Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
Only 9 percent of America's poorest kids get a bachelor's degree by the time they're 24. One problem is bad education in high school.
Donald Kamentz: So we thought if we tip that scale, we're good.
A Houston charter school network promises to get every student into college.
Raven Rathers: They wouldn't let you give up no matter what.
All of the grads get in, but many aren't making it through college.
Chad Spurgeon: When two students come up against the same obstacle, what is it that allows one student to overcome that obstacle versus to stop out of college?
Coming up, "Grit, Luck and Money: Preparing Kids for College and Getting Them Through," from American RadioWorks.
First, this news.
[Sound of people cheering]
Stephen Smith: The Toyota Center is a huge indoor arena in Houston, Tex.
The crowd is pumped up. But they're not here to cheer for a team; they're rooting for their high school classmates who take the floor, one by one, to announce what college they're going to.
Student: Good afternoon, my name is Gloria Arias and in 2016 I will graduate from the University of Houston...
These students are from a public charter school network in Houston called YES Prep. There are 11 schools in the YES network. They serve more than 5,000 students in grades six through 12. All the students from the YES schools are here today - and so are parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. They're waving signs and they are beaming with pride. More than 90 percent of these YES Prep students are the first generation in their family to go to college. Most are low-income and nearly all are African-American or Hispanic.
Student: Buenas Tardes! Me llamo Miguel Bermudez, mas bien conocido como Chiva, y en los 2016 me graduaré de... Providence College! Aaoo!
YES calls this event "Senior Signing Day." It's meant to mimic the hype and the excitement of National Signing Day, when top high school athletes declare what college they're going to. What these YES Prep seniors have accomplished may be just as significant. All of them are going to college - and that is not the case at most high schools that serve low-income and minority students. Only about 60 percent of America's lowest-income kids even finish high school. And only nine percent get a bachelor's degree by the time that they're 24 years old. YES Prep founder Chris Barbic says schools need to do more to help their students get into college, and to make sure they have the academic preparation to succeed once they get there. That's why Barbic started YES Prep in 1995.
Chris Barbic: The hypothesis was, and still is, that if you give kids from low-income backgrounds access to the same opportunities and resources that kids get in great private schools and in great suburban public schools, that kids in low-income communities can achieve at the exact same level.
This belief has fueled the growth of an influential charter school movement in cities across the United States over the past twenty years. Research shows that poor academic preparation is one of the main reasons low-income and minority students don't get college degrees.
Donald Kamentz: So we thought, OK, if we tip that scale, we're good.
Donald Kamentz is the director of college initiatives at YES Prep. YES and several other urban charter school networks have been hugely successful in preparing low-income students for college. They've boosted state test scores; they've improved SAT performance; and increased the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes. But more than a decade after sending their first class of seniors off to college, most of their students still have not graduated from college. Among YES alums, only 40 percent have completed degrees. Many remain in college, years after they should have finished. And nearly 30 percent have dropped out. These rates are significantly better than the national average for poor and minority students but they are not at all what YES was set up to do.
Jennifer Hines has been working at YES Prep since 1998. She says everyone thought if they could get students prepared for college, and get them in, everything else would fall into place.
Jennifer Hines: I mean I think with that first graduating class, we thought, OK, we've done our job. Here they go. Here colleges, have some really wonderful kids! Here kids, have some really wonderful college experiences! And that, that didn't work.
Now YES Prep and other charter schools that have been focusing on getting students ready for college are facing a big new question: What does it take to get them to finish?
[Music: "Anna Karina" - Pell Mell - Interstate - DCG Records ]
From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: "Grit, Luck and Money: Preparing Kids for College and Getting Them Through." I'm Stephen Smith.
Students from all social backgrounds drop out of college. But students from low-income families are far more likely to face obstacles, and far more likely to quit. Money is obviously one reason - and with college tuition at a record high, money is an increasingly big factor. But as YES Prep is discovering, when a student drops out of college it's usually about more than just money. American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford explains how YES Prep is trying to answer the question that puzzles people in higher education: Why do so many low-income students quit? And what can we learn from the students who make it through in spite of the obstacles? YES Prep thinks if it can figure this out, it can help more low-income college students succeed.
Here's American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford.
Emily Hanford: This is the cafeteria at YES Prep Southeast, the first of the schools in the YES network. There are signs of college everywhere: college pennants on the walls and big boards that list all the schools YES alums have gone to. Even the name of this room is supposed to remind you of "college." It's called "The Union" because that's what you'd find on a college campus.
Miguel "Chiva" Bermudez: Hey, anyone want my breakfast? You want my breakfast? Want my breakfast?
It's about 15 minutes before the morning bell and student Miguel is hanging out in the Union, offering up his breakfast because he already ate. Miguel is his real name, but his nickname is Chiva, in honor of a Mexican soccer team. He introduces himself to me as the proud progeny of two Mexican parents.
Bermudez: And I love being Mexican. The Spanish, the soccer, the dancing, the food of course...
Chiva was born in the United States. His father works for a chemical company and his mother runs a convenience store. Neither of them got a chance to go to college.
Bermudez: It was either work to make money to buy something to eat, or go to school.
One of the big differences between students at YES and students from higher income families has to do with expectations. Kids whose parents have college degrees tend to live in environments where college is a given. They practically breathe in the idea that college is where they're headed. That's not the case for the students who come to YES, says Roberto Martinez, senior director of academics.
