When Assistant Principal Tanya McDowell suggested that L.C. Swain Middle School offer its eighth graders a two-day bus tour of four Florida colleges, her boss figured they’d get maybe 30 or 40 who were interested.
After all, nearly 93 percent of the students on the Greenacres campus are so poor they qualify for federally subsidized lunches. A ticket on this bus would cost $270 per student.
Indeed, a few parents pushed back from McDowell’s first pitch.
“Why would I pay for my child to go on a college tour? They aren’t going to college. Or, I’m not paying for that – I heard that a few times,” recalled McDowell.
But for every parent who balked, there were many more like Brenda Ramirez’s mom.
Brenda, 14, wasn’t really thinking college, but when the opportunity came to visit Bethune-Cookman University, University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University, her mother, who came to the U.S. from Mexico, made a compelling argument:
“I want you to be the first person, the first girl in the family to go to college.”
Today, Brenda is among 94 L.C. Swain 13- and 14-year-olds aboard a charter bus making a two-day loop of Florida that McDowell hopes will be their first steps in mapping out a path to college. More than 50 of those students are like Brenda: Their parents also don’t have a college degree.
College tours have been around for years, but most of those who climb onto one of the guided bus trips in Palm Beach County are high schoolers. A middle school tour is not unheard of, but it’s not common either, a district spokeswoman said this week.
Sonshine Educational Tours in Coral Springs, which organized L.C. Swain’s trip, manages a few hundred college tours a year out of Palm Beach County, and only about 5 percent to 10 percent of them are for middle schoolers, Vice President Karin Hoffman said. It’s just the opposite in Miami-Dade, she said, where a majority of the college tours are taken by the younger kids.
McDowell said she proposed the tours after seeing them inspire students when she worked in Broward County.
Superintendent Robert Avossa said he finds great value in exposing middle school students to college campuses to “try to plant the seed.”
It’s particularly important, he said, for students from underprivileged backgrounds who may have less exposure to the idea of college because their parents never attended or don’t speak English.
“They’re just trying to take the fear out of it,” Avossa said, adding that leaving home for a college campus can be “scary” for young children from marginalized populations to consider.
Avossa was from such a family. His parents had only elementary-school educations because their schooling in Italy was interrupted by World War II.
But he was fortunate because his older sister went to the University of Florida, blazing a trail to college that he was able to follow.
McDowell and her colleagues were tending the seeds they hope to plant during this trip before the students packed their bags. This fall, all of the eighth graders took the PSAT test, a predictor of how they will fare on the SAT college admission exam.
Those results in hand, McDowell had them look at what courses, grades and test scores would be required to get into the colleges on tour.
“If you were a senior, would you meet the requirements right now?” they asked. “The majority had no idea what they needed to get it,” McDowell said.
Some were gob smacked by the grade point averages demanded of incoming freshmen, she said. “For some it is a 4.0, and they said, ‘But that’s a perfect score.’”
The exercise reinforced the importance of the courses they choose this year and next, and the effort they put in to them, McDowell said.
This week, each student also did an online inventory that assessed what careers might suit them. Brenda said it revealed an interest in advocacy, “like a lawyer,” she says with a grin. Jocelyn Jenkins says dermatology may be in her future. Mariana Perez was intrigued when the results suggested a future as a surgeon. Nataly Casillas is thinking computer engineer.
Ten of the school’s teachers were so eager to give more students this opportunity they pitched in to sponsor seven scholarships. The application? A college admissions essay. Another scholarship was sponsored by a parent, whose child was already signed up.
“We’ve sent middle school students on this thing for years. It really changes their motivation as they go through high school. It gives them an end game,” said Hoffman, whose family founded its educational travel business some 30 years ago after doing missionary work in Mexico.
Sometimes the tour is more than seeing a college campus; it’s seeing the bigger world. Period.
“We’ve had homeless children on our trips and kids who have never been in a hotel room,” Hoffman said. “Chaperones say they’ve found kids laying stiff on top of the bed covers; they didn’t know they could pull the covers back. Just really precious stories come from these trips.”
McDowell, a graduate of Morgan State University in Baltimore with a master’s degree from St. Thomas University in Miami, is already looking forward to next year. Maybe she can find a way for students to swing the costs of a three-day trip, which would add the University of Florida, Florida State University and Florida A&M University to the itinerary.
But for now, she and her boss, FSU graduate and Principal James Thomas, are focusing on these eighth graders who headed north first — with a fun stop at Medieval Times and a sleepover at a hotel in Orlando. The school raised $2,000 to cover breakfast and snacks and two T-shirts for each student.
“I want you guys to have a ton of fun. Have a blast, but make sure to take care of business,” Thomas told a gathering of room captains this week. “I’m beyond proud that 94 of you are going. This is epic.”
Palm Beach Post staff writer Andrew Marra contributed to this story.