Why (and How) to Fight for the Kids in the Middle

Editor’s note: This is Part II of a two-part series about EP Alumna Paris Woods. In Part I, we dove into her unique education experiences and how they shaped her career path. (The author, Tiffanie Woods, is not related to Paris Woods.)

 

Paris Woods is just getting started.

As a low-income student attending St. Louis public schools, Paris overcame steep odds to succeed. And along the way, she grew more and more determined to change the system for other kids like her.

In our country, less than 1 in 10 low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24. In New Orleans, Paris explains, “the vast majority, 60 percent, of students who drop out of the college pipeline do so in an 18-month timespan, between the spring of their senior year in high school and the end of their first year in college.”

High schools in New Orleans are doing a good job of getting students into college, but students lack critical support after graduation. Local colleges lack the resources to support students over the summer or to provide the sort of intensive advising that students need once they get to college—the types of support that private colleges typically provide.

In founding College Bridge, an initiative of New Orleans College Prep and labor of love for Paris and her co-founder, they are focused on getting low-income kids from New Orleans to college, and more specifically, giving those kids the money they need to attend and stay in college.

For the past three years, Paris has served as Director of Alumni Support for Cohen College Prep, a New Orleans high school that is part of the New Orleans College Prep network. From this position, College Bridge was launched as its own separate nonprofit, and created with Paris and her co-founder who is the former Founding College Counselor at Cohen.

In their work at Cohen, Paris supported 100% of her students to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)—well above the district average of 42%. But completing and submitting the FAFSA is just the first step in a long college application and enrollment process. Paris realized she wanted to do a lot to support students’ success in getting to and through college.

“We started College Bridge to fill that gap and to replicate the supports we provide to Cohen alumni at high schools citywide,” Paris explains.

A nonprofit dedicated to supporting students who do not have support to navigate the college admissions process, College Bridge is the result of a collaborative effort between leaders at New Orleans College Prep, and Paris’ former colleague at Cohen.

They saw the impact they were making on their students, but wanted and needed to make it sustainable to provide more students across the city with deeper support for college enrollment and success, including intensive advising, and financial support.

The kids Paris works with are predominantly black and brown students who come from some of the poorest families in the U.S. With an average household income of $10,000, these students need significant financial support to get where they want to be.

College Bridge targets students at three critical moments when they’re most likely to stop the college enrollment process, or leave school:  

1.      Financial Aid (College Bridge helps students apply for financial aid.)

2.      Enrollment (College Bridge sends reminders and expert advice to students to ensure they complete college enrollment.)

3.      First Year Success (College Bridge coaches students through the transition to college.)

For Paris, her work is very personal. As a student, she was accepted into a middle school gifted program—the only gifted school in St. Louis, MO where she grew up—and it enabled her to overcome her circumstances. After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard, where she later served as an admissions and financial aid officer, she’s now in the position to advocate for those from similar backgrounds.

Paris became an Education Pioneers Fellow in 2012 to learn how to impact student outcomes through strategic, organizational leadership. As a Fellow, she worked with The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems and used her background in qualitative and quantitative analysis to make strategic recommendations to help the organization increase the number and quality of leaders in public school systems.

Now, as she leads College Bridge, Paris is focusing on growing the organization to serve more students. These duties include fundraising, developing the board, building a founding team, building partnerships with high schools and colleges, ensuring the organization has visibility with families, schools, and supporters, and directly supporting Cohen’s first two graduating classes who are currently in college.

College Bridge partners with certain high schools and universities so it can offer students a 100% open enrollment process. There’s no application process, or a possibility that students won’t be accepted into the program.

“If you want to go to college, we will help you,” Paris says. “The [college enrollment] process itself is challenging, and every additional piece of paper work is a huge barrier to getting these kids to college.”

For low-income students, whose most affordable higher education choices are state and public institutions, they must complete all of the paperwork by themselves—including complex financial aid forms and applications. In most circumstances, these students come from homes where they’re the first one in their family slated to graduate high school, and have little help with the complex enrollment process, which is where many get stuck.

Even summer breaks are barriers for students to get to college, Paris explains, where up to 40% of students who receive a college acceptance in the spring fail to enroll in the fall, a phenomenon known as “summer melt.”  

