Youth Video Draws Obama to 'Early College' School

Jamaal Abdul-Alim
April 8, 2009

In its early days on YouTube, the video by students at Village Academy High School in Pomona, Calif., about how the economic crisis is devastating their families lived in relative obscurity in cyberspace.

Then a White House staffer discovered the video—titled "Is Anybody Listening?"—and brought it to the attention of President Barack Obama. Next thing you know, the president was quoting a student in the video at length during a mid-March speech about education to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. (Watch the video.)

For the students at Village Academy, a predominantly Hispanic school where most of the students come from families where money is tight, getting formal recognition from El Presidente was reward enough. But then the video accomplished two major feats that no one expected.

First, it led to the chance of a lifetime for the youths: a private meeting with the president

Secondly - and perhaps more importantly in the broader discussion about education reform - the video brought some welcome attention to the Early College High School Initiative, a growing nationwide movement of more than 200 schools, including Village Academy. The initiative targets low-income youth, first-generation college students, and other groups that are disproportionally underrepresented on college campuses.

Joel Vargas, program director at Jobs for the Future (lead partner in the Early College High School Initiative), said the video speaks well about the kind of education taking place at the school.

"Obviously, they've done a good job in teaching their students the kind of important questions of consequence in the country, and have developed their sense of efficacy and agency in terms of being able to assert themselves and make their point of view known to the president," Vargas said. "I think that's a pretty powerful take on what the school is doing on the ground there."

From the standpoint of the students, the presidential visit - which occurred across the street from the academy, at the Southern California Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center - was akin to a meteor crashing to Earth. "It was pretty mind-blowing, because we didn't think the video was going to get that far," said 16-year-old Brianda Mladosich.

The Early College Initiative

Supporters of the Early College Initiative feel the same way, particularly given the timing of the video.

The day before Obama's visit, Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.) and Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) introduced the Fast Track to College Act of 2009. The legislation would create a $140 million competitive grant program to support Early College high schools and other "dual enrollment" programs, with $10 million going to states for planning and technical assistance.

Sponsored by various private foundations, Early College schools are paired with area colleges, or "post-secondary partners," to offer high school and college courses. The Village Academy started in 2006 with $400,000 in "catalytic" money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some Early College schools are district or charter schools and are thus eligible for federal and state funding. The college portion is funded in a variety of ways, including tuition waivers and scholarships for high school students to take college courses. By the time Early College students graduate from high school, they have earned two-year college degrees, or enough college credit to transfer to a four-year college as juniors, without paying a penny for tuition.

The Fast Track Act was announced by Kildee and Kohl at the Center for American Progress, in Washington, where moments later a panel discussion about the Early College Initiative generated some provocative discussions. One questioner hinted that it might be wiser to focus attention and resources on reforming regular public high schools to make them more effective.

Vargas, one of the panelists, responded that the colleges are part of educational reform and help focus attention on the need to better align standards between high schools and colleges.

"These [Early Colleges] can be seen as on-the-ground proofs for how to create an improved scope and sequence of learning expectations and supports for" youths, "ensuring they get through high school, into college, and through the critical first two years of college," Vargas said later in an interview.

"Even if we 'fixed' existing high schools," Vargas said later in an interview, "they don't do much, if anything, about ensuring students can afford college or helping students really understand what being in college is like and having a realistic conception of whether it's something they can really do."

Early Colleges are showing some payoffs. According to figures provided by Vargas, students from California's first 10 Early Colleges who took the California High School Exit Examination passed the language arts portion of the exam at a rate of 91 percent, versus 79 percent for all California students. And they passed the exam's math portion at a rate of 89 percent, versus 78 percent for all state students.

The figures also show that Early College students drop out at a much lower rate than other students in California.

The Video's Rise to Fame

Michael Steinman, the Advanced Placement language arts teacher at the Village Academy, said he encouraged the students to make the YouTube video after a discussion of The Great Gatsby, the 1920s F. Scott Fitzgerald novel about self-indulgence and the American dream. When Steinman asked how many of his students were being affected by the economic crisis, every hand went up. Students told stories about their parents losing their jobs and homes, having to forgo health care, and how difficult it was to concentrate in school.

Steinman advised the students to tell their stories to the camera.

"This whole process of going from a thought to actually putting together something that the president referenced has taught the kids to stick to something and focus," Steinman said. "And even though it is a long shot ... it did happen, and I think they have this great feeling that they're successful, and going to college is no more of a long shot than that."

For the students, the presidential visit has inspired them to pursue their college dreams in ways that little else could. Several of the students told Youth Today they occasionally think about skipping college in favor of work in order to help their economically distressed families.

Pablo Flores, 16, who was in the video, says he's less likely to pursue that course after hearing directly from the president about the importance of college and how the federal stimulus act would increase financial aid to make college easier to pay for. The visit also made him more determined to pursue his dream of becoming an economist.

He sees himself as an economist who can say, "I was raised in this economy," referring to the current economic crisis. "I want to help. Obama really inspired me to want to change this whole situation." 

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This article was produced on April 2, 2009 by Youth Today, the only independent, nationally distributed newspaper dedicated to the youth service field. It is reprinted here with permission.

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