46 Children with the chance to attend any college in Washington
Neice Schafer and Patsy Etter are worried about the spiraling cost of a college education. But thanks to hard work and wide community support, They already have socked away the first year of university tuition – for nearly four dozen kids.
Sitting at a table in a room filled with happy chatter, Allison Christianson is one of those kids. She is 10, dark-haired and slender, and intent on long division, which she works out on a sheet of paper rapidly and with a flourish. “I do like math,” she says.
One table away is another 10-year-old, Connor Halonen. Clad in the black jersey of his Pop Warner football team, the Storm, Halonen loves football and can talk about it at length. But first, he points to a long wall of shelves stuffed with books. Those weren’t there three years ago, he says, but now every Tuesday “we have reading time.”
Christianson, Halonen and 44 classmates, now fifth-graders at Lidgerwood Elementary School, assemble in this upstairs sanctuary most afternoons at the Boys and Girls Club on Spokane’s north side. After school. For extra study. This is where Reach For The Future!, Schafer and Etter’s brainchild, is, well, reaching for the future. All 46 of these students have been promised a college education – sometimes a rare thing in their families. At the Boys and Girls Club, Reach provides homework help, tutoring, lunch buddies and visits to Spokane-area college campuses.
Paid staff member at Reach For The Future!
Years of community college, or a single year at a four-year college, for all 46 students this is what REACH can afford today.
Years to go until the REACH kids enter college.
The price of a GET unit, as set by Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program in 2005, when Reach for the Future! began fundraising.
The price of a GET unit in January.
The number of GET units the REACH program owned in January.
The level of uncertainty around the future of Pell grants and other government funding for financial aid.
“Me and my parents want me to go to college,” Halonen says. And not for sports, he says, but rather “A college that teaches me.” Christianson adds, “My parents say when you go to college, you can be whatever you want.”
Gonzaga University alums and longtime friends, Schafer (’71) and Etter (M.A. ’87) were inspired in 2005 to create a foundation that would guarantee a college education for Spokane children who might not otherwise have the opportunity.
Both women had worked with children for much of their careers – teaching, coaching, counseling. Schafer had also spent seven years as a guardian ad litem, representing a child’s interests in court. Etter got her master’s in counseling and psychology at GU to work with troubled kids.
Each had seen enough of the dashed hopes and missed chances being ground away, under the weight of poverty. Independently, each had formed a desire to find a way to break cycles of poverty and diminished expectations. And before the idea was broached out loud at a party one night – “I’d had a few lemon drops,” Schafer jokes – there were, they say, some common threads they followed: the ethic of compassion and helping one another fostered at Gonzaga, and news accounts of Harlem businessman Eugene Lang’s impromptu guarantee of a college education for the sixth-graders in his alma mater, PS 121, if they would stay in school.
“We both, at the same time, were thinking the same thing but we had no money to do that,” Etter says. So they researched, making several visits to the nearest I Have A Dream Foundation (the international organization created out of Lang’s promise) in Vancouver, Wash. The foundation “had some very strict criteria for what you had to do before you could begin a project,” Schafer says. “One of which was you had to have $250,000 in the bank before you started your program.”
College is expensive. Dreams are fragile. Don’t blow your promise to kids who hear too many and collect on too few. This was the message from the I Have A Dream Foundation, which, according to its website in late 2011, has helped more than 15,000 kids with college tuition since Lang made that first promise to the small classroom of Harlem sixth-graders in 1981.
Schafer and Etter, while eventually deciding not to affiliate with I Have A Dream, follow much of the business model in their own Reach For The Future!, which has promised to pay for college for 46 kids and has, by late 2011, purchased $500,000 worth of GET units, the tuition credits offered through the Washington Guaranteed Education Tuition Program.
“It took us about three-and-a-half years to raise that $250,000,” Schafer says. Etter adds, “That’s where we got a lot of support from a lot of Gonzaga friends and other friends, and some businesses really stepped up.”
Washington Trust Bank, Garco Construction, the Inland Northwest Community Foundation, Spokane Teachers Credit Union, the Ludlow Foundation, Avista and others have come forward with help, and some have made long-term commitments. Schafer and Etter have enlisted spouses and friends and community leaders to help with fundraising and fund management. In the recession, GET units have more than doubled in cost from $74 each three years ago to $163.
Then, the two did more research to select the school and the grade level before the project launched in 2008. Educators told them second grade is a place where kids can be inspired before they lose confidence and fall too far behind in schoolwork. Lidgerwood Elementary met the criteria of serving a student population that is low-income but high-diversity, where Reach For The Future! could really have an impact.
And, says Lauren Garske ’07, Gonzaga alumna, program coordinator and the only paid REACH staff member, the impact has been terrific. Scores are up, enthusiasm is high.
State education statistics show that among the 17 Title I schools in Spokane, Lidgerwood performed poorly on standardized test scores before adopting REACH. Last year, Garske said, “Lidgerwood was fifth of 17 in writing, second of 17 in math, and first of 17 in reading. Thirty of the original second-graders are still in the same classroom together three years later, an unusual degree of stability, and 15 of the kids who moved away are still in the program.
Starting in the second grade, the REACH kids, as they are known, have visited the Gonzaga campus twice, and Whitworth University and Eastern Washington University.
“We’ve really made college a vision for these kids as opposed to just a word,” Garske says. “We bring in college students to talk to the kids about what they’re going through, to be role models and show the kids exactly what they are working towards, why they come here every day,” to after-school sessions at the Boys and Girls Club.
“We are having an impact on the whole grade level,” Garske says, noting that last year REACH surveyed all fourth-graders at Lidgerwood. “The first question asked, ‘Do you see yourself going to college, circle yes or no.’ Well, 49 of the 50 kids surveyed circled yes.”
Given all the time they spend together in school and after, the REACH kids tend to break down the walls of typical cliques, Garske says. They are sassy in a good way, cohesive and motivated.
TO BE INVOLVED
Visit reachforthefuture.org. Reach for the Future’s next fundraising auction will take place on May 31 in the Globe Room at Cataldo Hall on the Gonzaga campus.
And the payoff, though still distant for the kids, is already appreciated in their homes. Corey and Trisha Christian, Shadle Park High grads, say their own desire to go to college was thwarted by tight finances and the need to get jobs right out of high school. They were hoping for better for their kids, Austyn and his adopted sister Marquita, but couldn’t imagine how they would swing it.
Then, at a meeting for parents of Lidgerwood second-graders three years ago, the REACH promise was announced. And as the import sank in, “I was bawling right there in the stands,” Trisha Christian says. “It’s a lifetime opportunity we would never have been able to give them.”
And now, on car trips when they hear Austyn and Marquita talking together in the back seat about college this or college that, the Christians smile. Garske smiles. Etter and Schafer smile.
Smiling at a future that is coming within reach.