Posse Helps Students Make it at Grinnell

Wed, 2009-08-05 04:12 pm | By Tom Walsh

When Ramiro Carillo '07 first arrived at Grinnell College from the tough streets of Los Angeles, being smart wasn't the problem. His problem was being too smart for his own good.

"In my high school in L.A., you don't study," Carillo says. "You do homework while the teacher talks. Before a test you might study for an hour and get an easy 'A.' I found out pretty quickly that teachers love improvement, so I would slack off at the beginning and then show some improvement. I remember my mother saying, 'Don't you be doing that in college. It's not the same.' I didn't listen, and I tried that my first semester here."

Big mistake. Carillo quickly found himself on probation. With a lot of advice from a wizened, on-campus mentor and a safety net of help and encouragement from other members of what's known as Grinnell Posse One, Carillo made the climb out of the academic grave he was slowly digging for himself. Or, as he puts it: "I studied my behind off second semester."

Curiously, some of America's worst public high schools are helping Grinnell College confront the conundrum of student diversity. With a fall 2004 head count at 1,556, Grinnell's mostly white and largely affluent study body now includes 10 first-year and 12 second-year students from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Both groups were recruited by The Posse Foundation with the lure of full-tuition scholarships.

Since 1989, the New York-based Posse Foundation has been searching the nation's struggling inner-city high schools for seniors with proven leadership skills, personal potential, and "hidden qualities," who are likely to be overlooked by traditional college selection methods. Grinnell Posse One, which includes Carillo and 11 other L.A. students, began classes in the fall of 2003. The 10-member Grinnell Posse Two arrived this fall. Next fall, Grinnell welcomes Posse Three and Posse Four, one a new group of 10 students from L.A., the other a posse of 10 from public high schools in and around Washington, D.C.

In general, the students Posse deems college-ready don't have off-the-charts grade point averages or stellar standardized test scores-perhaps because the cultures they come from don't place as much emphasis on these yardsticks of academic prowess. What each does have, says Deborah Bial, the Foundation's founder and president, is an innate ability to shine.

"We are living in a society that does not deliver the same quality of education to every student," Bial says. "There are lots and lots of young people at a disadvantage because of the schools they go to and the neighborhoods in which they live. We do not live in a meritocracy, so at Posse we're trying to equalize the playing field. We're about providing opportunity to young people who absolutely can make it with the right support system to make it. Grinnell and the other partner schools we work with are getting incredible kids from so many different backgrounds. Grinnell has never had kids like this. Grinnell will be educating these future young leaders of our country."

The Foundation's goals, she says, include expanding the pool from which top colleges and universities can recruit young leaders from diverse backgrounds. Posse then works with those institutions to build campus environments that welcome people of all backgrounds.

"A lot of times a college or university might have statistical diversity, but within the campus climate there's not a lot of conversation going on," Bial says. "The idea here is building community on campus, building bridges between the student body, between student groups, between students and faculty. The number-one reason students stay in school is that they feel they are part of a community. Posse makes that community a reality.

Bial says the foundation is committed to selecting and training small and diverse groups of young scholars with the passion, study skills, and stick-to-it determination needed to graduate. From the day they're selected, Posse scholars are immersed in pre-college and campus-based training programs that prepare them for the academic and emotional rigors of college and glimpses of the real-world career challenges that await them upon graduation.

"Posse is about finding extraordinary young leaders who are going to be entering the workforce in a powerful way," Bial says. "These motivated and ambitious young people will be running Fortune 500 companies, while reflecting the true diversity of this country. By the year 2020, we expect to have 7,000 Posse alums, which will create a good-old-boy network with a new twist."

One of the ways Bial explains the Posse Foundation is by stressing what it's not.

"We are not a minority program, and we're not a need-based program," she says. "And we have not compromised the admissions standards of our partner schools. Too often a picture is painted of these students as 'at-risk' or 'poor' or 'needy' kids, with Posse being a charitable service. That's not what we are about at all. These are merit-based, leadership scholarships awarded to extraordinary young people who come from extremely different backgrounds. These students will bring a lot to these campuses and will get a lot from these campuses. But it's important to understand that this is a strength-based program, not a deficit-based program. It's about leadership and excellence and terrific young people who are motivated and excited about their futures. It's about finding young people who are willing to change the world."

Everyone's Grandpa

Critical to Posse's success at Grinnell and the 22 other colleges and universities involved is the work of on-campus mentors, Bial says. Each mentor meets weekly with Posse scholars as a team and meets with individual members every two weeks during their first two years on campus. The mentor selected in 2003 to work with Grinnell Posse One was Howard Burkle. Now 79, he first came to Grinnell in 1958 to teach philosophy and religion, assuming professor emeritus status in 1995.

"We needed someone who would take this program seriously and be committed to it, and there was no better person than Howard," Grinnell President Russell K. Osgood says. "A lot of our faculty are advisers, which is a pretty common skill set here, but for this program you want people with backbone, who are tough behind the scenes and committed to pulling these students across the finish line."

