Washington & Jefferson joins program to educate underprivileged students

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It's a far cry from modular classrooms in vacant parking lots and windowless warehouses in run-down neighborhoods of Houston to the quiet hush of the nearly 230-year-old hallowed halls of Washington & Jefferson College.

But it's a trip that underprivileged students from Texas hope to begin making this fall.

The local liberal arts college has signed on to the YES Prep School IMPACT Partnership program, which aims to guide economically disadvantaged children to college and beyond. As a result, six students from YES Prep schools have applied and been accepted to W&J for the fall semester.

YES, a moniker for Youth Engaged in Service, is a free public charter school that serves 3,500 students from seven schools in the Houston area. The 12-year-old charter school has been ranked as the best public school in Houston by Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and the Houston Chronicle.

It boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate among graduates, some of whom attend the most prestigious universities in the country, including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Rice and Stanford. In all, the school has partnerships with 15 four-year colleges and universities.

At W&J, a typical student has a 3.4 grade point average and 1200 SAT score. The school accepts about 40 percent of those who apply.

College Vice President of Enrollment Alton Newell said he was so impressed with students he met on a tour of YES schools several years ago that he formalized a partnership with the prep school as quickly as he could.

"I'm not easily impressed," said Mr. Newell, who said he has been in the college admissions business for 40 years. "I came away stunned."

The prep school is 80 percent funded by state and federal dollars and relies on private and corporate donations for the remaining 20 percent. No government dollars can be used for building projects, so physical plants at the seven YES Prep campuses usually consist of modular buildings or less-than-desirable locations for learning.

Nonetheless, academic rigor at the schools isn't lacking. Students from sixth to 12th grade are accepted as part of an open lottery process and they face an aggressive schedule -- classes from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays plus Saturday classes once a month and one to two weeks of summer instruction.

Everything is geared toward one primary purpose -- well-rounded students who will succeed in college.

Students are required to engage in at least 40 hours of public service per month, and they are offered classes usually reserved for more affluent schools, such as Chinese, advanced physics and robotics.

The middle schools are currently being certified for International Baccalaureate programs, and older students take advanced placement courses and other programs designed to prepare them for the rigors of college.

About 90 percent of the students are first-generation college bound, and 80 percent of them are economically disadvantaged. Most enter the prep school at least one grade level behind in math and English, and 95 percent of the student body is Hispanic or African American.

The school plans to open six more campuses in the next four years, and by 2020, it expects to enroll 10,000 students on 13 campuses.

The goal, said Donald Kamentz, prep school director of college initiatives, is to break the cycle of poverty in the country's fourth largest city, where less than 10 percent of all ninth-graders graduate from high school.

"In all of our lives, there was always someone who pushed us into succeeding," Mr. Kamentz said. "This is what our schools do."

Some students are attracted to smaller schools like W&J, he said, for their academic standards, intimate atmosphere and private setting.

"The six students who visited W&J loved it. They loved Pittsburgh and they loved Western Pennsylvania," Mr. Kamentz said. "It has a Midwest feel to it, and our students got along well with everyone. The personal connections with the student hosts were also very strong."

Most of the students already qualify for financial aid, but colleges such as W&J -- with a tuition rate of $42,000 per year -- also commit to helping with college expenses through scholarship and work study programs and, if necessary, small student loans.

"It's an investment on our part," said Mr. Newell, who hopes to welcome more prep students every year.

Advanced classes and good grades ease students through the admissions process, but more important, Mr. Newell said, are intangibles, such as students who have been trained to be self-advocates.

"These kids, the deck is stacked against them, but after YES Prep, the deck is stacked in their favor," he said.

It is hoped that the group of six students who have been accepted will attend W&J as a cohort, enabling them to live together and support each other. Students have until May 1 to accept offers.

During a recent tour of the W&J campus, Mr. Newell said the Houston students engaged faculty members, impressing them with their knowledge and ambition.

"Everyone who met them said they were phenomenal students and they really are," he said.

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 724-223-0156.


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