Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The college process: Unanticipated expenses

Getting a kid enrolled in college and getting them through the paperwork and processes is no small feat, but just when you think you're home free, all of the unanticipated expenses of actually getting them to the college and set up for college life rear their ugly head.

I know some parents plan years in advance for the moment their child will go off to college. Most families I know, too burdened down by trying to manage paying the rent each month, have never even thought about saving or planning for college for their child(ren).

Yet, when the kids decide to go to college, some parents rally to get them what they need, despite all of their other financial obstacles. Just a couple of weeks ago, as I was getting ready to visit a college student, a parent brought me some things she hadn't had the time or money to get for her daughter when she had first taken her to college. As we loaded the things into my car, we talked about the financial aid process that her daughter was still trying to figure out. She then said to me, "Janet, I didn't know college made you poor!" To which I replied something about how I had to downgrade when I went to college, too. She quickly corrected me. "I'm not talking about the kids, I'm talking about me!"

Despite her slightly above minimum wage job and despite her own mother being on disability and having health problems, the family still managed to provide their new college student with some of the things she needed to make her college experience like that of other kids. The whole family rallied. Mom and grandma provided a phone, bedding, toiletries, snacks, etc., aunt contributed some of the offices supplies like a stapler, tape dispenser, and those kinds of items, older brother took her to school. The school (thank goodness) has small refrigerators and microwaves already in the rooms so they didn't have to make that investment.

But then they have to buy books. Probably 75% of the students I have known have gone without at least one book during their college career (and most, as a result, made a "D" or an "F" in the class). They tried to beat the system and borrow a friend's book or check it out from the library because they didn't have enough money to pay for it. Taking 12 hours (which is the least you can take and remain full time) costs around $400-$450 just for books. Unless they go to a community college, students rarely have enough financial aid to cover books. Besides that, even if they do have financial aid, it often doesn't come through at the beginning of the year. Students are often forced to drop and re-sign up for classes when their financial aid is finally processed. Some students go without books for the first few classes because any extra money they might be receiving doesn't come through and they don't have the money to front the registration and book fees. (Those of you who have purchased books know that used books are cheaper, but have to be purchased early. It's a little difficult to do that when the money doesn't come through until 1-2 weeks after classes start. It's hard to save money when you're poor.)

There are other hidden costs that could be prevented had a student known that if he/she dropped below 12 hours they will lose certain grants...or that they have to maintain a certain GPA to keep scholarship money...or that if you drop classes, the school and financial aid will make you pay it back. Sounds commonsensical, but when you're 18 and figuring out the process on your own, people don't tell you these details and they often find these things out by experience...and often don't even know or understand the reason and don't ask the questions to figure out why they don't have the same amount of financial aid they had before.

Colleges are eager to get students in by offering them many different financial incentives. But I've noticed those incentives don't always continue past the first year. I also have heard this great new financial package by many colleges that offer "FREE" tuition. But that's the only thing they're offering. Tuition. It doesn't pay for books, room and board, or any of the other fees. It's not as free as it seems on the enticing news reports.

The more I work with college students, the more daunting the college process seems to me. I am thoroughly amazed and impressed with the kids around me who make the decision and have the stamina to go to college. Going through the hoops of attending without money is extremely challenging and exhausting! It would be so easy to give up.

I pray that they don't.

The college process: Financial literacy awareness

As I drove into Turner Courts the other day, a mother quickly got out of her car and flagged me down. She explained that her son went to a Christian college last year and is unable to go back because they say he owes $6500. She doesn't understand how this could have happened and why the school didn't say anything last year. Her impression was that he didn't need any loans or extra money because Pell grants would pay for his college (Allow me to debunk that myth!). She was also concerned because she recognizes her own credit is bad and she knows if his education depends on her credit, he will not be able to attend college. Not only that, now that he owes this money, he will probably be blocked from entering any other university (even a less expensive one) as well.

The way our system is currently set up, the most vulnerable in our society are getting bamboozled. The ones who do decide to put faith in the post-secondary education system are not given adequate information to help them successful maneuver through it.