Roberto Martinez: It's the difference between, you know, the students that expect to go to college from the time that they are born. And our students that is more a case of a hope that they go to college. Like their parents hope that that can happen, but they don't necessarily have the tools, resources, know-how of how to make that happen.
YES stands for Youth Engaged in Service. The idea is that low-income kids can better serve their communities if they get college degrees. Jennifer Hines started as a teacher and is now a senior staff member.
Jennifer Hines: The focus from the beginning was on creating the culture. The culture that says, "We are about academics and we are about college."
YES is creating the expectation that first-generation, low-income students will go to college. In fact, in order to graduate you have to get accepted to a four-year college or university. Chiva says his parents weren't necessarily thinking about college when they sent him here. They were just looking for a better school. But when Chiva was in sixth grade, he wasn't interested in a better school.
Bermudez: The reason I didn't want to come here is because since it was a good school, it was tons of homework, the strict rules, and I'm like, that's not for me.
But now that he's a senior, Chiva is grateful he ended up at YES.
Bermudez: I'm extremely motivated to finish high school. And for sure, for sure, make it through college. No matter the stress, the struggles, the intensity, but I want to graduate.
Chiva hopes his younger sister will come here too. She's in second grade. It takes a persistent parent to get a kid to YES. It also takes some luck. Students are admitted by lottery and there are thousands on the waiting list. The YES schools are relatively small - no more than 900 students each. They're publicly funded and actually get less money per student than traditional public schools. But like other charter schools YES has more control over how it spends its budget and it raises money from private donors.
[Sound of school hallway]
Student: Hi Chiva.
Bermudez: Hey what's up?
Chiva is making his way through the crowded hallway. Along one wall is a line of bright blue lockers and above them a bunch of phrases that express the values of this school. "We are ready and willing to work hard" is one phrase. Another is, "Learning is the key to ultimate success." The teachers and staff at YES Prep believe these kids can achieve anything if they're surrounded with the right messages - and if they get a really good education. The focus here is rigorous academics.
Classroom Teacher: Alright, sit down. You got your do first. Let's go. Come on, got a lot to do...
It's Chiva's last class of the day, and it's a tough one: Advanced Placement Calculus.
Teacher: So you should have f(x) - the curve of f(x) minus the curve of g(x) and f(x) is...
Every student at YES is required to take at least one Advanced Placement class, and nearly half the students pass at least one AP test. That's impressive. Just 18 percent of all high school students nationwide pass one. The students in this class are taking their test next week.
Teacher: And Zack, what do you think you're going to get on the AP test - calculus test?
Student: I'm gonna get a seven.
Teacher: That a boy.
Student: Seven out of five.
Teacher: That a boy! [Laughter]
Students at YES say the work is hard, but they get lots of support. In every classroom there's a big sign that says, "Whatever It Takes." That's the YES Prep motto. It means students have to do whatever it takes to succeed. And teachers have to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Raven Rathers graduated from YES and is now in college.
Raven Rathers: They wouldn't let you give up no matter what. No matter if you feel like this is just your last strand and you just can't do anymore, they will find a way to, to help you believe in yourself.
This kind of support is a big reason parents want their kids at YES. Tracy Edwards has a daughter who graduated and another who's in ninth grade.
Tracy Edwards: If you're not doing well in a class they will say, "Hey, you're not doing well." You know, in a regular school, you just don't do well. You know, you don't have anyone to come and say, "Hey, come do these tutorials, let's retake this exam," you know, and kind of, carry you through.
Students at YES Prep have a longer school day and a longer school year than students in traditional public schools. And they go to school on some Saturdays, too. In addition to the big push on academics, YES also spends time teaching students the nuts and bolts of going to college.
Classroom Teacher: Ah, we're going to continue with this financial aid presentation that we started at the end of the semester. And I just want to get a sense of...
Juniors and seniors take yearlong seminars where their counselors teach them how to fill out financial aid forms, write application essays and prepare for the SAT. Counselors also spend time on what they call "college knowledge." It's a term that refers to all the things that families with a history of going to college seem to know - like what a B.A. is or the meaning of "liberal arts." But for students and families with no college experience, it's like learning a new language, says Tenesha Villanueva. She's a director of alumni programs at YES.
Tenesha Villanueva: It's like going to a foreign country and trying to navigate systems and programs that you have never come in contact with before. I mean even just the admissions process is really difficult.
Here's another analogy I heard: next time you go to the airport for a flight, imagine what it would be like if you'd never been through the process. There are signs, but they don't really tell you, "Check in first" or "Go to security second." Besides, no one else is looking at the signs. They just know what to do. That's what it's like to be the first in your family to go to college. The YES kids need someone to show them the way, says Jennifer Hines.
Hines: I mean my parents drove me all over New England. They knew where the colleges were, they weren't afraid to go there, they had a car that could get them there. They were able to talk about what it was going to be like for me to go away. And, and that gave me an incredible advantage.
[Sound of people outside]
Tour Guide: Alright, YES Prep, come together please...
YES is trying to give its students a similar advantage by taking them to visit lots of colleges.
Tour Guide: We're getting ready to head into University Yard here. This is kind of the original George Washington University campus, here in Foggy Bottom...
A group of YES Prep juniors is getting a tour of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. On this trip they also visit Georgetown and Howard Universities, and a couple of schools near Baltimore, too. These college tours start in sixth grade. YES estimates that by the time they graduate, every student has visited at least 20 campuses. The point is not just to see colleges, says YES founder Chris Barbic. There's another goal too.
