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Mentors for Troubled Kids

How some business leaders step in to help kids who need hope.
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Blockbuster Chairman and CEO Jim Keyes founded the Education Is Freedom Foundation, which offers scholarships to low-income students who maintain good grades and attendance.
photography by Dan Sellers

Marcus Martin pauses when he hears the question. It’s not because he’s stumped. It’s because Martin, the president and CEO of the Education Is Freedom Foundation, is trying to think of a nice way to tell the reporter that the question posed is, to be kind, poorly phrased. “How do you find kids within DISD who need the organization’s help in affording college?” seems an obvious query, until you realize that 85 percent of students in DISD are classified as economically disadvantaged. The majority of the district qualifies for aid under the group’s guidelines.

The difficulty lies in trying to determine which needy students EFF chooses to aid with college scholarships—in terms of economic need and academic potential. Because as Martin knows, a number of DISD students who have huge financial obstacles are still classroom stars.

“We have tremendously bright kids in the district who are tremendously resilient and who have shown great strength and potential,” says Martin, who himself grew up poor. “We work with them hand in hand to make sure that their dreams become a reality.”

EFF, founded by Blockbuster Chairman and CEO Jim Keyes, is one of several “leg-up” programs within DISD not run or organized by the district. Many are founded or supported by businessmen and large corporations. It’s not charity for charity’s sake. Such efforts spring from both a heartfelt desire to better the city and a practical need to ensure an educated local workforce for their companies.

Here’s a look at EFF and seven other leg-up programs within DISD.

Gemma Ortega and Julieta Hernandez are part of the
Education Is Freedom program.
photography by Lisa Means

Education Is Freedom Foundation

Montrail Neal, a senior at James Madison High School, plans to study at the University of Texas to become a mechanical engineer.

“Montrail loves school, period,” says his mother, Josephine Neal. “He always said, ‘When I get big, I’m going to buy you a big old mansion and a car of my choice.’ He always wanted to go to college.”

On a national level, the Education Is Freedom Foundation offers scholarships to low-income, first-generation students going to college. The local program offers that plus a college-readiness component, currently at W.H. Adamson, James Madison, and North Dallas high schools. It aids students who maintain good grades and attendance by providing mentoring, guidance in obtaining financial aid, and counseling life skills.

The foundation, started by Keyes, helped Neal, who is ranked No. 1 in his class, go to a robotics camp last summer at Ohio State University and get a paid internship with Atmos Energy. EFF had 185 graduates in 2008 from its three DISD high schools, almost half of whom went to college for free.

“We equip the students with a vision,” says Adam Powell, EFF’s higher education adviser at James Madison. “Then we help them utilize the resources they have for that vision to become a reality.”


AT&T Aspires/Transitions Program

If you want to see how this program can help kids in Dallas make the transition from middle school to high school, look to the success Chicago has had in addressing its dropout crisis and workforce-readiness issue.

“One of the initiatives that Chicago has made a name for itself with is what they call here in Dallas the ‘Chicago study,’ ” says Linda K. Johnson, executive director of the Dallas Education Foundation. “The study shows that if you help ninth-graders make the transition to high school—making them feel comfortable in their new environment, knowing people in their new environment, tracking how successfully they’re doing on every test every week—there is a direct correlation between that and a higher graduation rate.”

That’s why Dallas-based AT&T Inc. came in with $100,000 in funding for freshman camps to be held on 22 campuses next summer. It’s part of the company’s $100 million philanthropic program to help strengthen student success and workforce readiness. The effort includes grants to school districts and nonprofit organizations focused on high school retention and college preparation; job shadowing for 100,000 students; commissioning the next chapter of major research on the high school dropout issue and solutions; and underwriting “dropout prevention summits.”

“AT&T is showing our friends in the private sector the meaning of corporate social responsibility,” says Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association. “Improving our public schools and ending the dropout crisis is a shared responsibility.”


Jonathan Arnett, Paul Culp, Anthony Zelaya, Alina Castillo, and Humberto Armijo participate in Communities in Schools.
photography by Lisa Means

Communities in Schools

If a child is about to lose his home or can’t afford dental care, school becomes, at best, a second priority.

Realizing this, corporate backers brought Communities in Schools to three DISD schools in 1985. CIS now works with more than 13,000 students in eight local school districts, including 13 schools and about 2,900 students in DISD.

“The core model is one-on-one case management, directed, developed, and designed for each individual student who is at risk,” says Sandra Chavarria, CEO and president of CIS. “A student comes in and says, ‘We’re being evicted on Friday because we can’t pay the rent.’ We would contact the apartment manager and explain this is a student and a family we’re working with. We would work with our partners, many of whom are faith-based, to see if we can get them some money. Then we’d connect the adults with possible jobs if they need work. We look for the long-term fix, which always impacts on the stability of the student to perform at school.”

Example: a teacher at Maple Lawn Elementary recently noticed one of her students wasn’t raising her hand to answer or ask questions. Turned out she had broken her glasses, and her family couldn’t afford to replace them. CIS got it done.

