How to get a high-schooler up early on Saturday

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-10 07:00:07-05

CINCINNATI -- Waking up early on a Saturday morning isn’t the preference of most high school kids.

David Coste is no different, but he’s finding he has a good reason for it.

Coste, a 16-year-old from Mount Washington and a junior at Clark Montessori, has been rising early to participate in the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati’s Black and Latino Achievers Program – a free program that offers guidance and mentoring for college and career plans.

“Teachers teach you what you need to know academically. But in school, they do not tell you about how to apply for college and the financial aid. This program gives you a game plan and it’s really helpful,” said Coste, who wants to be a mechanical engineer.

The program is open to students from seventh to 12th grades and has seen overwhelming success, with 100 percent of participants graduating from high school, while 80 percent are prepared in applying and understanding college-readiness material.

The four-hour program takes place during the academic year on the first and third Saturdays of each month at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. It includes 90 students from 35 local schools.

Of the students in the program, 80 percent take at least one standardized test like the PSAT, ACT or SAT, and the same percentage learn how to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form and receive at least one letter of acceptance after they go through the program. Also, 70 percent of the students will participate in a college fair or tour.

Karyl A. Cunningham, executive director of the program, said that it has been a part of the local Y for the past 36 years and the national Y movement for 50 years.

While there is an emphasis on African-American students, the Y included Latino students in 2009.

“There was a wise philosopher who once said that 'once a mind has been expanded to a new dimension or concept, it can never go back to where it was,’ ” said Cunningham, who has been heading the program for two years. “I would like to think that the fundamental concept of that quote is happening at the Y’s Achievers program. We prepare students for college by providing them with vital tools and showing them a wide array of careers.”

Jordan Avant, 18, who lives in North Avondale and is a senior at Walnut Hills High School, said that being in this program for five years has proven to him that the “support, guidance and mentorship” given to young students is “unmatched” by initiatives offered elsewhere.

Avant has two older brothers who graduated from the program and went on to the University of Cincinnati. James Avant, 22, graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering, and Jonathan, 19, is a sophomore in biomedical engineering.

“I got help with what I needed. Now I know all about leadership and time management. I grew up with these people and they have become my family,” said Jordan Avant, who wants to major in graphic design and get a job with either Adidas or Nike, designing shoes and apparel.

On a recent Saturday, senior program director Mario Rodriquez played a Jeopardy-style game with seventh- and eighth-graders, spilt into three teams, with categories that included academics, career and college readiness-related topics. Teams won Y Achiever coins, which they will trade in at the end of the year for hoodies, caps or gift cards.

“It’s an innovative way to inform the students about college. Our whole mission is to engage them and make them think seriously about their future,” said Rodriquez, who has become adept at identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Jordan Hodges, 16, a West Chester Township resident and a junior at Lakota East High School, joined the program two-and-a-half years ago.

“I like it here. It’s like having another family. I got opportunities, which showed me other worlds. I figured out I want to be in the National Guard,” Hodges said. “Honestly, if I didn’t come here, I would be failing in school and I would not know what to do with my life. My advice to others would be to come to the program.”

The students in the program are given opportunities to do internships with Humana and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, tested on job interview skills and resume writing while they go on field trips and college tours, and do career explorations.

They also have the option of applying for scholarships. For the year 2014-15, the program awarded several scholarships including Northern Kentucky University (full tuition plus room and board), the University of Cincinnati (full tuition) and Morehead State University (full tuition).

Parents help with the program by donating and serving snacks. On a recent Saturday, parent Michelle Ford volunteered to hand out pizza, chips and water.

Ford has three children in the program and she swears by its success.

A Glendale resident, Ford’s daughters, Amanda, 18, a senior at Mount Notre Dame High School, and Jordan, 14, a freshman, have been in the program for six years and one year, respectively. Her son, Allen, 13, a seventh-grader at St. Nicholas Academy, has just started.

“It’s a program with value,” said Ford, a program manager at Procter & Gamble. “By changing the lives of the students, it changes the dynamics of the families who have never been to college and were unable to break out of the cycle of low-paying jobs. It shows them that their kids will have better futures than they did.”

Ford adds that her daughter, Amanda, has already been offered $160,000 in scholarships from six out-of-state colleges.

A huge factor in the program’s success is the support of 30 volunteer professionals who serve as mentors. Derek LeBlanc, 28, who works for Macy’s, has volunteered for two years with the program.

An African-American manager, LeBlanc feels strongly about being “an example.”

“Students see us, and they get an idea of what my future looks like in the workforce with people who look like me,” LeBlanc said.

To volunteer or get more information about the program, visit the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati's website.