Barbic: Getting exposed to things that kids in middle-class and upper-middle class families get exposed to - traveling, seeing other parts of the country, going to camps. I mean those things that you need when you're sitting around in a dorm room at midnight and shooting it with your buddies, you know, when someone says, you know, "I've been to New York," we want our kids to be able to say, "You know what, I've been there and I've seen the Statue of Liberty, too." That's hugely important.
Tour Guide: That's Greek Row. Right over here is Ivory Tower. It's a junior residence hall...
The YES Prep juniors on this tour are in the process of deciding what colleges they want to go to. Soon they'll start applying. They'll get in to a lot of colleges. They'll go to those colleges. And many of them won't finish . This is YES Prep's Donald Kamentz.
Kamentz: You know, to be very blunt, I think that we sort of sat there and said, "This is how it's supposed to be. If you do these things, you know, you take the hardest courses, you take the most difficult curriculum, you push yourself, and then you get exposure this way and you see colleges and you do all this, it's all going to magically come together, right?"
But it hasn't. And now the people at YES Prep are trying to figure out why. One of the things they're recognizing is that while YES puts a lot of emphasis on getting students in to college, they hadn't been thinking as much about what it takes for students to make it once they get there. YES Prep alum Angela Guerrero sums it up this way.
Angela Guerrero: Once you get to college, yes you've achieved the YES Prep mission to go to college, like, I made it to that portion, but like, what is, what's next?
Guerrero says when she got to college she felt suddenly alone. She'd been relying on YES Prep through the whole college process. Her father didn't even want her to go to college. She needed her YES Prep support system, but once she left high school it was gone. She ended up dropping out after just one semester.
[Music: "Don't Let the Blind Go Deaf" - Years - Years - Arts & Crafts]
What YES Prep is discovering is that when students get to college they tend to hit obstacles. The coursework is a step-up from high school and students struggle. They're homesick. They suddenly have lots of unstructured time and they don't know how to handle it. Students from college-educated families have people they can go to who are familiar with these challenges. First-generation students don't. And some of them quit quickly, says Donald Kamentz.
Kamentz: For some folks, all it takes is one little situation, or one little rationale, and legitimate rationale, for them to say, "You know what, I'm not going to take classes this semester." And then, "Well, I don't know if I'm going to start back up."
And once any student quits college it can be really hard to go back. They're working; they have bills to pay; and college just doesn't seem possible anymore. This is precisely the situation many YES Prep alums find themselves in, and YES is trying to figure out how to help them. YES is also trying to prevent students from quitting in the first place. To do that, they're investigating the nature of persistence . The students who have finished degrees faced challenges too but they made it through, says Donald Kamentz.
Kamentz: Why is it that this student, versus this student, persists and graduate? And they could be the same type of kid on paper - in terms of academic skills, test scores, everything.
Why do some people quit when faced with an obstacle while others keep going? This is the question YES is asking. To try to answer it, they turned to a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth. She studies a personality trait she calls "grit."
Angela Duckworth: Grit is sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.
Duckworth also uses words like "tenacity," "persistence" and "pluck." She got interested in grit when she was a middle school math teacher. She noticed that some of her students would try really hard to solve challenging math problems and others would give up. And it wasn't necessarily the smartest kids who were digging into the hardest problems. Turns out psychology research backs up this observation.
Duckworth: Whether you stay in the game or don't stay in the game isn't necessarily a function of how well you play that game or improve in that game. It's something else.
Duckworth believes that "something else" is grit. She's developed a test to measure grit - where you rate yourself on a series of 12 items from "setbacks don't discourage me" to "I have achieved a goal that took years of work." It's entirely self-reported so you could game the test. And yet, what Duckworth has found is that a person's grit score is highly predictive of achievement under challenging circumstances. Take this example:
Cadets at the elite U.S. military academy West Point go through a grueling summer training program known as "beast barracks." The military puts them through all kinds of academic, physical and psychological testing. One summer Angela Duckworth slipped her grit test into the mix. What she found is that grit, more than anything else, predicted who would make it through "beast barracks." Grit mattered more than physical fitness or intelligence.
Now Duckworth and a team of colleagues are turning their attention to college completion. Are grittier students more likely to make it through college? Duckworth's research subjects are students at YES Prep and several other high-performing urban charter schools.
Duckworth: Why are these charter schools so successful at raising the achievement of their students while they are in the school, but somewhat less successful in these students being independent, college-graduating young adults later on?
Duckworth doesn't know, but she has a hypothesis. She thinks charter schools like YES might be helping their students too much.
Duckworth: These schools are racing against the clock to make up time for kids in terms of their skills. So I think one of the reasons why there's a "triage mentality" of sort of like, don't let any child fail, you know double the instructional time, is because they're trying to close the skill gap. But while rushing to close the skill gap in terms of the academic skills, are we not allowing for that natural, kind of, you know, independence and autonomy that only happens when people let you face your own failures?
You might think the staff and teachers at YES Prep would bristle at this assessment. They've been working really hard for nearly to try to even the playing field between their students and kids in higher-income families. Those higher-income kids have all kinds of advantages, and facing failure doesn't appear to be a requirement for them to make it through college. But people at YES Prep think Angela Duckworth might be right. Here's Donald Kamentz.
Kamentz: Sometimes we're our own worst enemy. We do so much for our students and families that we don't allow them to sort of figure it out.
And this is counselor Norma Villanueva.
Norma Villanueva: We are so encouraging and we're so helpful that at times we don't allow students to think for themselves, to do for themselves.
