college, it’s their first time ever leaving the city, and they have garbage bags with all their belongings.”
And so she opens up her pocket book through a Go Fund Me account to buy luggage, sheets, pillows, shower supplies, all the accoutrements her alumni need to fit in on campus.
There are at least four stories interwoven here (among others): first, a student who persists against odds created by inexcusable social conditions. Second, a principal who personally invests in that student. Third, a school that has instituted systems of supports so all of its students can expect to be supported in shaping and pursuing their aspirations. And finally, a social and economic context that persists in creating obstacles that schools, families, and students are fighting to overcome.
The tentacles of poverty touch every step of the high school-to-college transition that Abdullah fosters, in overt ways at the Greyhound station and in hidden ways in the decision-making of students and families. Generations of poverty make college attendance an outlier, not the norm: only eight percent of South Chicago residents hold a Bachelor’s degree. And that is where the cultural transformation begins.
Abdullah and her team of college and career specialists set high expectations with no exceptions, requiring every student to apply for seven or more colleges in order to graduate, three of which need to be a “match” school aligning with ACT scores and GPA. Students are required to attend college tours to understand the campus feel of a liberal arts college, a small college and a large public university like Urbana-Champaign or UIC. Any student accepted into college is congratulated with an announcement over the school’s intercom, and banners featuring graduates and their college of choice line 87th St.
Bowen hosts college chats, in which teachers and staff spend a few minutes during class or in the lunch room discussing their college experience, why they picked their particular college, what they would change about their experience and tips for decision-making. The school’s college and career staff reach out to parents who have zero familiarity with the application process and who hold genuine fear of their child leaving the city’s boundaries for the first time. Not surprisingly, the expense of college is a main concern, and the Bowen staff talks parents through payment options and offers financial assistance for small one-time expenses like a housing deposit. Equipped with resources to expand decision-making options, parents respond much more favorably towards the idea of college.
Abdullah created a data-heavy approach to guide interactions between the college and career staff and Bowen students. Each week, Abdullah and staffers are able to view data on which schools students have applied to and been accepted at, which scholarships match best with students and corresponding application and award data, and metrics on which students have attended college fairs or tours. Data enables the staff to zero in on subsets of students to create early interventions.
“I have learned through the UIC program that I cannot hold all of this information, I have to make sure everyone has this information to help and guide students through the enrollment process,” Abdullah said. “Teachers see they have a role in this process and are really embracing that role.”
Warr transferred to Bowen High School in 2010 from Dunbar Vocational School as a freshman. The transfer brought him back to school in his own neighborhood, back in the company of all his friends. The remainder of his freshman year was fine; his sophomore year was a disaster.
“I was failing, I was nearly getting kicked out of school; I really didn’t know what to do,” Warr said.
Personal and intentional intervention from Abdullah guided Warr back on track. She personally tutored Warr and a friend throughout their second year as their grades slowly rose. By Warr’s junior year, he obtained all A’s and B’s in his first semester. In his second semester, he says he took his academic success for granted and started slacking off. Again, it was Abdullah who intervened, telling Warr he needed to focus on a personal plan for moving forward post-high school. That plan took on a new dimension after Warr was shot.
“[Ms. Abdullah] never told me to look out of state, but you get tired of watching your back and all of the stereotypes,” Warr said. “Chicago is like a battlefield, it’s like a homeless man’s battlefield. You get tired of trying to not get shot no more.”
With that final prodding from Abdullah, the responses started pouring in: Chicago State University, Olive Harvey College and to Warr’s great surprise, Paul Quinn in Dallas. He enrolled at Paul Quinn with more than $32,000 in scholarship assistance.
Warr says there were two moments from Abdullah’s personal intervening that transformed him into a believer in his own potential for college. The first came after weeks of tutoring with Abdullah resulted in a B grade on an algebra quiz, a class in which Warr had never scored higher than a C-minus. The second indicator was his junior year report card, filled with A’s and B’s. Warr says despite the discipline issues from earlier in his academic career at Bowen, his friends and family would have “no choice but to respect [the report card.]”
“Getting shot gave me a wake-up call but didn’t change my mindset,” Warr said. “What changed my mindset was walking across the stage with people putting me down, and I knew I had proved them wrong.
“When they put my picture up with my cap and gown on all over the neighborhood, and everyone’s contacting me saying ‘You are the face of the ‘hood, we are just proud of you,’ it made me feel like a role model for the youth. I was in this ‘hood for 19 years; if I did it, I know you can.”
“College is just a dream in the wind for a lot of these students,” says Eugene Robinson. “We may have a student that research says has a certain academic profile making them more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college, but from a social-emotional standpoint, there is a lot pulling at them preventing that.”
Robinson projects a warm and welcoming presence as the college and career specialist at Bowen. In the school’s second-floor computer lab, he sits one-on-one with an alumnus currently enrolled in college working on a transfer to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He slowly coaxes the information he needs from the quiet teen, dropping tips about student life at Oshkosh along the way.