Because of the many things that students must do after high school graduation to attend college—like the financial aid verification process, responding to often-confusing correspondence, paying for and attending orientation, paying deposits, and completing housing forms—and because most low-income students lack support in completing these tasks, they wind up never attending college.

“I learned that students WANT to go to college, but there are all of these structural processes in their way,” Paris says. When kids start the college application process, schools and faculty expect the parents to take on this work, but most are not equipped with the skills or resources to do so.

This narrative hasn’t been translated in today's mainstream media, Paris explains. Instead, there’s an emphasis on the students, and their lack of motivation as being the cause of the low college attendance rates.

When asked why the summer melt is important for people to know, Paris simply states, “public opinion.” Working directly with kids is what educated her on the truths of the system.

Recalling a recent trip with one of her students, Paris explains how she accompanied her to the guidance office at the local community college to fill out missing forms that were stopping her state aid from getting approved, and ultimately putting a hold on her re-enrollment plans.

In the office, students had to take a ticketed number. “We had done everything we could online but hit a roadblock. We called the office but were told that anything we needed help with would have to be done in person, and to come in,” Paris says.

During the two hours they waited in line to be seen, Paris recalls seeing dozens of kids who walked in, saw the size of the line, and left. “I don’t know what happened with them. I’m not sure if they’ll go back or not, and that’s really unfortunate,” she says.

Luckily for the student who had Paris’ and College Bridge’s support, she stayed and was able to get nearly everything in order that day, but it took up half of the day. (Unfortunately, Paris and her student still weren’t done. When I talked to Paris just yesterday, she mentioned she was back waiting in the same line with the same student because her paperwork still hadn’t been processed, and so the student has been dropped from all of her classes.)

I commented on how processes like this don’t take into consideration students’ personal and work obligations—and that they may have jobs they absolutely cannot miss. Paris agreed, and also mentioned that her student wasn’t actually missing any paperwork. Instead, the online database was only showing the last submitted information, and because the office was so backlogged, they hadn’t had a chance to update their online system.

Plus, the income verification process required for students applying for financial aid doesn’t take place until the summer months, when most guidance counselors are on vacation and unable to help students. For Paris who had previously gone with the same student to get her re-enrolled, the worst part is the decentralized process of getting financial support for college.

“It’s unfortunate for the kids who get lost in the middle while schools have all of these competing priorities. And given these circumstances, many just give up,” she says.

As laid out by the FAFSA, the purpose of the income verification process is to make sure families aren’t falsifying their household incomes—which can be a bit of a conundrum.

On one hand, it’s a process put in place to catch those outlying cases of people who actually make more than the minimum living expense. But on the other hand, for students from low-income families, it can be a slap in the face and another time in these kids’ lives where they have to prove that they are poor and need assistance.

Poor kids have to prove again and again that yes, they’re poor,” Paris says.

To put it simply, complicated financial aid processes can cause kids to fall through the cracks—and never make it to college. The systems that are currently in place act as more of a hindrance than as a helping hand to higher learning.

These are the kids that College Bridge is fighting for: The kids in the middle.

The kids who aren’t getting the full academic ride to Harvard, or the athletic football scholarship to Ole Miss.

The kids whose grades may be average because they spent their entire high school career working multiple jobs to help their parents pay the bills, or act as a caregiver for younger siblings.

The kids who are simply in need and asking for help.

Advocating for these kids is where Paris feels most needed. Focusing on the kids in the middle is a place where not as much visibility and light is shown on the disparities and inequities.

“It’s really exciting to do work and help kids who are in the middle of the system. How often do you see a grant or scholarship for a kid who is just average?” she asks.

That’s a question I myself can’t answer, but hope to be able to in the future. I hope that as we continue to deconstruct these forms of systematic oppression on low-income students and their families that organizations like College Bridge continue to prosper and expand their offerings.

It takes people like Paris who are completely committed to the cause, to help the students in need.  And for Paris, it has all been worth it.

 

Want to get involved? Apply to the Education Pioneers Fellowship and make a difference for students nationwide.

 

Tiffanie Woods is the Associate, Learning Programs for Education Pioneers, where she works on logistics and communications. Previously, Tiffanie served EP as a recruiting specialist, where she recruited top analytical talent for the Education Pioneers Fellowship. Tiffanie’s passion for education stems from both her parents and the strong support system of teachers and advisors she had surrounding her throughout her time in Buffalo Public Schools. 

 

 

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