The FAST Track to College

by Lucianne Englert

For children who are at risk, a plethora of hurdles stand between them and a college education. Usually economically disadvantaged, many come from families where no one has seen the inside of a college textbook and from communities where few have attempted higher education. Some young people who are at risk have difficulty even sticking around for a high school diploma, and many struggle with their grades. Minority youths who visit a college and talk to the few people of color hear about the struggles that minority students face above and beyond the decidedly white norm, such as subtle and obvious racism from students, faculty, and staff; lack of adequate social support from persons of similar races/social classes/family structures; and difficulties with Eurocentric class materials. Added to all that, when youths' physical and emotional survival demands their daily attention, a college degree seems a far off, childish dream.

In spite of all these obstacles, since 1988, hundreds of youths in Fort Wayne have taken the FAST track to higher education. The Future Academic Scholars' Track (FAST) program at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne provides opportunities for students of all races who are at risk. FAST endeavors to improve students' basic educational skills and to develop in them positive attitudes and aspirations about college. The FAST program works with students beginning in sixth grade and stays with them until they graduate from high school.

According to Director Marcia Tapp-Sanders, before the inception of FAST, the country's few similar programs looked only at one part of the puzzle--only study skills, for example, or only social issues. "Bettye Poignard, who was director of multicultural services, wanted to make sure we addressed everything: academic experiences, affective experiences, and precollege planning," Tapp-Sanders says. "She wanted to give the students everything they needed to succeed." And succeed they have. Since 1992, of the 42 students who have graduated from FAST, 36 chose to attend college. Of those students, nine have graduated and eighteen are still enrolled.

FAST's first goal is to help students improve their math, science, and communication skills and to develop good study habits and time management skills. The program works to provide opportunities for students to build their self esteem and to encourage them to aspire to pursuing higher education. Students also benefit from a variety of career development experiences. For additional support, FAST attempts to assimilate parents into the program at every level and to build cooperative relationships between public schools, the private sector, parents, students, and university personnel.

FAST participants represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and academic abilities. "When you think about it, ďaverage' students are at risk because so much focus is placed on those students who are doing well in a classroom," Tapp Sanders says. "There are many programs in place for the A and B students, so it's the C and C-minus students who get overlooked. We all know that everyone who goes to college is not necessarily an A or B student."

FAST students attend "academies" every other Saturday during the school year. During each half-day program, every student attends three academic experiences and one affective experience covering a topic such as building self esteem, values clarification, or goal setting. Alternately, they may participate in a special session on a topic such as test taking or Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) preparation. Occasional field trips provide opportunities for participants to experience cultural activities and to increase their career awareness.

Originally funded by the Lilly Endowment and the Foellinger Foundation, FAST now relies upon Foellinger's continued support and funding from several Fort Wayne area foundations and corporations. "Every year, we're only financially able to accept twenty additional sixth grade students," Tapp-Sanders says. "We have a waiting list that averages twenty-five to thirty-five students, and we get phone calls all the time from parents who want their children to join the program. Ideally, we want students who can start in sixth grade, but we know that some are being missed. We do have some students who drop out of the program so we can add students from the waiting list who are seventh, eighth, and ninth graders," she explains.

Formal evaluations of FAST indicate great success in improving student skills and encouraging students of color and students who are at risk to attend college, and anecdotal "evaluations" agree. In the words of one FAST graduate of color, "I think everybody should have the opportunity I had. Even white kids."

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