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Enabling Education: Boys Hope Girls Hope of Colorado

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Better schools and teachers aren't always enough to help disadvantaged kids.

Many students in the U.S. can't continue attending good schools once they reach the eighth or ninth grade level, and it has nothing to do with the school. Sometimes such students need to find work and help provide for their families. Sometimes school gets too challenging, because the students' parents also dropped out before graduation and can no longer offer homework help. Sometimes life at home lacks routine, so it's hard to prioritize catching the bus every day.

These aren't just rationalizations from rebellious teenagers. They are realities for smart students with ever-loosening grips on a better future. It takes more than being smart to graduate, much less think about a first-generation higher education. It takes a learning environment, one that nourishes ambition and emphasizes routine.

A national private organization is working to provide the right elements to foster such an environment.

Ann Rice, board chair for Boys Hope Girls Hope of Colorado, insists there's no magic to the program. People ask if it's magic all the time, though, because they see the change. Kids involved in the program start talking about college, where it was never a conversation topic. They do their homework every day, and participate in extracurricular activities. They are eager to learn, and they're not getting caught under poverty's vicious wheel.

"It's probably what you had, it's what I had," Rice says. "Nurturing adults."

Boys Hope Girls Hope of Colorado runs two programs. The residential program gives scholars a second home during the week, and they visit their families on weekends. The academy program assists scholars who have more stable homes, but need help to prepare for college. The Colorado organization is part of a national network of Boys Hope Girls Hope programs, serving about 500 kids with 17 homes across the country.

The leaders of Boys Hope Girls Hope aren't making mere students. They refer to the children as scholars.

The residential program consists of two homes, one for boys and one for girls. Each is home to eight to ten children, and has two live-in counselors. Other adults work part-time to help cook, clean, and give rides to various activities. Volunteer tutors visit the homes after school to assist with homework, and each scholar is paired with a volunteer mentor. The scholars join in middle school or high school, and stay with the program until they graduate.

Brandi Sampson, one of the resident counselors, says that living in the Girls Hope home is like being a surrogate mother. "Kids don't generally wake up in the morning and say, 'Thank you, mom, for making me breakfast or taking me to school and paying the bills on time,' but that's basically what we're doing here."

Sampson is in her early twenties. The other residential counselor for the girls' home, Aimee, is about ten years older. They work together to provide a consistent routine for the kids. Each week begins on Sunday night, when the scholars come back from visiting home. They meet with volunteer tutors to do any last homework for Monday. Each weekday begins at 6 a.m., and the counselors prepare a healthy breakfast. "Mornings are pretty relaxed," says Sampson. "We give them breakfast and get them off to school."

Work at the house starts again for Sampson at 2 o'clock, when she and the other counselor prepare snacks and check the calendar. The scholars may have various after-school activities scheduled, including counseling and involvement with sports teams, mock trial club, diversity club, and others. Outside of the program, the scholars might not get consistent rides to and from these activities.

Dinner is strictly at 5:30, and Boys Hope Girls Hope emphasizes this routine for health and a sense of stability. "Meal moms," most of whom are from Regis Jesuit High School, the local high school, bring dinner three nights a week. Mary Fran Tharp, the executive director of the program, remembers a recent visit to the Boys Hope house for dinner.

Listening to the conversation, Tharp marveled at the change she's seen in the scholars since they first joined the program. "They were talking about basketball and colleges, and which college basketball teams they like," she says. Then the youngest scholar went around the table, asking the adults where they went to college, and asking the other scholars where they wanted to go to college.

"It's a typical conversation for many, many families to have at the dinner table, but not for our scholars," Tharp says. She adds that the older scholars know where they want to go to college, and are talking about what they want to study. They are building plans to afford higher education. "What really struck me was these kids are the first in their families, most of the time, to finish high school. They're the first to go to college."

After dinner, each scholar helps with a chore, and then puts in two hours of homework time before bed. Scholars who need more help sit at the table and work with tutors, and those who have shown enough responsibility can work alone if they wish.

With this routine, Boys Hope Girls Hope emphasizes and practices basic life lessons.

It reinforces consistency. "If you repeat and you repeat and you repeat," Rice says after explaining the daily schedule, "You get amazing opportunities."

It focuses on practicality. "What we're trying to teach them," says Tharp, "Is that there's no great magic in success."

It provides a safe place to fail and try again. "Sometimes things go your way," Tharp says, "And sometimes things don't...more than anything, we teach our kids that it's okay to screw up, it's okay to fail at something, but you have to try it again and do it better next time. You can't just walk away and not do anything. Where they own up to it and then try it again, that's where we've been successful in teaching them about how to deal with failure."

Boys Hope Girls Hope is in its twenty-first year as an organization. The newly-developed academy program is designed to help kids in schools become college-ready, and it started at Aurora Central High School. It serves about thirty-six scholars, and is projected to grow each year.

"These are kids who don't need the residential component." Tharp explains. "Aurora Central has a graduation rate of 43 percent." Teachers at the school identify students with a high risk of dropping out, and nominate them for the program.

The academy program was Tharp's idea, and she had to convince Rice that it would be a good move. Rice remembers about the discussion about a year ago: "She approached me at a time when we were going through this recession, and fundraising was down. I mean, it's a difficult time to put something on the table that's going to require the extra money, but she could see long-term."

Tharp said it was a good use of resources and return on investment. As Rice quotes her, "It's what we are, it's who we serve, and it's what we need to do."

"She had to sell that first to me." Rice says. "I had to get my brain wrapped around it, and then sell it to the board, and then find the resources to get the program up and running. Which all has happened."

Once a child has been nominated or referred -- usually by a teacher, social worker, or school resource officer -- the leaders at Boys Hope Girls Hope meet with the child's family. The decision to join the program is ultimately left up to the child.

Because the child must want to be in the program and work as a participant, some students leave. "It's a disappointment," Tharp says, "But overall the kids learn that it's hard work."

Tharp shares that there are little frustrations, "Like anybody else's house. There are some days where you find the leak behind the toilet that's running down to the first floor. Now you need to get somebody to come in and repair the drywall. Or sometimes the kids don't do as well as you'd hoped that they would do. They're good kids, but they still do stupid stuff because they're teenagers."

Brightening, Tharp adds, "I always say we're a funny little family, even though we all look different, and have different last names and all that. It's still that family environment. You still have the same issues that happen in any family."

"It's the little moments." Sampson says of being a full-time counselor. "Just last week I got a text from one of the girls. I'd told her that I might not be able to come get her from school, so she was going to have to walk, and I ended up being able to, so I texted her and let her know that I was coming. She texted back and said, 'wow, you're so wonderful, you deserve an award for everything you do for me.' That will stick with me forever. It's those little moments that just make you feel like, 'okay, they really do appreciate me, and I really am making a difference in their life.'"

Rice shares that she loves spending spare time with the scholars. She has a pool in her backyard, and every summer the kids come over to swim. "I love watching them engage as brothers and sisters," she says. "Sometimes one of them will get out, and sit there next to me, and will start talking to me about a gym class that they've taken, or some summer experience that they've had, or something that would never happen in their lives except for getting to be a part of this program." Her other favorite moments are when the scholars visit to make Christmas cookies in the winter.

And, of course, she loves attending the scholars' high school graduations.