True enough, no one is absolved of responsibility because of lack of knowledge. Each of us have a responsibility to know what we are getting into and it is our responsibility to weigh those costs (financially and otherwise). However, when a person doesn't know that they don't know...or don't know that they need to find out, the odds are quickly stacked against someone.

The entire college financial process is set up in a way that assumes people understand loans, know how to research interest rates, can afford some type of low-interest debt, understand payment options, have checking accounts and credit cards, and know where to go if they don't know or understand something. The people who are most successful in that system are people who are part of families that already know, understand, and function within areas of business, housing loans, and credit on a daily basis. The people I know are functioning in sub-prime mortgages (if they have a mortgage), payday loans, and juggling which bill to pay this month.

Unfortunately, it is not mandatory, as far as I know, for a high school student to go through a "general business" class as I did, that teaches them how to write checks, balance a check book, and understand "general business." Based on what I've seen, I think every school should make "General Business" a required, fundamental course. Kids should have to pass a hands-on class that help them get a bank account, learn about loans, grants, sub-prime mortgages, manage a credit cards, understand finance rates, make a budget, and prioritize expenses. It may not change their decision-making overnight, but at least people will begin gaining the knowledge to make wiser decisions.

Despite theirs and their parents lack of "general business" knowledge, students are still thrown into the college pool of grants and loans. I've noticed the colleges have taken a small step to educate students by requiring them to take an online, 10-minute course on loans before e-signing the paperwork. The course is actually pretty good, if you already have a basic understanding of loans. But to an 18-year old (or even a parent) who doesn't have the financial literacy knowledge, there needs to be a financial counselor and advisor available and assigned to them. The unfortunate thing is despite the lack of knowledge, if a person wants to go to college there really are no options but to just sign the loan agreements and move forward.

Financial aid people aren't always the most helpful...or the most concerned with a student's pocketbook and well-being. While I was at the college with one student, one of the financial aid people was apparently irritated at my numerous questions. I wanted to understand if the student *needed* the entire $4000 loan (in addition to the $3500 in Stafford loans and the $2000 in Work Study they had already qualified for) or if there was a more exact amount they could tell us (after all, why take out a loan on more money than you need???). The lady replied in a rather short tone saying that the student might get a $500 reimbursement check but "that's nothing." Who is she to say "that's nothing" when she isn't the one who will be paying that money back with interest??? Loans other than Stafford usually have a higher, accumulated interest rate. Why take out more and get yourself into greater debt later?

It really amazes me that there is so much talk about poor people "taking advantage of" the programs the government offers. Each student I've worked with usually gets their entire Pell grant and still has to take out the maximum Stafford loans (subsidized AND unsubsidized) and STILL has to take out more loans. I'm not a fan of charity, but I do believe in education. And I believe if we really want our workforce to be more educated, if we really value ALL of our children, if we really want to change the welfare system, then we have to start on the front end. We have to equip the kids in the schools and set them up for success by providing kids and families with easily accessible and non-threatening information that helps them obtain success.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The college process: Academic readiness

College has begun for many of our young adults (see the list below). As with all college students, entering and going through college is a learning process. However, this year as I've helped kids enroll, I don't know that we can be smug and satisfied just because we have a list of kids in college.

The students I've worked with are not prepared academically. Though I believe any student going through college is better off than one who doesn't, we need to be careful that we are not setting our kids up to fail.

Probably 90% of the students I know have to take at least one remedial or "developmental" class their first year. Many of them have to take all 3 developmental classes (reading, writing, and math)...sometimes more than once until they can pass them. Developmental classes cost the same as any other college class, but provide no college credit hours on their transcript.

I've been reading a study from the Pell Institute, Raising the Graduation Rates of Low-Income College Students. The study supports what I've noticed:

Older students and students enrolled part time are factors that are associated with lower graduation rates.

