Students Find Success In Rigorous Program – OnlineBusiness

For Yvonne Flores, it was never a question. Her sons were going to college.

“You can’t get a job without a college degree today. I’ve always planted the seed in their heads about college,” said Flores, who is a Brooklyn native and single mother. “My oldest son is very driven, and my two boys are very competitive with each other.”

SEO Scholars students participate in an intensive course load that includes six hours of instructional time on Saturdays. (Photo Courtesy: Bethany Bandera)

Flores’ sons Brandon, 18, and Christian, 15, are both involved in the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) Scholars Program, a year-round academic program designed to help motivated, low-income high school students get to and complete college. The program includes rigorous academic course work done outside of school, usually after the regular school day and on some Saturdays. Currently it’s available to students in New York City and San Francisco.

Brandon’s guidance counselor introduced him to the program and after submitting an essay, he was accepted in the ninth grade.

“It was a struggle for Brandon the first year of the program because what 13-year-old wants to go to school on the weekend?” Flores said. “He would cry and say he felt pressured and that I was running his life.”

However, Flores said Brandon did a complete about face the second year of the program.

“I have to credit SEO because they didn’t give up on him. They encouraged him and it was refreshing to see my son grow,” she said. “The neighborhood we live in is a little rough and I try to shield them from the negative things and people around. SEO was truly a blessing in disguise for my family. They kept my children active and responsible.”

Brandon will be entering DePauw University this fall on a full academic scholarship.

SEO Scholars students are required to complete six hours of class time on Saturdays, which include four hours of grammar, reading, writing, and vocabulary and two hours of math. SEO is an eight-year program: the four years in high school include intensive, supplemental education and the four years in college include ongoing counseling from advisors, exploring career options and landing internships.

SEO Scholars is a not-for-profit funded by various organizations and through grants. It is free for participants and the program favors students from low-income families whose parents have not earned a bachelor’s degree.

Demand for the program is high: of the more than 1,000 ninth-grade students who applied for the NYC program last year, only 127 were accepted–all that funding allowed.

“There are a lot of students out there who know they need more than what they’re getting Monday through Friday at school,” said NYC program director Millie Hau. “They are very self-aware. They know they want to go to college, they just don’t know how to get there.”

Such was the case for Evin Robinson, who didn’t begin the program until his sophomore year of high school.

“I was an average student, but I wasn’t really learning anything at my school,” said Robinson, who said his high school lacked adequate funding. “I got involved in the SEO Scholars program and saw all that was available to me–speech and debate classes, summer enrichment classes, college campus visits–and took in as much as I could. Whatever area you needed help with, the scholars put you in touch with someone that could help you.”

Robinson said he benefitted from interacting with students like him who were motivated, driven, and wanted to do something with their life.

“I asked myself if I was going to let time pass me by or do something for the betterment of myself and my family. Personal motivation and the support of SEO staff were the two things that helped me while in the program,” Robinson said. “You’re surrounded by people who want to start non-profits, open their own businesses, become doctors and lawyers.”

Robinson said he discovered a passion for business at a young age, after attending an entrepreneurship boot camp one summer with SEO. He wants to start his own business one day and open a community center in his neighborhood.

“Most community centers kids just go and play basketball or something. I want mine to be a library of knowledge,” he said. “I want to set up a curriculum tailored to each student’s goals and track their progress.”

Robinson had a 76 GPA prior to entering the program, graduated high school with an 86 GPA, and recently graduated from Syracuse University. He is planning on returning to pursue his master’s degree. Robinson said he always knew he would go to college, he just didn’t know if the resources would have been as accessible, if not for the SEO Scholars program.

“At my high school, they never told you that you could go to a big university or a private college. Before I started SEO, I didn’t even know so many colleges existed,” he said. “I graduated college with a 3.6 GPA – coming from a single parent household in one of the worst neighborhoods in Brooklyn.”

The biggest focus of the SEO Scholars program is closing the achievement gap between minority students and their white counterparts. SEO scholars experience a 20:1 student to teacher ratio and are taught by instructors who exhibit content mastery and have teaching experience, said Hau.

“The SEO environment is conducive to learning. Some students are surprised at how quiet it is when they enter the classroom because there’s no yelling–by students or teachers.”

Hau said they push for all SEO scholars to attend competitive, private 4-year colleges and universities, enroll in no remedial classes, and finish with a degree.

Statistics suggest that SEO is reaching their goal. One hundred percent of SEO Scholars are accepted to four-year schools and they score higher on their SATs and have higher high school GPAs.

“The fact that these students are willing to do the work needed–including giving up their Saturdays to devote time to school–it shows that they are hungry, motivated, and focused.”

Hau said SEO’s short-term goal is expanding the program throughout New York, and eventually expanding it to cities across the country.

Follow Valerie Jones on Twitter @ValerieJonesCMN

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Brandon would be attending DePaul University. He will be attending DePauw University.