"Howard was one of the professors who created our tutorial program, and he has an especially long history of appreciating the value of small group activities," says James Sumner, Grinnell's dean of admission and financial aid. "He's compassionate, caring, a good listener, and has been around long enough that he knows every one and every thing. When these kids are having problems, he knows who to call."

Even while recovering from a stroke, Burkle can't help but laugh at some of the rigorous team-building exercises he found himself confronting in the San Bernardino Mountains near Los Angeles in 2003, while working with Grinnell Posse One at a five-day summer retreat. Since then he's become something of a grandfather figure to that Posse, even inviting them to his home for their first Thanksgiving dinner away from family in Los Angeles. Since his stroke in June of 2004, Burkle's mentoring duties have been reassigned, but hardly a day passes without a Posse One member stopping by to say hello and to check on the progress of his recovery.

"What I've learned from this Posse program is that operating a program of this sort, where you are bringing in students because of diverse ethnicity and not because they are academically outstanding, has a lot of pitfalls," he says. "Selection is based on personal potential and hidden qualities-hidden because these students wear the glasses of their own cultures, cultures in which there may be less importance placed on grades and test scores. In a sense, you take a guess on which ones can make it. Fortunately, Grinnell has in place the counseling and correctional teaching systems that, if used wisely, will help those who need help to get back on their feet academically."

One Posse One student who Burkle helped rescue from academic oblivion was Carillo. Because he never could perfect the tongue-roll required to correctly pronounce Carillo's first name, Burkle calls the Latino student "Junior."

"He was a great help," Carillo says of Burkle. "He would talk to me about my papers and tell me who I needed to talk to and what I needed to say to them to get my grades up. Just the fact that he would take all that time with me and with us, inviting us over to his house for Thanksgiving, made us all very appreciative. That's why we love him."

Grinnell's Posse scholars agree they've never been more challenged academically. Deisy Del Real '07 says she's confronting the challenge of overcoming what she describes as a "horrible" high school experience. "My school had a college prep program that included students from the inner city," she says. "And there was this stigma that the inner-city kids were less intelligent than the Caucasian and Asian students. It was a stigma that prevented teachers from fully motivating some students, and I felt really discriminated against in my education. Then I come here and see how well educated all these students are. I'm still so far behind."

Beyond academic demands, Posse scholars confront both culture shock and homesickness when they first arrive in Iowa from Los Angeles. No traffic. No Noise. Cornfields, not freeways. "Junior" Carillo claims to even miss L.A.'s trademark smog. Boredom becomes epidemic. "There's nothing to do" becomes a mantra, and what's up with the nearest movie theater being 20 miles away, with no bus system to get there? What's with that?, they ask.

Food is an issue, too. Carillo heard about "a great Mexican restaurant" in nearby Newton. "It wasn't great," he remembers. "It was fun and all that, but it's not the same." Steven Johnson '08 of Posse Two left empty-handed after searching a Grinnell grocery story for "greens," a culinary staple to some African Americans. "I wanted to make some collard or mustard greens," he says. "All they had was spinach, and I don't like spinach."

And then there's the weather. That first Iowa winter was a bit of a shock for Posse One, a trial by ice now confronting Posse Two. "I know it's going to be hard," Nikisha Glenn '08 of Posse Two says in mid-October. "I'm cold now, and it's 63 degrees outside."

Regrets are few within the two groups, despite the demands. Being surrounded by their posse, they agree, helps. Every day.

"I expected it to be hard," says Posse One member Jasmine Brewer '07. "The training we went through stressed how hard it would be. But those days when you're down, homesick or whatever, nothing can prepare you for that. I get through those days with the help of Adam (Brumer) and Ramiro (Carillo). They know when I'm down."

"When I'm stressing out, I'll go to the others and let every little problem out and just talk, talk, talk it out," says Posse Two's Steven Johnson. "I know they're there for me. During that nine months of training I thought all that was bull, but I depend on these people, and I lean on these people for help."

Proven Results

The Posse Foundation's curious name is the result of Bial's interactions with a young man from a Manhattan youth program where she provided large-group activities for students from 13 inner-city public high schools.

"He went off to college, but was back six months later, a drop out," she says. "He told me, 'I could have made it if I had brought along my posse,' meaning his circle of friends. That was literally the 'ah-hah' moment that gave me the idea to formalize the notion of selecting and preparing groups of student-not individual students-for the demands of college."

Bial pioneered the program at Vanderbilt University, which was eager to increase the ethnic and cultural diversity of its student body.

"Vanderbilt really took a chance on us, as Posse then had no track record, no history, no data to support the concept," she says. "They took five students from New York and gave them a 20 percent chance of making it through freshman year. What happened is they graduated all of them."

Fifteen years of experience has proven that trial-run success wasn't a fluke. In the years since Vanderbilt welcomed "Posse One," nearly 1,000 students have been awarded four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships through the Posse Foundation. Posse members have a college graduation rate of more than 90 percent. The Foundation's reach into inner-city public high schools now extends beyond New York to Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. A $1 million, three-year grant from the Sallie Mae Fund allowed expansion in 2004 into Washington, D.C., where 623 metro area high school seniors were nominated by teachers, counselors, and principals for 20 Posse scholarships. One of Washington's first two posses arrives in Grinnell next fall.

