'We have a culture change mission': Pathways helps East St. Louis students go to college

News-DemocratJune 15, 2013 

Of all the high school seniors who are part of a program at the Christian Activity Center in East St. Louis, every one of them graduated and each is headed to college at the end of summer.

In a school district where 54 percent of the male students graduate from high school, according to the Illinois State School Report Card, 100 percent who are involved in the Pathways program at the CAC have graduated, said program director Angela Whitlow.

This year, the six who were involved in Pathways graduated and each will go on to college. The program was developed in 2011 in an effort to reach students academically, starting in sixth-grade, and encourage and help them through high school and on to college.

The program stays with students as they go through college to provide support and help in an often confusing maze of paperwork, registration, financial aid, and college campus visits to help them make decisions about where to apply.

District 189 is failing state and national standards and has district-wide low ACT scores. The average score for East St. Louis School District 189 students was below 16 in all categories on the ACT, according to the Illinois State School Report Card. The statewide average is 20.

The low scores make receiving scholarships based on high ACT scores and good grades difficult for college-bound seniors, Whitlow said.

Pathways is trying to fill that academic gap for its students.

"We have a culture change mission ahead of us that we know we have to complete if our kids are going to be competitive academically," she said. "In this community, going to college at all is an incredible feat and all of our graduating seniors are going."

So far, there are 168 students in the Pathways program: 107 in middle school, 16 high school sophomores, 11 high school juniors and the six recently graduated seniors.

Paul Graham, 17, and Xavier Swope, 18, are two of those graduates and soon-to-be college students. Both have been accepted at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where Graham will study in a pre-veterinarian program and Swope will pursue a degree in sign language interpretation.

"My mom is proud of me, when I say something about college, she gets a big smile on her face," Graham said. "I'm a first generation college student. I'm excited. I'm scared, but I'm ready and it's coming fast. I'm most excited about meeting different people. I'm mostly used to all blacks so going to college will be a different experience."

Swope said his high school grades were good and he credited the "really good teachers" he had. He said his mother is excited about his pending college student status.

"She had gone to college but didn't finish because she had me and my sister," he said. "It's something I want to prove to her that I can get through, and prove to everyone at the CAC that I can do it."

He also credits the CAC for his success.

"Coming to the CAC has been a huge impact in my life because it keeps me off the streets and keeps me motivated," Swope said. "I've learned how to save money, how to plan and how to focus. I don't think I would have been able to do all that by myself."

Although he's excited about college, Swope still worries about paying for it, even with the financial aid to help.

"I look at those numbers, all that money, and I get scared, wondering how I will ever pay for it," he said.

CAC awarded scholarships to the students whose financial aid didn't quite cover all the expenses of college, Whitlow said.

All the recent graduates continue to attend the CAC and are part of the center's Teen Employment Program where they work throughout the center, a requirement for those in the Pathways program.

Whitlow has been there through the entire process, helping them apply for colleges, financial aid and scholarships, enroll in college, register for new student orientation, make deposits on housing and visit different campuses. She will go with the students when they meet with advisers during orientation and registration and keep in regular contact during the student's entire college career, stepping in when needed and helping them stay in college and succeed.

But it's not just academic help and encouragement that motivates students to reach for college and beyond.

"It's love. They've been in a place where if they ever doubted anything, it was never that they were loved," Whitlow said. "In this place, there is never any doubt they are loved and that is huge. When all else fails, you go to the people who love you. You want to make them proud and not disappoint them. Each one of these kids feels a personal connection that way and they want to show (the Rev. D. Chet Cantrell, executive director of the Christian Activity Center) that his personal sacrifice and his time with them has helped them reach a better place in their lives and that it has all been worth it."

Recently, the program expanded to include kindergartners through high school seniors. The plan is that if the idea of going to college and succeeding in school can be planted at a young age, then the potential for academic success all through their school career increases significantly. Thanks to recent grants and donations, the center has been able to hire teachers to keep the learning and growing going, in all areas of the center's core program: education, technology, spiritual development, arts/recreation and emotional wellness.

Even with the new focus on academics, the CAC remains centered on Christian values and faith development through fellowship, solitude, Bible study, nightly devotions and Sunday church.

With the Pathways program, the CAC shifted its focus. Originally only a haven for children living in the poorest, most dangerous neighborhood in East St. Louis where children could escape and find safety, love and playtime, CAC is undergoing a massive renovation of the aging building to transform from a noisy, rambunctious playroom to a more quiet, school-after-school space for children to continue learning.

There will still be physical activity and playtime, but the focus is shifting to more educational-based programming.

"This is all for the purpose of giving the kids what they deserve and giving them the academic help they need," Whitlow said. "We're changing a community and we're starting with the kids. It's exciting."

This year there are 630 children who attend the center more than three days a week and center's goal is to improve their academic assessment scores by 85 percent by the end of the next school year, according to Cantrell.

There are nine high school students at the center who will be seniors next year, and Whitlow has high hopes for this class, too.

"We have some real rising stars in this coming class," she said. "They've been in the Pathways program long enough that we are really seeing the results."

For more information about the Christian Activity Center or to donate to the program, visit www.cacesl.org.

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Schaaf at jschaaf@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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