The teachers and staff at YES Prep haven't figured out exactly how they're going to change their approach based on this notion that they're doing too much. But they're embracing the idea that grit is what their kids need to make it through college.
N. Villanueva (in class): So the two words that you all will receive today. The first is aperture...
This is Norma Villanueva's junior seminar class and the students are doing the kinds of things they've always done - like learning vocabulary for the SAT.
N. Villanueva: Good. Aperture means, "A hole or opening..."
There's just one subtle clue that something is changing, and it's built into the environment - the way YES Prep has always done it. Next to the "Whatever It Takes" poster at the front of this classroom there is now a homemade mobile. On pieces of bright colored paper, dangling from string, are the words "Grit," "Persistence" and "Tenacity." As students enter her classroom their shoulders literally brush up against these words. And just down the hall, teacher Libby Vann is trying to get her students to think about grit too.
Libby Vann (in class): Go ahead and get started and please work silently...
Vann teaches a sophomore seminar that focuses on critical thinking skills. This year they've been talking about the research on grit. Today Vann is having her students do a group project that was inspired by those conversations. Each group has chosen a concept that was difficult for them to learn and they're designing a lesson to teach that concept to their classmates. This group has chosen the Pythagorean Theorem:
Student: ...Thirty, 60, 90. That's like gonna expand it more. 'Cause it's a-squared, three, and then 2a and a...
Vann says figuring out how to teach a concept to someone else is a good way to learn it yourself. And it helps students understand that they can figure things out on their own.
Vann: It reminds students that those classes that they feel like, "Well I just can't do this work," right, "This is too difficult for me, it's something that other students can do but not me," it forces them to reject that position and say, you know, "I can and I will master this."
Vann says many of her students tell her they're taking this grit idea to heart - that if they just keep at it when something is tough, they can overcome the challenge. But there is one thing about the grit research that bothers Libby Vann. She thinks the kids at YES are pretty gritty already. They may not all be succeeding in college, but they overcome all kinds of obstacles in their daily lives. Donald Kamentz agrees.
Kamentz: The students we are working with are, I will say, hands down in my entire lifetime, are some of the most tenacious and gritty people I'll ever meet. You know you have students and families who deal with things and persevere through situations that are just - that most people would find insurmountable.
The electricity gets cut off and the kid figures out a way to get it back on; or a parent gets deported and the kid takes on the care of younger siblings.
Kamentz: And then they go to their college and they're struggling with financial aid or their financial aid didn't come through and they don't know what to do.
YES students may be gritty about a lot of things but Kamentz says some of them are not gritty enough when it comes to college. He and his colleagues are trying to figure out what it is about college that trips them up. And they're trying to figure out what's different when students do make it. And if it's grit that makes the difference - is that something that can be learned?
[Music: "Anna Karina" - Pell Mell - Interstate - DCG Records ]
Stephen Smith: That was education correspondent Emily Hanford. You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary: "Grit, Luck and Money: Preparing Kids for College and Getting Them Through." I'm Stephen Smith.
YES Prep is trying to learn more about how their alums confront challenges in college. They're also trying to get their students to go to colleges where they won't have so many challenges in the first place - or where at least there is good support to help them if they do falter.
Bobby Trevino: Washington and Jefferson allows for these students to yeah, possibly have their hiccups, but pick it back up because there's somebody who will identify it and say, "Look we care about you and we want you to succeed, let's figure out what we need to do."
Coming up, we visit a small college in western Pennsylvania that's become an unlikely destination for YES Prep students.
To read more about the research on grit and take Angela Duckworth's "Grit test," yourself visit our website, American RadioWorks.org. While you're there, you can also download this program, you can browse through our archive of education documentaries, and sign up for our weekly podcast. You can also find out how to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. "Grit, Luck and Money" returns in a minute from APM.
[Sound of clock tower bell]
Smith: Washington and Jefferson College is a private, liberal arts school in the small city of Washington, Pa. - just outside of Pittsburgh. It's the picture that a lot of people have in their minds when they think "college." Brick buildings... winding walkways... big trees ... and, of course, a clock tower.
[Clock tower bell]
Washington and Jefferson College is a long way from Houston, where the YES Prep charter school network is located. But it is exactly the kind of college YES Prep wants more of its graduates to go to.
Al Newell (in dining hall): Well, here we are! Welcome.
This is Al Newell. He's the dean of admissions at Washington and Jefferson. He's welcoming a group of visiting YES Prep Seniors, including Chiva Bermudez.
Newell: How are you man?
Bermudez: Great, great.
Newell: How's you soccer team doing?
Bermudez: We're about to start.
Newell: OK, alright!
"W and J" - that's what everybody calls it - has about 1,500 students. Dean Newell knows a lot of them by name, and he knows these YES Prep students, too. He's already been to Houston to recruit them.
Newell: I tell them if they're looking for sort of the collegiate equivalent of YES Prep, of people who are going to know who they are, who are going to care about them, um, that that's what we offer here.
The students visiting from YES Prep are staying for two nights - sleeping in the dorms and eating in the dining hall with the eight YES alums who are students here.
Newell: OK, this is the grill, they'll do a hamburger for ya, veggie burger...
One of YES alums is Luis Amaro. He's a big guy with an even bigger smile. When Amaro sits down at the table, Dean Newell asks him how things are going with his classes.
Newell: And we're still working on the 3-0 this term?
Luis Amaro: Yeah.
Newell: See this is what happens if you come here, you can't escape me. So I just want to point that out. I'm relentless.
