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From inner city to higher ed

An MU Extension program helps youth find their way


Jay "B.J." Spann, front, of St. Louis, hugs Nicolya Johnson, a member of the MU Extension 4-H Youth Development Program–also known as STL Educators. The program's students and staff gather in front of the St. Louis City West End Center, the program's home base.

You’ve seen it in the movies: A motivated, young individual helps struggling high school students graduate and attend college.

You’ve seen it in the news: Urban high schools in the United States face low student attendance and graduation rates.

This is the real thing: MU freshman Jay “B.J.” Spann of St. Louis attended high school at Gateway Institute of Technology — a magnet school in the St. Louis public school district. He graduated May 27, 2008, and moved into College Avenue Hall at the University of Missouri one week later as part of MU’s Trial Admission Program. As it turns out, real life blends two story lines: College doesn’t come easy, but having help preparing for it improves the odds.

Close family ties

The circumstances surrounding Spann’s youth weren’t necessarily ideal. Spann’s mother, Sarah McElroy, had a brain aneurysm in 1995. The resulting damage caused some long-term effects. “I don’t remember much about the kids growing up,” McElroy says.

At the time of the aneurysm, Spann was 6 years old. His grandparents cared for him and his older brother while McElroy recovered. Now, he and his mother are very close. In fact, the situation fostered close family ties all around, and Spann often accompanied his brother to after-school activities. Although he didn’t know it at the time, one group activity in particular — the MU Extension 4-H Youth Development after-school program —would affect him for the rest of his life. “It’s like my second home,” Spann says. “We’re a family. We support each other.”

Home away from home

At 3 p.m. almost every weekday, 15 middle and high school students make their way to the basement of 724 North Union Blvd., known as the St. Louis City West End Community Center. Housed in a city-owned building in need of repair, this is not a stereotypical 4-H program — there are no farm animals, no barns and no corn. Although it has historically focused on agriculture and animal husbandry in rural areas, a new breed of 4-H focuses on urban youth development.

“Whether rural or urban, kids are facing the same kinds of issues,” says Jody Squires, BGS ’94, MU Extension urban youth specialist and city program director for the St. Louis program. She’s referring to the downward trend in high school graduation rates and the barriers some youth face to attending college.

She and her staff of three — Nicolya Johnson, Kelli Lowe and Charles Lowe — help equip middle school and high school students from the St. Louis public school district with the values and leadership skills necessary to graduate from high school and attend college.

Spann has been part of the program for the last nine years. “This is the type of program that helps you define yourself,” he says.“Coming here has kept me off the streets and kept me from doing bad things.”

The learning curve

The program — called STL Educators — teaches students practical skills such as managing finances, communicating and collaborating with others, and giving back to the community. The group also visits local colleges and takes other field trips. Each student has to maintain a 3.0 grade point average, fulfill responsibilities at home as designated by a parent, participate in community service activities and help raise money for the trips.

“We try to give them a college experience,” Charles says. “We want them to know what it’s going to be like when they have to juggle all these things on their own.”

As important as college is, Squires says, it’s also very important for the program to encourage high school graduation. Large cities face low high school graduation rates, and the St. Louis public school district is no exception.

In March 2007, the district lost its state accreditation — a serious blow to its reputation. For graduating students, the district’s loss of accreditation isn’t likely to affect their college admissions, says Jason Grissom, an education policy expert and assistant professor in MU’s Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs. But standardized test preparation such as for the ACT — required for most college admissions — can be a barrier to acceptance to a four-year institution for some students. In 2007, students at Gateway Technical Institute scored an average of 17.4 on the test. The average ACT score for all students enrolled at MU is 25.5.

Trial and admission

Spann’s ACT score combined with his class ranking made him eligible for MU’s Trial Admission Program. Students in the program take two college courses from June 9 to Aug. 1. Successful students — Spann among them — then start regular course work in the fall.

The transition to college life in fall 2008 was fast, Spann says. “I had to adjust to that, but now I know what to expect.” He is enrolled as an architectural studies major in the College of Human Environmental Sciences and lives in Campus Lodge Apartments.

All of the students who have participated in the STL Educators 4-H Youth Development program over the past eight years have graduated from high school and gone on to college — Spann is the 23rd. He’s determined not to be the last. “I’ll stay involved in the program — of course I will.” he says. “It helped me, and I want it to help others too.”

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