Educators Competing With Athletics for Low-income Students’ Focus - Higher Education
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Educators Competing With Athletics for Low-income Students’ Focus

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by Lydia Lum


072415_AthleticsSAN FRANCISCO ― The boy gazed quizzically at educators, mystified that they were trying so hard to convince him to go to college.

What did he need college for? He was destined for pro basketball.

This was one of several anecdotes of frustration shared during this week’s annual conference of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP), the third-party, technical assistance provider for GEAR UP, the federally funded initiative aimed at improving college access for low-income students.

The story about the student who insisted he was NBA bound sparked a series of observations and suggestions in one of the workshops.

It began when a conference-goer said that her efforts as part of GEAR UP activities feel all for naught whenever youths, many of whom are minorities who are convinced they’re future football and basketball stars, laugh off any talk of college. The parents of one boy reinforce their son’s ambivalence for college by encouraging him to devote as much energy as possible toward basketball.

“How can we make any headway on academics when, even at home, everything is about the NBA?” the educator asked.

Based on audience responses and knowing head nods, this was a common challenge among her peers.

“This is where you tell the kid that, in order for him to live out his dream in sports, he’ll need tutoring first, and he’ll need to take certain courses, too,” said Michael Lane, director of outreach services at Alamance-Burlington schools in North Carolina. Lane was a panelist at a workshop titled “Increasing (Non-Athlete) Traditionally Underrepresented and Disadvantaged Student Populations on College Campuses.”

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Lane said that his school system regularly hosts a college-access conference for families in which the invited speakers include men who shoot hoops in nearby neighborhoods.

“These are the guys who hang around the blacktop with old newspaper articles in their pockets about how they scored 40 points in a high school game,” Lane said. “At the conference, they talk about how if they had studied more, or studied at all, they would have been better off. This is particularly effective when we’re targeting families who think their sons are the next LeBron James.”

Another conference-goer agreed that outreach to parents is crucial, saying, “Parents need to understand that good grades are necessary not only to stay in school but to maintain eligibility for Division I sport programs that, hopefully, lead to pro sports careers.”

Despite the long odds of any youth becoming a pro football or basketball player, “it’s important not to quash a kid’s dream,” another audience member said. “Show them that staying in school can help make dreams possible.”

Workshop panelist Nathan Weigl, a doctoral student at Appalachian State University, suggested that recruiting tactics of college coaches can be borrowed and adapted by GEAR UP practitioners and community partners.

Based on multiple interviews he conducted, Weigl said that coaches tend to cultivate relationships with entire families, keeping spreadsheets with everyone’s names — even those of dogs and other pets. Coaches plan at least two years in advance, meaning they are now aggressively courting students in the 2017 high school graduating class. During visits to a student’s home, coaches liberally sprinkle into the conversation the names of alumni who have played for them and went on to pro careers — a tactic that GEAR UP practitioners can use, Weigl said, by substituting names of high-achieving, non-athlete alumni at their institutions.

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The NCCEP convenes its annual meeting to offer training and programs in support of GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. Conference attendees share and learn best practices from those receiving and executing GEAR UP grants administered by the Department of Education.

Themes of competitive games intersected with other workshops at the San Francisco gathering this week.

For instance, at a workshop titled “College is in My Future,” University of California, Santa Cruz staff said that students enthusiastically engage with college-prep exercises patterned after TV game shows such as Jeopardy!

This has been helpful because motivating children to aspire to college can prove difficult, said Hector Mandujano, a college facilitator for the university. His target audience consists of 3,800 youths in the farming town of Watsonville, California, many of whom are Mexican Americans who would be first-generation college students.

Furthermore, only 2 percent of residents in nearby south Monterey County hold bachelor’s degrees. “The only college graduates who our kids know are their school teachers,” Mandujano said.

He and his colleagues use a GEAR UP-sponsored activity patterned after Jeopardy! to familiarize students with higher ed terminology, such as bachelor’s degrees, majors, minors and admission. Prizes are awarded.

Santa Cruz educators also use Hollywood celebrities’ college paths as teaching points for their middle and high school students. For example, they have pointed out that actress Eva Longoria holds a bachelor’s in kinesiology from Texas A&M University-Kingsville and a master’s in Chicano studies from California State University, Northridge.

“We want them to know that famous people went to college, that college is cool,” Mandujano said. “Eva Longoria is a good example of the fact that a person’s career might be different from his or her major.”

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