This is why YES Prep wants its students to come to schools like Washington and Jefferson. YES recently developed an official partnership with W and J. YES provides well-prepared minority students to a college that is 80 percent white and looking to increase its diversity. W and J promises to provide support to the YES students, and gives them generous financial aid. So far the oldest YES students at W and J are sophomores - so there's no graduation data yet. But YES is finding that its students do better at private colleges like this one. Tenesha Villanueva is a director of alumni programs at YES.
Tenesha Villanueva: If you look at our overall persistence numbers, many of our students who are struggling are the ones who are attending the larger public institutions, um, and I would say many are right here in the city of Houston.
One reason students might be doing better at small, private colleges is that those schools are often more selective than big public schools. Schools that get the best students usually have the best graduation rates. But as YES has dug into its data looking for clues about why some students finish and others don't, they've discovered something surprising: the students who struggled at YES are often doing better than their peers who got through high school more easily. Donald Kamentz is overseeing YES Prep's research on persistence and grit.
Kamentz: Students by and large who had to "grit it out" at YES Prep - and what I mean by that is that, man, they worked their butts off, I mean they, they were the ones that were always up for tutorials, they were the ones that were, you know, it didn't come as easy for them as someone who might be above higher in the class - by and large, they had the best level of success.
It's not clear where this kind of persistence comes from, but - for the YES Prep students at least - persistence is key when it comes to getting through college. So YES is trying to learn as much as it can about grit from students who seem to have it.
Here's American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford.
Emily Hanford: Luis Amaro had to fight to make it through YES Prep.
Amaro: I had a tough time in high school.
That's putting it kind of mildly, if you ask the people at YES. Monique Calderon was his counselor.
Monique Calderon: And I remember, quite often, [laughs] pulling Luis into my office, sitting him down and, "OK, what's really going on? You gotta get it together." You know, setting up action plans, I can't tell you how many action plans we created, that were not followed through on, and checking with him, and, uh, sometimes nagging.
Amaro says his problem was motivation, like it is for a lot of high school students. He didn't really want to study for math tests or write English papers. But sometime during his junior year, Amaro says it clicked that he really wanted to go to college. Part of it was looking around at the kids in his neighborhood who didn't go to YES - they were dropping out of school and getting stuck in low-wage jobs. Amaro realized that because he was lucky enough to get to YES, he had another option. Now he's a sophomore at Washington and Jefferson College. And like at YES Prep, there are people here who have his back.
Newell (in office): Well good morning sir!
Newell: Come in, how are you?
Amaro: Good, just kind of early.
Newell: You're waking up?
Newell: Mm hm...
It's 9:30 on a weekday morning and Luis Amaro is standing at the door of Dean Al Newell's office, wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket and looking sleepy. Amaro is not a morning person.
Newell: Let's talk a little bit about this term. And, so you're in stagecraft, you've got accounting with Dr. Robison...
Amaro meets often with Dean Newell. He also goes to tutoring and professor's office hours. One reason students like Amaro may do better when they get to college is they're used to asking for help. They've already been up against failure, and learned what to do. But YES Prep's Tenesha Villanueva says many YES alums don't want to ask for help when they get to college.
T. Villanueva: And I think that's partly cultural. At home, they have to be in survival mode - they have to get it done. Some of them are working full-time jobs for their families, some of them are - I mean, they're doing a lot. And they are used to just doing it on their own, and taking care of their own. And when they get to college they can't necessarily do it on their own.
College presents a new set of challenges they're not familiar with, and many of them get intimidated. This is what happened to YES Prep counselor Norma Villanueva - no relation to Tenesha. Norma Villanueva grew up in South Texas and was one of only two people in her high school class to go away to college. She went to DePauw University in Indiana. She struggled, but she didn't want anyone to know it.
Norma Villanueva: When I was a part of study groups, that was better because I think it was easier to ask my peers for help than asking the professor who I felt as though might be a bit judgmental, and based on how much they knew about my background, may think like, "Yeah, no wonder this person doesn't get it. It's because they come from here."
Villanueva says by the end of her freshman year she realized that if she was going to make it, she had to do something differently. She didn't go directly to faculty or staff for help though; she went to her friends for advice, and starting joining clubs on campus. That's how she got to know faculty and staff who became her mentors. After Villanueva graduated, she went to work for the Posse Foundation - an organization that sends low-income kids to college in groups, so they have their "posse" to rely on. Ninety percent of these "posse" scholars graduate. Now YES is adopting the same idea. That's why at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania there are eight YES alums, and four more coming in the fall.
[Sound of music playing in dorm]: Uno, dos, tres, cuatro...
The YES Prep students are bringing some Latin flair to their mostly white campus. They've started a Latino Culture Association and tonight about two-dozen students - not just the kids from YES - have gathered in a dorm to dance and to make empanadas. In the kitchen, their faculty advisor, H.J. Manzari, is doing the frying.
Hanford (in kitchen): You're the cook?
H.J. Manzari: I'm the oil person.
Newell: He's protecting us...
Manzari: Exactly. It's safer if I do the oil...
That's Dean Newell's voice in the background. Student Luis Amaro is here too. He's the one leading the dancing.
[Sound of Amaro yelling over music]
Luis Amaro is doing great at Washington and Jefferson. He's made lots of friends and he has his YES classmates, too. And he has good financial aid and lots of support from people like Al Newell. It's harder to fail at a place like this. And that's why YES is trying to get more of its students to go to small, private colleges. But not everyone thrives here. One of the YES students dropped out. Here's Al Newell.