His role ranges from these one-on-one interactions and interventions to bigger picture management of the college pipeline. Robinson is the hands-on manager of Bowen’s extensive data, tracking match and safety schools across the pool of applicants, following the steps of the application process and matching students with scholarship opportunities.
“Nia and I strongly believe that neighborhood schools need a ratio of college and career coaches to students that is different [than other schools] because you have students with high needs,” Robinson said. “The conversation about college is new, and it’s overwhelming, and the advising has to be strong, but unfortunately for many neighborhood schools like Bowen it’s one conversation at a time.”
It may be a necessarily painstaking approach dictated by levels of staffing, but this approach does allow for individualized strategies. In Warr’s case, Robinson says he and the college support team focused on Warr’s self-efficacy and his belief he could facilitate change in his life and in that of others. Robinson says when the college team started unpacking the possibilities of college life and helping Warr see his own successes and his potential at Paul Quinn, Warr was able to take charge of what he needed despite what his surroundings were dictating to him.
Warr did not have the most supportive family environment; some family openly doubted his ability to graduate high school, let alone attend college. Robinson mitigates the effects of skeptical parents by asking families questions about what they envision for their child post high school and investigating family structure and dynamics. First generation college students mean first generation college parents, and parents whose children have never left their neighborhood as a child often cannot fathom their teen leaving at the age of 18. Robinson takes a two-pronged approach: using data to generate the best possible match schools with the highest financial aid and scholarship opportunities to convince parents of the financial feasibility and exposing the family frequently to the idea of college to equip students with the ability to go against the wishes of their family. Despite these efforts, Robinson says many Bowen students, including the top-achieving, attend school locally at a two-year community college who are easily qualified for a four-year college.
Chicago Public Schools assess alumni persistence in college, meaning Robinson and his team continue their relationship-building with students in their first years in college. Again, the team is seeking to prevent unfamiliarity with the routines of college from derailing students’ higher education careers. When Bowen alumni face academic probation or medical leave, they often simply drop out or return home without pursuing support services that can enable their education to continue. Colleges are just learning to be responsive to the needs of these students before they drop off the radar completely.
Warr disappeared from the Paul Quinn campus during the school’s summer bridge program in June 2014.
“I felt like I was living too much of [Ms. Abdullah’s] dreams, and I was really uncertain,” Warr said. “I left the program early and didn’t tell anyone.”
Three days later, when another bullet tore through Darryl Warr’s shoulder across the street from his South Chicago home, the carefully constructed system put in place by Abdullah and her team was on the verge of falling apart. Warr says he was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he was confused for another individual. Two people walked right up to him blatantly intending to shoot; he ran for his life and was struck in the shoulder.
“That was a wake-up call for me; I knew I should have stayed in Texas,” Warr said. “It never would have happened.”
Immediately, Abdullah and her team mobilized to create interventions assuring Warr made it back to Dallas for his freshman year. Each summer, Bowen hires current students and alumni, mostly males, in an attempt to keep these young men off the streets, provide monetary support and continue hammering home the thematic approach to college attendance. In 2014, Abdullah hired Warr to ensure this second brush with violence would be his last.
Fortunately, Warr has made a full recovery. College life continues to throw curveballs at him. He says he was overwhelmed by the level of freedom at first, away from his family for the first time, tempted by never-ending sleep and an active social life. Warr did not own his own computer or phone when he arrived on campus; he planned to study in the college’s computer labs but found himself competing for screen time with students in the same boat. Often, the only free computer time came at 2 a.m. before his 8:30 a.m. classes. Abdullah has since purchased a computer for Warr through her Go Fund Me account.
In December 2014, Warr returned home for the first time. His lack of excitement was palpable, although who can blame someone who nearly lost their life twice in the past two years? He will forever carry the scars of his teenage years with him, but Warr is a marked man in a different way.
“My friends who were my friends before I left, half are not my friends anymore,” Warr said. “They feel like I’m lame, a square.
“I learned who my real friends are. It’s a new world, a new path, a new mindset. I was gone for three months but I feel like I learned a year’s worth of knowledge. I want the youth know I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Is it fair that Abdullah spends part of her time fundraising for students and shelling out her own money to support her graduates? Warr certainly doesn’t think so. Abdullah sees the financial side as simply another part of the overall mission of the post-secondary supports at Bowen.
“If the goal is for students to leave high school and move on to be productive citizens in America, we have to be responsible for how we help them do that,” Abdullah said. “If we know they come from a truly low-income background, and we know they won’t have the supports at home to do it, who else is going to do it, who else will be the advocate?
“I would say it’s incumbent upon us to be the advocate because no one else is able to do it.”
Robinson sees the school’s success as a double-edged sword.
“We are building structures and systems and seeing some success in making things work with the resources we have, but we are not saying enough or pushing back when we need more resources,” Robinson said. “[Abdullah] was smart in hiring individuals who believe in putting kids first and not accepting the norm, who find ways to fundraise and use resources and connections, but the question is, is that a sustainable approach?”