Education reform in Memphis is happening on many levels in a variety of ways. Not every effort is centered on what occurs inside the classroom or school building.
Two efforts created by Memphis transplants are helping high school students focus on individual passions as they move on to the next level of schooling.
The College Initiative helps hundreds of high school students in underperforming communities be better prepared for the college entrance process while LITE Memphis harnesses the entrepreneurial desires of students and uses those skills to garner more scholarship opportunities. The two efforts work independently, but they are two bright examples of what Memphians are doing to help deserving students make college dreams a reality.
The College Initiative is built on five pillars with programming focused on getting students in college.
The programming is focused on academic counseling, financial aid, college knowledge, life skills and test prep.
“Our hope is that more people will understand that college counseling in high schools, even nationally is a problem,” said Kevin Nowlin, marketing and communications officer for The College Initiative. “We’re here to do this work and there’s no other organization that focuses solely on college access the way we do. We might have ACT prep here and there, but the students we work with this is relationships that last for a decade and beyond that. We’re getting close to these students. We’re really invested and committed to this work and we want the youth in this city to have education equity regardless of their race or ZIP code. We’re just trying to level the playing field.”
Nowlin was one of the first three employees brought on to an organization that has grown to eight full-time employees and two summer interns with plans to add to the staff. Of the eight employees, five are program associates who work in schools.
Nowlin’s background was in the for-profit marketing side, specifically consumer engagement and relationship marketing. When founder and CEO Gabriel Fotsing decided to add a marketing person, Nowlin couldn’t resist. He’s been with The College Initiative since January 2015.
He said he identifies in some ways with the students the organization tries to help. Nowlin didn’t think he was on a college path as a student.
“I wasn’t an academic superstar and no one talked to me about that possibility,” he said. “I went to college by luck and by chance and it changed my life. I went from thinking I have no future and possibilities to understanding the greatness that lies in every person and what’s possible if the right people believe in you. I attribute my success in life and being educated and socially aware to having that college experience.”
The College Initiative had its start from Fotsing’s experiences before and after college. A native of Cameroon, his family moved to Houston just before his freshman year of high school. He made a promise to his grandmother that he’d get a college education, but he didn’t find much support in his new surroundings.
So Fotsing learned everything he could about college readiness, what scholarships to apply for and explored every opportunity he could. He applied to and was accepted by every Ivy League school. He chose Harvard because of the economic assistance package available.
With an economics degree in hand, he could’ve pursued Wall Street opportunities. Fotsing instead took two years and joined Teach for America, working in Lee High School in Marianna, Arkansas, where he saw students with similar struggles as his.
He took 30 students and created a comprehensive program that enabled all 30 to gain college acceptance along with a significant amount of scholarship awards.
After reaching out to funders he was able to double the success to 60 students. The College Initiative was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2012 and relocated to Memphis in late 2013. It went through the Start Co accelerator program in 2014, and moved into its current offices in Brinkley Plaza in May 2015.
The College Initiative started working with seniors before adding juniors. In the fall, programming will be offered for ninth through 12th grades.
High schools are chosen based on the highest needs, including counselor to student ratios. Nowlin said the average counselor to student ratio in Shelby County is 1 to 750. The federal recommendation is 1 to 250. The College Initiative makes it closer to 1 to 200 in the schools it works in.
“The way we see it and the way we present it is we’re not going in to take over a counselor’s job,” Nowlin said. “A lot of counselors get tasked with everything but providing college counseling. We go in and offer that layer of support. We’re focused on college access. So we offer that additional layer of support to help do some of the heavy lifting they have to do.”
The College Initiative works with students who are targeting college. It finds those students through information sessions at schools as well as counselors who make recommendations.
Academic counseling includes helping students figure out the correct classes to take based on college choice. The financial component helps students find all scholarship opportunities available as well as better understand how to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form.
The knowledge component is meant to help students find the college that is the best fit. Life skills includes the basics of budgeting, even helping students find the best campus organizations to be involved in.
And test prep helps students get ready for the ACT or Advanced Placement tests.
“Every prep session is different from one student to the next,” Nowlin said. “We help them hone in on where they need to grow.”