Newell: If you had asked any of us, the YES Prep faculty and staff as well as those of us at W and J who had worked with her, she would probably have been at the bottom of the list as a retention risk. In other words, we would probably have said she's the one we least have to worry about.
But just three weeks into her freshman year, she said she was homesick and needed to go back to Houston. Homesickness is something many kids who go away to college are likely to face at some point. But YES is finding that some of its students give in to that emotion quickly. Part of it may be that their parents never really wanted them to go away to begin with says Norma Villanueva.
N. Villanueva: What I've seen is that our parents too easily - and I won't say this is the case for all our parents, but some of our parents can say, "Well if it's too hard, just come on home."
YES Prep has put itself in the middle of some tricky cultural territory by encouraging students to go to colleges that are far from home. Tenesha Villanueva says a lot of Hispanic parents want their kids to stay close. They don't understand why it matters where a student goes to school.
T. Villanueva: In a parent's mind, if they haven't been to college and don't know much about the system, they think any college that you go to - whether it be Harvard, or University of Houston-Downtown - it's college.
But there are big differences in success rates at different kinds of schools. Nearly three-quarters of the YES students who have completed their degrees went to private schools - even though most of the students go to public colleges and universities. In order to succeed at big public schools, students tend to have to "grit it out" more on their own.
Paul Longoria (in tutoring center): So...
Instructor: Alright. What you got today?
Longoria: Just a couple questions with the review...
This is Paul Longoria and he's getting help from his math instructor. Longoria is a student at the University of Houston - a big, state school with close to 40,000 students. There's no way a dean here could know everyone - and that means when students struggle they can easily slip through the cracks. Even when they do seek assistance, it can be hard to get.
Longoria: The tutoring center is so packed because there are so many people who have problems with math, me included. I can do science and biology with my eyes closed but you put a math problem in front of me and I just freak out.
Longoria tried the tutoring center but he wasn't getting enough help. He was about to give up when he walked by the tutoring center and noticed his instructor running one of the sessions. He had no idea she worked there. Unlike a lot of students, he was brave enough to ask for the help he needed. Now they do one-on-one tutoring sessions once a week. It's one of those little things that made a big difference.
Longoria (in tutoring center): Uh, before we do that, let me double-check this one. 'Cause we have to find the zeroes in this...
Longoria's had a long haul just to get to this point. He's a junior but he's been in college for five years already. He may be the epitome of a gritty person. As a student at YES Prep, his dream was to go to Sam Houston State and study criminal justice. When Longoria didn't get in, he had to adjust. He went to community college and worked hard so he could transfer. He succeeded, but Sam Houston wouldn't accept a bunch of his community college credits. That was a big blow.
Longoria: You almost feel cheated. I put in the time; I put in effort; I surely put in the money. And you're telling me that it didn't matter.
This is a setback a lot of students face when they transfer, and some of them quit. But Longoria kept going. He re-took the community college classes he couldn't get credit for - but then after a couple of semesters decided he didn't like the criminal justice program. So he transferred again, this time to the University of Houston. He started a new major and had to take a bunch of intro classes again. The transfers and extra classes cost him not just time, but money. He thought about quitting.
Longoria: Financial aid and money, it was definitely one of those factors that contributed to me saying, "Maybe we should stop now. OK. You know, how much debt do you want to get into? Is it really worth it?"
But he kept going. He says he couldn't quit.
Longoria: Just saying that out loud did not sound right to me. Being that I put so much time into my education here at YES that just to sell myself short, I felt like it would have been a waste for me, my family, and almost embarrassing just to say, choose the easy way out.
[Music: "Nylon Mutron" - Joshua LaRue - The MidAtlantic - Copper Spurs Productions]
Clearly Paul Longoria has been pretty gritty about college. But he's also motivated by family expectations. When he finally gets his degree, he won't be the first in his family to do it. His older brother is a college graduate and his mother went to college, too. She didn't finish, but she tried. And she's always expected that her sons would complete degrees. She thinks college graduates are more valued.
Angelina Longoria: People look at you differently; people talk to you differently. You gain a sense of, uh, competence in yourself.
Angelina Longoria runs an alumni parent support group at YES. It's a part of the school's new efforts to help more students graduate. Longoria says some YES families have mixed feelings about their children getting degrees. College doesn't just mean letting your child leave home for a few years; it feels like you might lose them to another world that you don't know or feel comfortable in. And some parents try to keep that from happening.
Angela Guerrero (in office): Hola Senora soy Angela de la Escuela YES. Me hablo?
Angela Guerrero is a receptionist at one of the YES schools. She's calling parents to check on students who didn't show up today. Guerrero was once a student at YES. When she graduated in 2004 she was excited about going away to college in San Antonio. But her father didn't want her to go.
Guerrero: He was like really just not wanting to like let me go. But um, I kind of was, not rebellious, but I felt like that's my next step. Like I needed to be more independent so, against his wishes, of course, I left [Laughs].
Guerrero says her father wasn't convinced she needed a college degree... and everyday her parents called her.
Guerrero: They would like just hint at, "We really miss you and we really need you to come back."
Adding to the pressure was the fact that her mom was having some health problems and there were medical bills to pay. Guerrero says by the middle of her first semester, her parents had made plans for her to come home. She worked for a while selling real estate. Then the housing market crashed and she got a job as an office clerk. But she couldn't move up without a degree. So she decided to take night classes at Houston Community College.
Guerrero: But for some reason the company that I worked for found out that I was trying to go to college and they were like, you cannot go.
