Archives For July 2014

Expanding Opportunity for San Francisco’s Low-Income Students

GUEST BLOGGER: Melanie Rogers, Director of Development & Communications, SMART


Jonathan Wang, a SMART Scholar who will attend the University of Southern California this fall, shared his story at a recent SMART goes to College Event, a fundraiser and a celebration of Scholar achievements. “Since, 6th grade, I’ve boarded a bus that transports me from my home in the Bayview, one of the city’s most crime ridden districts, to my schools in Pacific Heights, the city’s most affluent zip code. I’ve found this fifty-minute bus ride to be analogous to my family’s transformative journey with the SMART program.”

Since 1997, SMART has empowered financially-disadvantaged San Francisco students and their families to demand more from their educational communities. SMART offers  an eight-year continuum of support to students in the 5th through 12th grades, which includes after-school and summer programming with a  strong college-bound culture, a comprehensive academic and social-emotional support through our tutoring and mentoring program, and strong partnerships with the Bay Area’s most exceptional private schools.  SMART’s organizational goal is that 100% of our students will attend 4-year colleges equipped with the skills and confidence necessary to succeed. Our vision?  That all students, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds, have equal access to quality education, and receive the support needed to reach their full potential. We believe that increased educational opportunities coupled with comprehensive support have the power to transform individual lives, families, and communities.

Jonathan went on to say, “It began in kindergarten when my mom marched ambitiously through the hallways of a reputable public elementary school, determined to obtain a spot for me. When my admission was denied, she broke down into tears. Her fear of a future fraught with uncertainty allowed me to understand, from an early age, that MY education would be the solution to our financial instability.”

While SMART’s emphasis is on providing educational access for students and families, we are also committed to harnessing our community of private school partners  and supporting in their efforts to deepen their commitment towards diversity and inclusivity.  High tuitions, complex admissions and financial aid processes, and rigorous academic curricula prohibit many families from underserved backgrounds from accessing a choice in a private school education. Utilizing 16 years of experience working in this field, SMART has started to offer workshops to schools to help them strategize and better support the common issues and experiences faced by traditionally underrepresented students and families. Together, we aim to encourage educational environments where all children and their families can thrive.

Jonathan Wang presenting the keynote address at SMART Goes to College.

In his speech, Jonathan concluded with, “In my new schools, I found a group of peers that piqued and propagated my intellectual curiosity. Outside of school, I was supported by the SMART community, which was filled with energetic students who came from similar backgrounds to mine, all determined to pursue higher levels of education. With SMART, I finally found the symbolic shuttle to bring me, and my family, from our lives in the Bayview to lives filled with more opportunities.”

Fueling educational opportunity


FUEL Education believes that more low-income youth can and should attain higher education. Research and experience show that the most successful students are those who are supported by their parents in their college ambitions, not just financially, but in decision making, research, and enthusiasm. FUEL Education helps low-income parents in three Greater Boston communities learn about college access and save toward higher education.

FUEL Education offers a creative and powerful contract: we provide incentives toward saving and learning, host monthly educational workshops (Savings Circles) where they learn actionable ways to move their children toward higher education, and inform them about how to pay for it so the students can graduate with little or no debt. Parents respond by saving money, attending the Savings Circles, and putting their knowledge to use. The result is greater involvement by parents in the education of their children, which has been repeatedly shown to be a strong indicator of educational success.

Our model has shown remarkable success. Since 2009, more than 600 families have enrolled. They have opened over 700 educational savings accounts for their children and put away more than $525,000 toward higher education. There are now 164 FUEL Education students matriculating in college. Of those who started before last fall, 89 percent have returned to their studies year to year. This is a remarkable persistence rate since the national average is around 60 percent, and much lower for this at-risk population. So FUEL is hitting it out of the park with results that show the importance and impact of engaging parents as part of the students’ college access toolkit.

The Nasuuna family is a perfect example of how the FUEL Education system works. They immigrated from Somalia looking for a better life and joined FUEL when their oldest child, Bahiya, was in tenth grade. Having not gone to college themselves, Bahiya’s parents had no idea what the process was or how much it would cost. With FUEL’s help, they started attending Savings Circles and opened an educational savings account. Bahiya focused on her studies and got good grades all through high school while her parents continued to save and learn all they could about how to get her into college. Last fall, Bahiya began a pre-med track as public health major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a full scholarship and is well on her way to a productive future for herself and her family. “FUEL helped get me where I am because it taught my mom things we didn’t know about college,” she said. “FUEL also helped us save $3,000, which really reduced our monthly payment for the payment plan I had.”

Low-income youth are falling well behind the educational curve because fewer of them are entering and staying in college, scared off by the high cost and crushing debt load. These students are being deprived of opportunities for themselves and their families, and the country’s workforce is being denied their intelligence, creativity, diversity, and energy. FUEL’s combination of incentivized learning and saving, and access to scholarships is a powerful package that helps underserved families gain the knowledge and skills that unlock college for their children. Our work empowers families to take steps that improve their own future and bolster their communities by educating their children. We are excited to have created a model that allows more underserved Massachusetts youth to follow their educational ambitions, improve their own prospects, and contribute their energy and ideas to the nation.