Paving the way
Upward Bound program gives teens a route to college
Photo by Jack Looney
By Anne Bromley
Leah Wilson-Puryear likes to say she has hundreds of children, although she has birthed only two. Director since 1982 of Upward Bound at U.Va. for high-school students, Puryear said, “I get attached to the kids. When the summer staff starts, we tell them, you’ll get attached.”
Upward Bound, established by the 1965 Higher Education Act and part of a group of federal programs called Trio, is designed to bolster the academic success of teens across the country who would be the first in their families to attend college or who come from low-income households. At U.Va., about 75 local high schoolers complete the college-preparation program each year and about 90 percent enter college.
With a low student-teacher ratio, usually no more than 10 to one, the instructors get to know their students personally, Puryear said.
“The students feel connected, they’re drawn to the teachers,” most of whom are U.Va. graduate students. Undergraduates volunteer as tutors.
The program, which is offered free to those who are accepted, comprises a six-week residential summer session and Saturday sessions, two per month, throughout subsequent school years until the participants graduate from high school. It is competitive, with about 125 ninth-graders applying for 25 to 30 slots from Charlottesville and surrounding counties.
In addition to taking summer classes in English, math, science and social studies while living in U.Va. dorms, the students learn study skills and practice test-taking for standardized tests, plus they receive counseling on how to apply to college, as well as tutoring if needed. They also take a foreign language, Spanish or French, and a course in computer applications, and they attend a nightly study hall. Their class schedules mirror what they are taking in school.
Throughout the year Upward Bound holds other cultural and social enrichment activities, such as guest speakers, sports events and visits to nearby colleges and universities.
Program coordinator Maurice Walker — a participant in Upward Bound himself — said the students come into the program with the idea of going to college but need to learn that it takes hard work.
“They need to acclimate to college life,” he said. “They learn to do things on their own and make their own choices,” said Walker, who graduated from U.Va. and volunteered in the program as an undergraduate and for several years after that before getting his current full-time job.
“I would not have attended U.Va. and come back to work here if not for Upward Bound. It gave me the tools to get through college.”
Walker is now working on his master’s degree from the Curry School of Education.
His mother worked as a housekeeper for several U.Va. faculty members who told her about the Upward Bound program for her only son. Neither she nor Walker’s father, a retired groundskeeper from U.Va., went to college.
“Regardless of socioeconomic status, there’s not a parent who doesn’t want better for their children,” Puryear said.
The program includes a monthly workshop for the parents, where they learn how to be an advocate for their child’s education and what it takes to get to college. Sometimes it even helps them get interested in furthering their own education, Puryear said.
In terms of the success of Upward Bound, “there are many stories like Maurice’s,” said Margaret “Mittie” Harvey, curriculum coordinator for the program.
One of her duties is the required tracking of the Upward Bound graduates for the next six years. Harvey expressed frustration at critics who say it’s not effective. President Bush has taken away the funding in the past two years, but Congress has restored it.
The program is supposed to meet the goal of having 60 percent of its participants graduate from college in six years.
“They [critics] are not taking into account the barriers put in front of these students,” she said, referring to the shrinking of government grants. For low-income students, the prospect of having to take out loans and amass high tuition debt is daunting, and they don’t have the safety net of their parents’ incomes, she pointed out. She said students often tell her they have to take breaks in their college matriculation for financial reasons.
The program has no control over how college is paid for, and yet it is responsible for the alumni graduate rate. The six-year limit “doesn’t allow us to report all our successes,” Harvey said. Their seven-year graduation rate goes up to 71 or 72 percent, she said.
Added Puryear about the opportunity to go to college: “They’re all in the same book for college, but not all on the same page.”
For information, see the Web site at http://indorgs.virginia.edu/upwardbound/home.html