Hanford (in office): Why?
Guerrero: Because it would interfere with my job performance.
So she quit community college in the middle of the semester. She lost tuition money, but she couldn't risk losing her job.
[Music: "Swisha" - Ratatat - Classics - XL Recordings]
The kinds of economic and family pressures that Angela Guerrero faced are common among YES Prep students. College is often something they're trying to do in spite of everything else in their lives. YES Prep alumni director Chad Spurgeon says students who stay in Houston and live at home tend to have the toughest time completing degrees.
Spurgeon: When they're living at home, they're expected to be the same student that they were when they were in high school, with the same responsibilities at home, and then there's this college thing that they've got to do. Versus those students when they go away to college, college is the thing that they're doing.
Students who live at home are expected to do things like take care of younger siblings or work to support the household. Maybe it's not be that surprising that many of them drop out. But of course, some do make it through. YES wants to know more about how they do it, and if grit is what makes the difference.
[Sounds of women calling children in Spanish]
Every Sunday Yesenia Soto's family gets together at her grandmother's house in Houston. Today's her cousin's birthday.
[Sounds of "Happy Birthday" sung in Spanish, then English]
When the Soto family gets together it's a big event: cousins, aunts, uncles - everyone comes. There are about 20 people here today. The kids play tag and the adults play Mexican Bingo at a big table set up outside.
[Sounds of adults playing Bingo]
Soto says she thought about going to college out of state, but she would have missed her family too much. So she went to the University of Houston. She lived at home and had a full-time job. She says balancing work and school was overwhelming at times. Probably the most stressful time was when she failed a class.
Yesenia Soto: My GPA was getting low and I started realizing, well, you know, I'm gonna fail and then, and then what? What if I get kicked out? What's the next step? What am I going to do? And so I mean, I got scared. I thought I was, my chance of me staying there was, was gone.
There was no one at the University of Houston she felt comfortable going to, and she didn't want her family to know she was struggling either. She's the first to go to college and she thinks some family members were expecting her to fail.
Soto: It had never happened in our family so they just thought that, "Oh, you can't do it." They just assumed because no one else had done it before. So I just thought about everybody looking at me and I was like, I know I have to prove everybody wrong.
She wanted to stay in college, but she needed help. The only people she had were her teachers from YES Prep. So that's where she went.
Hanford (to Soto): So you actually came with your college work to your old high school teachers and said can you help me with this?
Hanford: Rather than going to your professors.
Soto: Yes. I just felt more comfortable asking them than my professors.
And it was easy for Soto to get in touch with her YES teachers, because her job was working as a receptionist at a YES school. YES has put in place a rule that if you work at YES and you don't have your degree, you must keep going to college. Soto says that rule was a blessing, because it forced her to stay in school.
Soto: If it wasn't for them, I probably would've stopped because they're the ones looking after me, asking me all the time, "How's school going? How are you doing in school? How are your grades?"
YES Prep is the reason Angela Guerrero is in school too. She's the student who dropped out of college so she wouldn't lose her job. Last year, she started working as a receptionist at a YES school - and that meant she had to return to college. She says YES Prep's alumni director Tenesha Villanueva helped her make a plan.
Guerrero: She got together with me and was like, "I'm going to help you really plan out like what you're going to do. Just let me know like how I can support and then we will like write out this plan."
Guerrero is about to start her sophomore year at the University of Houston. She says her father is totally behind her now. Watching her try to move up in office jobs without a degree convinced him that a college degree is necessary.
Guerrero: He's always been a laborer so he thought that working hard is how you - and that's what I thought, too - like if you work hard you will progress in your job and that's really not the case anymore. You need an education as well. It's not just hard work.
Guerrero says her dad is actually pushing her to get a master's degree now. But first she has to finish her bachelor's.
[Music: "Nylon Mutron" - Joshua LaRue - The MidAtlantic - Copper Spurs Productions]
Some of psychology professor Angela Duckworth's research on grit has focused on educational achievement. She's found some surprising results. At the University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League school where Duckworth teaches, it's not the most intelligent students who have the highest GPAs; it's the grittiest students. And if you want a person who's really gritty, find someone who's succeeded in getting a degree from a community college. According to Duckworth's research, people who finish associate's degrees tend to be grittier than people who complete bachelor's degrees. It takes as much grit to get an A.A. as it does to get a Ph.D.
Duckworth: If you're going to get through a two-year college where the attrition rate is, you know, 50 or maybe even 70 percent, that maybe you actually do need more grit to surmount all those obstacles...
Associate's degree students tend to be from lower-income families. They're typically the first generation to go to college. And they often work full-time while they go to school. They look a lot like the students at YES Prep - with one big difference. The YES students got a good education in high school. And even though many of them struggle with schoolwork when they get to college, they are much better prepared than most low-income students. Chad Spurgeon told me he came to YES because he thinks low-income students are getting short-changed by schools that don't do enough for them. He's motivated by a sense of injustice. So I asked him if he thinks YES Prep's focus on grit is potentially turning a social justice problem into a psychological one. Spurgeon pauses for a moment and then says this:
Spurgeon: The largest issue I think is poverty. It's inequality. You know we don't want to downplay the significance of these kids being born into situations that are just unjust, and then if they don't make it accuse them of just not being gritty.
But he doesn't want to downplay the role of grit either.
Spurgeon: I think that grit is definitely one piece of it. Like, you know, again, there are a lot of students that never get to college and never have the opportunity to be gritty in college. So I think being gritty is - I think it is the icing on the cake.