Financial problems are often a factor, but there are also non-financial risk factors:

  • being financially independent (many of our students are completely on their own for all practical purposes. They receive no financial help from their parents for any college, or other, expenses)
  • delaying enrollment after high school (although this has been a motivational factor for some, as stated before, students entering college as an older student is associated with lower graduation rates)
  • having inadequate academic preparation ("Students from low-income families are less likely to receive high quality K-12 education, which severely limits their college choices and financial aid opportunities. They also don't often receive the same information and encouragement to attend from families, teachers and counselors as do their more advantaged peers" pg. 8)
  • having extensive family obligations (though they are in school, many of them are trying to make money to support their parents...some of whom are working at jobs that don't pay enough to make ends meet and some of whom are not working for various reasons and their children feel obligated to help them pay their bills, thus creating a system where a college student is supporting two or more people while trying to make time for their own education so they can ultimately do better financially and help their family. Unfortunately, a current, lower-paying job sometimes wins out over looking at the long-term benefits.)
  • lacking experience with the college environment (which is self explanatory, but I will address the lack of experience with the financial part of college in the next blog post).
Paul Gorski in his article, The Question of Class, does a good job of addressing some of the systemic disadvantages and injustices low-income students experience, challenging our assumptions about students in poverty and the obstacles they face. Before we begin blaming the parents, he argues (and I whole-heartedly agree!), we need to address the reality of the systemic injustices in our society.

The obstacles to a student from a low-income neighborhood are huge, but not insurmountable. However, it is not fair for us to leave it up to the students and put all of the responsibility on them when we, as a society, have not done our job to prepare them. We *must* get involved and do more on the front end of their education.

Shantaye Moore--graduate school, Texas Southern University
Kieva Moore--graduate school, Stephen F. Austin
Tiffany Johnson, senior--Baylor University
Fredrick Williams, junior--Lamar University
Ashley Johnson, freshman--Langston University
Albert Ross, sophomore--El Centro College
Johnas McKinny, sophomore--El Centro College
Jessica Orogbu, junior--Texas A&M-Commerce
Keith Davis, junior--Texas A&M-Commerce
Josephine Davis, freshman
Oscar Aparicio, sophomore--University of Texas-Austin
Kimberly Aparicio, Southwestern Medical School
Veronica White, junior--University of Texas-Arlington
Steven Roberts, freshman--El Centro College
Yuridiana Salinas, freshman--El Centro College
Lewanna Hobbs, freshman--Texas A&M-Commerce
Ronyell Byers, sophomore--El Centro College
Britney Brown, sophomore--El Centro College
Terrance Johnson, junior--Texas A&M-Commerce
Yasma Campbell, junior--Texas A&M-Commerce
Bridgette Miles, junior--Texas A&M-Commerce
Erica Lopez, junior--University of North Texas
Anabeli Ibarra, junior--Eastfield College
Monica Ibarra, freshman--Eastfield College

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hanging in there

Today I am emotionally overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted (which, I have decided is much worse than physical exhaustion).

A 42-year old friend, a single mom, died of a stroke; she leaves behind two kids--21 and 15--and I'm not sure of their ability to take care of themselves independently. A junior in college text'd me to say she is dropping out. A new freshman in college is doing great but classes have already started and though she did a great job of coming up with the money for application fees and all, she doesn't have the money for books.

Yesterday, I sat in a Public Policy advisory committee meeting. One of the members explained that he had grown up in poverty and, unfortunately, was still hearing the same problems from his childhood. He challenged us to think of one thing, if we were able to approach President Bush with a funding request, that would "stop the bleeding."

As I listened to him talk, I realized I could answer his question the way he wanted it answered. One thing???? It's not possible. Here was my response:

Financial literacy--parents are taking out phones and paying bills in their 6-month old child's name to make things easier on them, which is preventing those children from having good credit and being able to move their way out of poverty once they become of age to make good decisions. College students don't comprehend the importance of the extra $20 spent on "extras" on their cell phone instead of working agressively to pay off student loans. We need to offer these programs while kids are young so they begin to understand the concepts. But it also has to do with...