“They provide more of the emotional aspect,” says Barbara Banks, principal at William Lewis Cabell Elementary. “They make sure our boys and girls have snacks to take home on the weekends. They put a little food in a backpack, done very discreetly. If they didn’t do that, the children wouldn’t have anything to eat during the weekends.”


Dallas Elevators Powered by Coca-Cola

Partnering with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Dallas, Dallas Elevators Powered by Coca-Cola rolled out in September, connecting 200 local juniors and seniors with mentors like Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars and local artist and designer Brad Oldham.

“I started looking around at some statistics here over the past year that are pretty scary,” says Ben Lawson, director of bottler sales and marketing for Coca-Cola North America. “One of every five residents of Dallas age 25 or over hasn’t completed high school. Less than 50 percent of DISD seniors took a college entrance exam.”

To help combat this, Coca-Cola initiated a three-year commitment to fund Dallas Elevators, which finds mentors for kids in six industries: local government, sports, the arts, health, education, and business.

“Oftentimes, our kids won’t have a very broad level of exposure … in these things,” says Charles English, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Dallas. “If you’re interested in the world of banking and finance, we can connect you with an executive at JP Morgan Chase.”

Tesilum Akinpelu, a junior at Townview Center’s School of Government and Law, has been with the BGC since he was 6. His mentor helped him look up the exact SAT scores he’ll need to get into Duke University or the University of Southern California, where he plans to study criminal law on his way to being a judge. “It’s got me thinking about what I’m going to start doing,” Akinpelu says, “where I’m going.”


Project Learn

Starting even earlier to get kids through school, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Dallas also rolled out its Project Learn program earlier this year.

“We first looked at the historical TAKS testing and areas that kids were struggling in,” English says. “We found that in the third and fifth grade, this was primarily math and science. Further investigation shows that one of the common causes for low scores in math and science was the fact that critical thinking was never created in the minds of these youth.”

So they focused on improving first-grade reading. By the time students are in middle school, they start thinking about Project Learn’s college prep program. In the past five years, this aspect of the program has given more than $267,000 in college scholarships.

BGC work is done in after-school programs and costs the students only $20 annually.


Sharon Foster and Martha Lumon show the healthy meals provided to low-income students by Feed the Need, a program designed for DISD by the Philip Romano company known as The Hunger Busters.
photography by Lisa Means

Feed the Need

Hungry children make for inattentive, bad students. That’s why DISD is working with The Hunger Busters, the company that started feeding Dallas’ homeless eight years ago (organized by Philip and Lillie Romano of Romano’s Macaroni Grill, EatZi’s, Fuddruckers). A DISD-focused offshoot, Feed the Need, started last fall at James Bowie Elementary (providing 120 weekly meals) and will extend into six other DISD schools (1,920 weekly meals) by the end of 2009.

Feed the Need goes into existing after-school programs to provide a third meal, prepared at EatZi’s.

“For many of these kids, their subsidized lunch is the last meal they receive until the subsidized breakfast the following morning,” says executive director Brandon Barganski. “We are not just giving these students a meal. We are giving them hope.”


Bickel & Brewer Future Leaders Program

The Bickel & Brewer Future Leaders Program provides academic resources and leadership training to highly motivated, deserving young people. Funded by individuals, corporations, and the law firm of Bickel & Brewer, the program provides an enhanced academic curriculum for fifth- to 12th-grade students who live in economically disadvantaged sections of Dallas. The curriculum, which includes classes in the areas of language arts, technology, mathematics, and leadership, is intended to complement the education these students receive at their own DISD schools. The classes are offered on-site at Episcopal School of Dallas, Greenhill School, The Hockaday School, and St. Mark’s School of Texas.

William Brewer III started a youth leadership program for DISD.
photography by Smiley N. Pool/DMN

The Future Leaders Program is made possible through the efforts of public-private partnerships. These partnerships have brought school officials together to design an educational curriculum and leadership program to assist these kids in need.

“The Bickel & Brewer Future Leaders Program provides deserving students a vision for the future,” says Michael Hinojosa, DISD superintendent. “It is the perfect example of how public-private partnerships can make a dramatic difference in our schools—and our communities.”


Parent Institute for Quality Education Texas

Karla Lopez remembers being taught how to read an American report card. Although she’d been in the United States since 1990 and her children were born here, her English wasn’t what it could have been. That changed after she took a nine-week series of classes through the Parent Institute for Quality Education Texas.

Karla Lopez learned to read her kids’ report card in her nine-week course taught by the Parent Institute for Quality Education Texas (pictured with her children,  Carlos and Genesis).
photography by Lisa Means

The program is organized by Dallas Concilio of Hispanic Services Organizations, a nonprofit umbrella group that has worked with local Hispanics in myriad areas since 1981. The Parent Institute started in 2002, graduating its first class, 124 parents of James Bowie Elementary students, that December. The Parent Institute is now offered at 20 DISD schools with curriculums for parents of elementary, middle, and high school students.

“They explained how important our role as parents is and how important it is to have dreams for them and how we can support them even when we are immigrants,” says Lopez, who now works for Dallas Concilio.

That’s just what the Institute, with annual budget of $9,000, was designed to do, says J.R. Mendoza, education manager at Dallas Concilio. “We help bridge the gap between parents and the school,” he says.