There are a number of ways for the community to get involved in The College Initiative’s efforts. A campaign will be launched soon to raise $800,000 by the end of the year.
“We’d love to see more local businesses get involved, whether it’s sponsor a school or give at one of the giving levels we have,” Nowlin said. “We’d love to see more individuals in the community come in as recurring donors, even if it’s $10 or $15 a month.”
Let’s Innovate through Education (LITE) equips high school students with the leadership skills needed to impact his or her community.
The organization is the brainchild of Hardy Farrow, who grew up in a small town in Georgia and attended a private all-boys school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was at that school that he had what he called a great academic experience filled with many opportunities and amazing teachers.
After graduation, he went to Washington where he attended George Washington University to study politics and possibly eventually attend law school.
“I had a life epiphany,” Farrow said. “I used to struggle when I was younger in school. Who was I to live out this dream when other kids didn’t have these chances?”
So Farrow joined Teach for America and was sent to Memphis where he taught government and economics at Power City Academy in Hickory Hill.
“My students were struggling,” he said. “They couldn’t do fractions. I learned fractions in second or third grade. It made me realize as a teacher no matter how good the school was, there are a lot of structural problems hindering my students. As a teacher, how can I help solve this problem?”
So Farrow started talking to people around Memphis, asking questions about education and poverty. He realized many of his students came from extremely impoverished situations. So he came up with curriculum where students created ideas they’re passionate about and could see through to fruition.
Farrow raised $50,000 and helped his students at Power City Academy launch their business ideas, including a gospel music concert series and a dance marathon held at the Kroc Center.
“After that experience the first year teaching I realized that if I wanted to impact students and the community I needed to create a program that created wealth over the long term,” Farrow said. “How can I make a low-income student in Hickory Hill be able to have these opportunities? … Our theory is if we build a pipeline over 10 years we can make it more likely for African Americans and Latino students to launch and shape businesses.”
LITE helps students launch ideas through an entrepreneurial curriculum, seed investment and mentor matching. Farrow’s first full-time employee starts this summer as it expands into more schools.
This past academic year was the first it moved beyond Power City Academy.
For Farrow, it made sense to expand what he had started in Hickory Hill. The effort started with the simple premise of learning, in that his belief is that students learn best when it’s something they’re passionate about.
So students are taught difficult career skills through the lens of their passions. LITE holds workshops in schools before selecting students to participate in the incubator program that lasts for six months.
The students spend those six months launching and scaling an idea. The fall incubator saw 400 students go through workshops and 20 ideas launched. Nearly half of those 20 ideas are continuing as businesses of sorts.
One is Stage Right, which sees drama programs held in low-income middle schools where the students are taught theater skills before performing in productions. Another example is a future Rhodes College student who scaled a cupcake company.
“I think it’s about exposing these students to networks they don’t have access to but also give them credibility and experience at scaling ideas,” Farrow said. “We work with students on how do you build a model that’s scalable.”
Getting students interested hasn’t been difficult.
“My experience is if you walk up to a kid and say, ‘I can help you launch something and help you get an average of $200,000 in scholarships and get you internships,’ I’d say few kids don’t want to do that,” Farrow said. “They want to get paid and get scholarships. We’ve just tried to make a logical model that appeals to incentives for students.”
There are plans to grow to 50 students in the incubator next year with as many as 1,000 participating in workshops. The hope is that within the next five years 425 students will go through the incubator.
“I have the philosophy that it will be hard, but we can’t keep operating in the system that we’re reacting to the effects of poverty,” Farrow said. “It’s too hard to recruit good teachers for every classroom. It all starts with wealth creation and making sure African American and Latino students are getting opportunities and skill sets so we can avoid the problems as a city.”
There are ways the community can help LITE’s efforts, including financially to help launch more business ideas. It takes $1,750 per student, Farrow said. More mentor coaches also are needed who can come in once a week for an hour over a six-month period.
“The reason I do this work, the reason I taught is I think every child deserves the chance to determine their life path and determine what they’ll do in life and what they want out of life,” Farrow said. “It’s a fundamental fairness issue across our society. … We do this work because we want to create a place where kids can dream and have a chance of achieving those dreams.”