Living wage--People have to know that when they work, they will actually be able to pay their bills and won't resort to finding ways (like buying things in their child's name) to get critical phones, apartments, etc. But in order to make a living wage, these days you must have a...

Quality (Equitable) Education--Which is extremely challenging as long as the quality of education your child receives is dependent upon the tax base of your neighborhood, which is low because you have a limited education so you can't get a high-paying job to contribute to a higher tax base, which means that your child's classroom and resources look much different than a classroom in a much higher tax-based area where kids, at home and at school, are accessing....

Technology--a crucial part of our society today. However, when there is limited or no access, the kids I worked with this summer (kinder-5th) didn't understand that their blog url could be accessed by anyone in the world. They didn't have the experience with technology to see the nearly limitless possibilities of things they could access and create...and they don't have the technology at home to explore and practice, so their technology experiences are limited to what they get at the school (very, very miniscule) or what they get at our After-School Academy. Their understanding of technology is Cartoon Network and video games. Our world has grown so much bigger than that. And they don't even realize it's evolving beyond them! Which then limits their possibilities for....

Jobs--But you also need the "soft skills" like making eye contact and greeting people appropriately and so much more that isn't taught on the job, but is assumed people know and should work by. Of course, all of this is contingent on...

Health--making good choices about your own health, but figuring out how to do that when the grocery store is several miles away and you have no transportation...and it's difficult to carry a bunch of grocery bags on the bus...but even if you do, the healthiest food is a lot more expensive than the high carb, high sugar food that fills you up quicker...and who cares or even realizes that the mortality rate in the South Dallas neighborhoods is so much higher than other places. And then there's the issue of lack of health insurance...which has led to using an emergency room as a primary care physician. And then you can't forget the issue of....

Violence--which is also a major factor because when the influence drawing our kids is heavier on violence than education, of course the scale will continue to be tipped toward violence. Part of that is peer pressure that is too difficult to say no to as a young child, part of it is not trusting the police because of other incidents that have happened, and part of it is the media representation which leads people to believe about themselves and those around them that they are a violent people (thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy).

All of these problems cannot be solved by only focusing on one. They cannot be solved by money alone (though money is definitely a major factor in each and every one). The community cannot be expected to do it by themselves. Nor can people outside the community swoop down, come in and do things *for* the community and expect their good deeds to fix it.

There is no one problem. The problems are all interwoven and they are systemic.

We must figure out ways to tackle them all at once and from every angle possible. I'm not sure how to do that other than having people like those sitting around the table yesterday who each focus on the issue that drives them. We must partner with, listen to, and take advice from, the people in the community, and challenge each other to step up and tackle the issues TOGETHER.
The people at the beginning of this post have experienced a combination of all of these issues. There is no one simple, "Just go back to school," or "She should've eaten right," or "She should have thought about the cost of books before entering college." There are so many factors. The battle against them is difficult. It takes education about choices, while all the time figuring out ways to work against the system.

My emotional exhaustion comes because the people involved are my friends and I don't have the answers to solve their problems. I do, however, have hope that each and every one of them are resilient. It's not about me solving their problems. It's about hanging in there, combining our resources, and working it out together. Right now I'm just hanging in.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Trip to Colorado

With the technology grant given to the After-School Academy, we have been able to do many new and neat things. One of the benefits was that we received three digital cameras and three digital voice recorders. On our trip to Colorado, we split the group into three groups of three and gave each group a camera, a voice recorder, and the task of creating their own video about their trip. One can be seen below and one can be seen to the right in the sidebar. I have yet to load the third one into youtube.

Take 5 minutes, sit back, relax, and enjoy the narration, the photos, and the peacefulness of Colorado in the video below...produced by the Dallas-Salida All-Stars (Vanessa, Rocio, and Gustavo) about their trip to Colorado:

The video in the sidebar to the right was produced by D.C.N.(Dezaree', Checo, and Nazareth).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Maturing through a trip to Colorado

I've decided that the more diversity in a group, the better.

