We tell kids that when they grow up they can be anything they want to be, even become the President of the United States. And while this is ideologically the hope, is it really likely? If you are talking to an affluent white male from the northeast, the chances are a lot higher. But, if you are talking to a little girl from a poor school-district in the urban south, then statistically the chances are pretty close to zero.
The actual numbers range from state to state, but students from low-income neighborhoods are less likely to graduate high school, significantly less likely to apply to college, and those that do apply to college and are accepted, up to 40% of them fail to show up to class on the first day.
Instead of asking why those students do not show up, one Houston non-profit is seeking to answer why the other 60% do. What made the difference in their lives, and how can that be replicated?
When Cory Jackson was a young boy growing up in Amarillo, Texas, he unknowingly found himself up against statistics like these. A Hispanic kid from a poor neighborhood, he was raised by a single mom and five different step-fathers before the age of 13. Although his mother provided him a loving home, things were tough, and they often struggled to put food on the table. Cory’s chances of achieving dreams in life were pretty low.
One thing Cory had going for him was that he played a lot of sports and was pretty good. In middle school, somewhere between the 6th and 8th grade, the fathers of two of the friends he had made through athletics either unilaterally or collectively made the decision to become mentors in Cory’s life. They gave a lot of their time, and they gave their money to help give Cory opportunities he would not otherwise have had. They opened their homes to him, and let him be a part of their family. One of these men even helped him get a recommendation letter from Rick Perry, State Attorney General at that time, for Cory’s college application to Texas A&M.
When I got the confidence to leave Amarillo, to apply to A&M, not knowing how money was going to pay for it–that was a lot of their impact and their influence. If it wasn’t for that, I’m confident that I would have stayed in Amarillo and lived up to what I perceived my potential was.
After graduating from Texas A&M in 2000, Cory got a great job with Dell Corporation in sales & marketing, where he worked until 2012. That’s where he was when he got the phone call that would change his life.
LEAD (Letting Everyone Achieve Dreams), a non-profit organization focusing on the four points of Curriculum, Mentoring, Service Projects, and Outdoor Summer Adventure trips for middle-school students, was founded in 2005 by Carter Higley. While with Teach For America Carter realized that “summer degradation” was a difficult problem for educators to overcome. Those two and a half months kids spend away from school during the summer can oftentimes undo much of the good work that is done during the school year. After his two years in Los Angeles, Carter went back and created LEAD for his grad school project. He took his first group of 15 YES Prep students on a Summer Adventure Trip to Wyoming in 2005.
One of the reasons the Summer Adventures were made a main component of the LEAD program is that these trips are a way to catch kids during that degradation period, to keep speaking to them and mentoring them. The other reason is that it is also a challenging life experience they would not otherwise get. Most of the kids who went on that first trip with Carter had never been outside of a 12 or 13 block radius of their neighborhood. Although they lived in Houston, many had never seen the Astrodome or Reliant Stadium, they had never been downtown.
So, in 2006 when Cory got a phone call from his old college roommate asking if he would be interested in chaperoning 15 young boys on a trip to Wyoming with a new organization called LEAD, he said “Sure! How bad can it be?” At the end of the 7 days, however, he said nope, that’s not going to happen again. “It was emotionally exhausting and I wasn’t ready for it.”
But he did go back the next summer, and he has been back every summer since then.
I came back for a service event, and to see those guys excited to see me again, whatever beef had happened, the friction was all gone in their eyes, and I saw that these kids were emotionally growing. That’s what helped me give it another try.
Now the Executive Director of LEAD, Cory spends 3 days a week teaching the program to students at Houston partner schools. The curriculum component teaches life-skills and executive self-skills for adolescents like learning how to use self-control, understanding personal direction, and goal setting. One of the first things they do after entering the program in 6th grade is to create an “I Am statement.” Examples of some of these are “I am going to be a good big sister”, “I am going to care for my family”, and “I am going to change the world.”
Giving these kids a voice in their school day to articulate what they want to become and what they want to stand for, that might be enough.
A third equally critical component of the LEAD program is the mentorship piece. LEAD provides one-to-one mentorship for each student in the form of a positive adult who meets with them twice a month. These 45-minute sessions are built into the school day and reinforce the positive content being taught in the curriculum.
The LEAD program is designed to allow students to self-reflect on what could be the cause and how do you want to handle it. We are the conversation of consequence and results. If you feel like you are always getting the short end of the stick, then let’s talk about that other option that you don’t normally choose and see if that gets you somewhere that you want to be.
Of the original group of 30 students who went on the Summer Experiences in 2005 and 2006, they all came back 6 years in a row. Of those same 30, 100% of them graduated high school, 90% got into colleges, and 95% of that 90 have completed universities.
The most critical transition in their life is going to be from middle school to high school, and if we can get that right then that can be a real strong precursor to that transition into a university space.
If those dads hadn’t been there for me…now, being a part of LEAD, I fully understand and see the impact of mentorship at that critical age.
Some of the universities that LEAD graduates have gone on to attend are MIT, Johns Hopkins, The University of Connecticut, Iowa State, Ohio State, and Texas State. Two of the students are now educators in the Teach For America experience, two are in mentor programs, one is a police officer, one is a firefighter.
It’s everything that we would have dreamed for these kids. Even the ones that didn’t graduate college are being successful.
If you are interested in getting involved with the incredible work LEAD is doing in our city, and helping a great kid achieve their dreams, please contact Cory Jackson email@example.com to learn more.
You are also invited to a Family Friendly Fundraising event at White Oak Music Hall on Saturday, May 7th from 2-5 pm.