YES Prep has always been focused on giving its students every possible advantage. If grit's an advantage, they want their kids to have it. But they want them to have every other advantage, too. That's why YES has set up its alumni support program. Chad Spurgeon and Tenesha Villanueva work full-time on this. They do conference calls and Facebook check-ins with students on campus. They appoint campus leaders who report back to YES if a student seems to be struggling. And they help students like Angela Guerrero get back to school if they drop out. Tenesha Villanueva says YES provides a kind of support that many colleges can't.
T. Villanueva: They're working with a broader mass than we are. And they're working with students like our students all the way from students, who, you know, their fathers went to college, their father's fathers went to college. And so it's not like a "one such fits all" kind of approach you know? Actually I should say they do a "one size fits all" kind of approach, whereas we have to specialize for our students.
Other high schools don't do this kind of alumni support. Perhaps it's an example of how YES Prep is doing too much for its students and not allowing them to learn from their own failures. But when it comes to college completion, YES says failure is not an option. They are going to "Whatever It Takes" to get their students through.
[Music: "Loud Pipes" - Ratatat - Classics - XL Recordings]
YES teachers and staff are not giving up on the idea of trying to help their students be more gritty - at least when it comes to college completion. But where does that kind of grit come from? Angela Duckworth says no one knows exactly, but she has a hunch it is something that people can learn.
Duckworth: The reason why I say that we have some hope here, or some optimism, about teaching grit is that every human quality that has been studied has some amount of stability but some amount of change to it.
And there's no reason to think that grit is any different.
Duckworth: ...That it actually can sort of wax and wane over time in response to experiences, um, and then the question is, which experiences do we give kids to actually get them in the direction of more grit and not less?
A lot of it may come back to environment and expectation - two things YES has been focusing on since the start. But maybe the environment and expectations were not set quite right. Before, it was all about getting in to college. Now it's about finishing. One of the things YES Prep has changed is what students say at their Senior Signing Day. For years they announced what college they were going to. Now they say what college they will graduate from. And there's a big difference, says YES Prep's Jennifer Hines.
Hines: When I went to college, it was for me, it was just what was expected. If I was struggling, I was just going to figure out how to get - because this is just who I was. And I think sometimes there's still that, if kids are struggling, "Well maybe this isn't for me then." Maybe, OK, "Well I'm getting my first indications that I should just go back home."
Hines thinks some YES students give up because deep down, they feel like they ought to give up. When they get to college they don't feel like they belong. This is especially true at some of the private colleges YES is trying to get its students to. Tenesha Villanueva says when kids get to campus and size up those around them, they often confront self-doubt.
T. Villanueva: Can I compare or measure up to them? Because they've had different types of schooling, they have more money, more this, more, more, more and I have less, less, less. I mean they see themselves sometimes as "less than" and they wonder, do I have a place at the table? Like, should I be at the table?
One of the most striking things when you look at the data about college-going in the United States is to see just how rare it is for the lowest-income kids to even get to the best schools. At the nation's most competitive colleges and universities, three-quarters of the students come from the highest-income families. And only three percent come from the lowest income. YES Prep's goal is to change that.
[Sound of kids speaking Spanish in the kitchen]
Yesenia Soto is in her grandmother's kitchen serving tortillas and mole as her young cousins run around and play. Soto still works at YES Prep, but she's no longer in college. That's because in December of 2011, after six and a half years of working at it, Soto graduated with a bachelor's degree.
Soto: What made me keep going was because I saw so many, so many eyes were on me. I have younger brothers who looked up to me, my cousins - that's what helped me get through.
I ask Soto what it's like to finally have her degree.
Soto: I just feel relieved because a lot of people always said that we couldn't do it, and I did.
The family members who once doubted Soto could get a college degree now tell their own kids, "If Yesenia can do it, you can do it too." Several of Soto's cousins are now students at YES, and her younger brother will graduate next year. They're all planning to go to college. And if it turns out they need help when they get there, now there's someone in the family they can go to.
This is Emily Hanford.
[Music: "I Love College (as made famous by Asher Roth)" - Hip Hop Beat Makers - Hip Hop Today (Instrumental Versions) - Da Hype Records]
Stephen Smith: For the staff and teachers at the YES Prep charter school network in Houston, Tex., increasing the number of low-income students with college degrees is a long-term project. Seventy-two percent of all YES Prep graduates have either finished college or are still working on their degrees. Some students will probably never finish, but YES believes even the students who don't graduate will pass on a different set of knowledge and expectations to their own kids about going to, and graduating from, college.
[ARW theme music]
You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary: "Grit, Luck and Money: Preparing Kids for College and Getting Them Through." It was produced by Emily Hanford and edited by Catherine Winter. The web producer is Andy Kruse. Special thanks to Grace Fredrickson and Zack Shlachter. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Ellen Guettler, Craig Thorson, Jeff Johnson and Peter Clowney.
I'm Stephen Smith.
You can see photographs of YES Prep students at our web site, AmericanRadioWorks.org. And you can also read an essay by correspondent Emily Hanford about why she quit college, and how she went back. That's AmericanRadioWorks.org. While you're there you can download and share the audio for this program. You can send us feedback, and sign up for our weekly education podcast. You can like us on Facebook at American.RadioWorks and you can follow us on Twitter at A-M-RadioWorks.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. American RadioWorks is also supported by Josh and Ricka Kohnstamm and the staff of Kohnstamm Communications. This is APM, American Public Media.