Our group of 9 consisted of 5 Hispanic, 1 White, and 3 Black teenagers; 1 college student, 2 entering college this fall, 1 Senior in high school, 2 younger high school students, and 3 middle school students. The maturity of the older ones encouraged the younger ones to step up...and they did. The positive ones in the group outweighed the negative ones...changing any inkling of a negative comment to a positive word of encouragement.

Whether it was putting together a tent...

Climbing a mountain...

Rappelling off the side of a mountain...

Or helping clean up...

The teenagers participated without complaint. Their positive and willing attitudes created an enjoyable trip for all involved (fyi...I haven't always been able to say that! :) )

Each evening, at our devotional times, Mr. Edd would ask them to reflect on their day. Their eagerness to reflect and apply what they were learning to their personal life was encouraging. On the rappel site, I had heard Nazareth telling someone, "You need to rappel...even if you're scared! If you do this now, you will realize that you can conquer anything. It will help you later." Each evening they each had something new to share.

We saw several shooting stars when we camped out...roasted marshmallows and made s'mores over a campfire...spent an hour and a half by ourselves being completely quiet, listening to the sounds around us, and reading our Bible...learned to fish (and caught some!) in a lake surrounded by the beautiful mountains...hiked a portion of Mt. Shavano...swam in a pool filled by the natural hot springs of the mountains...visited the quaint town of Leadville...learned neat facts about mining, the Stage Coach road, the names and history of the mountains...and realized that having new experiences can change the way we look at life.

Though we didn't get to do an audio blog about Day 4, below are some reflections about Day 2 and Day 3:

Wilderness Trek--Day 2

Nazareth reporting:

Wilderness Trek--Day 3

Nazareth reporting:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

White Water rafting in Colorado

This has been an amazing week. Edd Eason, myself, and 9 teenagers left Dallas at 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning to head to Salida, Colorado. Edd had planned a week of relaxation and reflection as well as a few challenging moments as well.

Checo started writing down all of the new things he has done and accomplished so far this week. His list looked something like this: camping in a tent, surviving a hail storm on the top of a mountain, learning to set up and take down a rappel site, rappelling, white water rafting, hiking in the mountains, and building a campfire...and we aren't finished yet.

They have been an amazing group with such great attitudes and such helpful and considerate spirits. They didn't all know each other before coming. But they have all bonded and are stepping out and creating new experiences together. They each have the ability to lead as well as follow.

What follows below is Nazareth's report of Day 1...our White Water rafting day.

Nazareth reporting from Salida

Wilderness Trek--Day 1 White Water rafting

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

How to pick blueberries

Step 1: Connect with The gleaning network of Texas.

Step 2: Gather 8 elementary-aged kids who have been learning about health and nutrition and take them to Gainesville, TX.

Step 3: Pair up kids and adults and take off down the rows of blueberry bushes. Note: Go further back in the field to get the most blueberries.

Step 4: Look for dark blue (almost white) berries. Don't pick the reddish ones!

Step 5: Reach deep into the blueberry bush to find fat, juicy blueberries that no one thought to pick.

Step 6: Pop a few into your mouth as you go to make sure the blueberries are still as sweet as when you first started picking.

Step 7: Note the sounds of blueberry picking..."Boy these 'mugs' are good!!" ~Kamaurja

Step 8: Fill your little bucket as full as you can get it. Keep looking for blueberry-filled trees somebody missed!

Step 9: Holler out when you find a tree with lots of berries..."Oooh! This one's got LOTS of blueberries!" ~Ladarrius

Step 10: Watch everyone run to the blueberry bush.

Step 11: Walk back to the shade to empty your bucket into your paper container, ask to put your name on it, and then rest.

Step 12: Use the voice recorders to make raps about eating your fruits and vegetables on the van ride home.

