It takes a village.
by Michael Cich-Jones, Urban League of Nebraska
Nicole Mitchell beamed as she watched her students accept scholarships from the Urban League of Nebraska. Mitchell is the program coordinator for the Whitney M. Young Jr. Academy at the Urban League of Nebraska. One week later, 100 percent of her program participants graduated from high school – the second year in a row and something that would have been impossible for many of them.
“I know it truly takes a village to raise a child, because I’m a product of the village,” said Mitchell. “I want our youth to understand when it looks impossible to know it’s possible.”
The Whitney M. Young Jr. Academy (WYA) prepares 9th through 12th grade students for graduation from high school, enrollment into an institution of higher education and employment. Mitchell’s students will be the next generation’s workforce. The program has a special emphasis on promoting careers in science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and math, or S.T.E.A.M. Each summer WYA hosts the Girls Summer S.T.E.A.M. Academy, a six-week program that introduces high school girls of color to S.T.E.A.M. careers through hands-on experiments, meeting women in S.T.E.A.M. industries and touring local companies and institutions.
The program is named after prominent national civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. Young who was the executive director of ULN in the 1950s and eventually led the National Urban League. Marilyn Sims, ULN vice president, is fond of quoting Young when talking about the program’s namesake.
“It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one than to have one and not be prepared,” quoted Sims. “It’s why we are constantly innovating and inviting the community to share in our passion.”
WYA is funded by a $110,000 grant from the United Way of the Midlands and $48,000 from the National Urban League. Local foundations and companies sponsor program components like the Girls Summer S.T.E.A.M. Academy, which recently received a $4,000 sponsorship from Omaha Public Power District. WYA utilizes the Project Ready curriculum, a signature program of the National Urban League, which prepares African-American and other youth for college, work and life.
“Project Ready is a set of evidence-based standards and practical tools specially designed for and unique to the Urban League Movement,” said Thomas Warren, president/CEO of the affiliate. “Participants receive academic, social and cultural supports and opportunities designed to develop readiness.”
WYA program specialists provide intensive case management and assist students with academic advisement; career exploration; college admissions, including essay writing, scholarship, and financial aid applications; and leadership development. Students in the program have access to other ULN activities like scholarships, a college tour during spring break and a college fair every January. This past spring, the latter events were co-hosted with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands and are examples of strong partnerships the ULN has with other organizations in the community.
A once in a lifetime opportunity.
In July, the Urban League of Nebraska sent ten students to the National Urban League Youth Summit at Coppin State University in Baltimore, MD. Students met youth from all across the country, attended workshops and toured colleges, museums and historic sites. Two places, in particular, made a deep impression on the students: the city’s old slave market and the site Freddie Gray was killed. Afterward, they met with representatives from the White House and provided them feedback about issues facing our country. They lived a college student’s life for a week, eating in the cafeteria and enjoying dorm life. For many of the students, it was their first time to step foot on a college campus. Tyrone Marshall, ULN director of education and youth development, and his staff attended the summit with the youth.
“The Youth Summit is an opportunity for kids across the country to come together for the same mission and purpose,” said Tyrone Marshall, ULN director of education and youth development. “It’s an amazing feeling to provide our students with opportunities of a lifetime.”
Closing the achievement gap.
While the overall graduation rate for African Americans in Omaha Public Schools has improved from 55.6 percent in 2003 to 80.8 percent in 2014, a disparity remains between African-Americans and white students.The Urban League of Nebraska isn’t just closing the achievement gap—it’s exceeding it.
African-American students enrolled in ULN programs graduated at a higher rate than those in OPS. The rate is even higher for those enrolled in the Whitney Young Academy. For the past two years, 100 percent of WYA participants have graduated high school.
Last year, 90 percent of WYA participants enrolled into post-secondary education. Many of them are choosing to attend post-secondary educational institutions, like the University of Nebraska at Omaha where ULN is a valued community partner in the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center.
“The Community Engagement Center has been a great way to promote the mission of the Urban League of Nebraska and Project Ready,” said Jeffrey Williams, ULN program specialist. “We leverage the many services of other partners in the center to help young people engage in educational pursuits.”
Today, UNO enrolls more black undergraduates than any other four-year school in the state. In 2014, UNO awarded bachelor’s degrees to more than 100 black students a year – up from just 65 during the early 2000s.
A comprehensive approach.
Students needing assistance don’t need to wait until high school to get the help they need. The ULN education and youth development department provides services to students from elementary school through college:
- Afterschool Programs – ULN facilitates afterschool programs at King and Franklin elementary schools and a nationally-recognized program at Monroe Middle School.
- Truancy Reduction – ULN reengages middle and high school students who have been identified as having chronic and excessive absenteeism. The Truancy Reduction Program is a court recognized diversion program aimed at offering
students a chance to stay out of court if they stay in school.
The program assists students with removing the barriers that cause chronic absenteeism.
- Violence Prevention and Intervention – The ULN Community Coaches are recognized by Juvenile Court as a diversion program that works with youth who are, or could potentially be under the supervision of the Office of Probation. The program utilizes effective intervention strategies to ensure youth successfully complete the provisions and terms of their supervision, do not re-offend and/or become the victim of a crime.
Urban League of Nebraska staff are already busy preparing to serve hundreds of students this school year, like planning for the annual Striving for Success Summit, a day of empowerment for African-American males entering the 9th grade.
“It wouldn’t be right for me to not pay it forward,” said Mitchell. “It’s what my village taught me.”
Learn more at UrbanLeagueNeb.org or call (402) 453-9730.