Step 13: Take your bucket of fresh blueberries to the house and make blueberry pancakes, blueberry muffins, cereal with blueberries on top, blueberry shakes, etc. (if you have a favorite blueberry recipe, please feel free to offer it here!)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

When one suffers, we all suffer

I met up with a couple of the college kids this evening to help them with paperwork for a scholarship. When we met up, one of them asked me if I had seen his cousin. I said I hadn't, though he had just called me last week out of the blue and asked me to help him with his college paperwork (he's 21). For the last 2 years, we've been talking about college and I've been telling him what he needs to do, but so far he has never followed through. I was hoping this time was different.

The question, "Have you seen him?" told me something was wrong. He proceeded to pull out his phone and show me a picture of a guy in a restaurant with a gun...obviously from a security camera. Evidently, it's one of the main news stories.

My stomach dropped.

I've always had this fear that I would be watching the news and they would flash a picture of one of the kids/young adults I know. It's right up there with my fear of hitting someone on a motorcycle.

I can't say that it's a complete and total surprise. Though the guys are always extremely respectful around me, I've heard stories about people "hittin' licks" (robbing places) and making out pretty good. But though it's not necessarily surprising, it's still depressing. Reality is hard to face.

I'm sad this evening. Sad for my friend. Sad for a lost dream. Sad for my community who is watching yet another of our close-knit community on the run from the police. It will only be a matter of time before he is caught.

I am also sad because it makes me think of the potential path of the kids in the After-School Academy. I am sad because they can't see how quickly their lives can turn at a wrong decision...a simple decision to hang out with the wrong people even just for one night. I am sad because I know that Billy, Tyree, Sammy, Slick, and others have already chosen that path and it has resulted in death, jail, or being on the run from the police. I am sad for the families whose lives they affect.

I want to figure out why. Why does this become a lifestyle choice when they see so many others before them getting caught or killed?? I want to know what solution is.

I want to do everything I can to connect people with as many opportunities as possible so that they see so many more possibilities and options that they never feel like they need to carry a gun or rob people at gunpoint.

I don't want to lose anymore kids.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Who said money can't solve problems???

Recently we were awarded a technology grant from the Communities Foundation. It has changed the entire way we conduct a program and quickly developed some skills in the kids that we've always tried to figure out ways to cultivate, but never had the resources or knowledge of how to.

With our new digital cameras, we choose one of the kids to be a Photographer who documents the program. With our voice recorders, we choose a daily Reporter who asks people questions throughout the program. The daily Historian writes about or illustrates what we do in his/her journal and we are able to scan it and post their drawings/writings on their blog (

Because we now have working computers and a projector, I have been able to sit kids at computers while I demonstrate how to do things on the overhead projection. The kids (1st-5th graders) are becoming more and more independent in their own blogging capabilities. All of the kids can sign in to their blog independently. The posts you see on their site are all their own. Some of them have taken on the task of writing their own posts and calling in their own audio blogs; others dictate their thoughts to the adults. Everything posted comes straight from them.

The educational possibilities are limitless with technology!

By blogging, kids are reading their own writing and the writing of their friends. They are learning the importance of learning to type. By labeling their blog posts, they are picking out the main idea. As we ask the kids to develop questions for the audio posts and voice recorders, the kids are finally beginning to gain a curiosity for what's around them. While the questions started out as closed-ended questions like, "Do you read healthy books?" "Do you work out when I'm not home?" they have developed into open-ended questions like, "What is fiber?" "Why do people say carrots make you see better?" "How does eating fruit make your muscles bigger?" We have now started researching these questions on the internet. They are developing critical thinking skills!

True enough, technology didn't *create* the learners...but what it did do was provide us with the tools that allow us to be creative in our approach and has helped us connect with people and opportunities/resources we didn't know existed!

Money may not be everything...but being without it sure creates quite an information barrier bewteen people who have access and those who don't. What kid doesn't love technology and want to learn the cool things you can do with it?? It's not just the kids; the parents are involved in different ways as well. Keep checking their blog ( to see and hear their thoughts, parents comments, their photography, and all kinds of other great stuff!