Like many of the other inner-city high schools targeted by Posse, those in Washington, D.C., are in shambles. A recent D.C. school board study concluded the system offers an "incoherent" curriculum, haphazard instruction, and "abysmal results," including one of the nation's widest disparities in test scores for black and white students. Bial sees a Posse scholarship as deliverance for students headed to Grinnell.

For years, Grinnell has tried to solve the riddle of how best to bring to rural Iowa a mix of students whose diverse experiences collectively expand points of view in classroom and social interactions. Strategies employed over those years were at times controversial, formulated amid a backdrop of student and faculty affirmative action advocates expecting less rhetoric and more results.

While wrestling with the realities of attracting and retaining students of color, foreign students, and students from non-traditional cultural and economic backgrounds, Grinnell administrators also confronted the task of recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty. Twelve percent of Grinnell's 139 full-time instructional faculty are U.S. people of color, and another four percent are foreign citizens. Fall 2004 student enrollment statistics show that 68 percent of students are white, compared to 72 percent five years ago. In both faculty and student diversity recruitment, Grinnell President Osgood says, there's "much work yet to be done."

"We have made modest progress," Osgood says. "And we have created a more constructive campus atmosphere. But we haven't done enough, and we haven't succeeded."

What constitutes success?

"Creating a critical mass of students, faculty, and staff of diverse backgrounds, enough so you can feel their presence and their contributions to the educational process," he says. "We seek to have some perspectives that represent both historical deprivation and cultural significance in our society. Our mission statement requires us to not just graduate smart people who excel at academics, but people who contribute to the common good. I don't know how to contribute without diversity, without trying to get a reflection of economic disadvantage and racial components. It's important to the educational quality of what goes on in the classroom and is part of training for life."

The Posse experience, Osgood feels, represents real progress, especially in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to university minority student selection programs. Those rulings have provided some guidance in determining what's within the law as the higher education community actively competes for non-traditional students-students with the skills to not only survive, but also thrive, within the demands of the college experience. As a scholarship program that provides diverse groups of students with merit-based leadership scholarships, Posse is color-blind.

"Posse was recommended to me by two other college presidents," Osgood says. "My first reaction was 'baloney.' I thought 'leadership selection? ... right.' I thought these kids would have lower credentials. When I went to Los Angeles to participate in the final selection process for the first group to come to Grinnell, I was just blown away. I thought they would be brassy and street-smart sort of people, but every kid I met, even if not a minority, was a kid who would be good to have at Grinnell. Two were extremely shy kids, but kids who are real leaders and, of the 24 candidates we selected from, 10 had credentials that were perfectly normal for Grinnell.

"Another important aspect of this is that Posse is a system that gets these students to look at us," Osgood says. "How many kids in an inner-city Los Angeles high school would think of applying to a liberal arts college, much less Grinnell?"

Grinnell's involvement with the Posse Foundation represents a significant financial commitment. With tuition now at $25,200 a year, each full-tuition, four-year scholarship offered by Grinnell is worth more than $100,000. By the time the program ramps up to accommodate two new 10-member Grinnell Posses every school year, the 80 Posse scholars on campus will represent a $2 million annual commitment.

"This is a program that everybody would like to do, but hardly anybody can afford," says Sumner, Grinnell's dean of admission and financial aid. "Grinnell is fortunate that the generosity of its alumni each year gives the College the opportunity to do this.

"What's appealing is that [Posse's] track record is so successful and good," Sumner continues. "And, with all the fears about affirmative action going away, Posse offers a way to recruit students of color that is race-neutral. It works because Debbie Bial and her staff have identified better ways of predicting success in college for [these] kids through their own testing methods and screening process."

Sumner and Bial agree that Grinnell College is a good fit for the Posse program because it's small enough to provide students with highly individualized attention.

"So many top colleges assume that students are well-prepared and don't have the support systems that we have, like the writing center staffed by five full-time, professionally trained people or the resource centers available for students who need help with math, reading, and science," he says. "Grinnell is not an academically competitive environment. It's more of a supportive, collaborative atmosphere. While grades are important, there's also that feeling among students and faculty that they want to help other people succeed."

"Grinnell really cares about its student body and about cultivating and nurturing the feeling that everybody belongs there," Bial says. "Leadership at Grinnell, we find, is strong. Russell Osgood is not only a real advocate for Posse, but also a powerful voice in the community when he talks about race, access, and opportunity. It's very attractive to be partnering with an institution that is so committed. And it's been good for Grinnell College, as Grinnell, Iowa, isn't in first place on a lot of kids' lists for where they want to go to college."

Forming a Posse

The Posse Foundation's remarkable 15-year track record suggests that predicting success in college is as much an art as a science.

In working with seniors from some of America's worst public high schools, the Foundation has developed screening, evaluation, and training methods that have resulted in a 90 percent graduation rate for Posse scholars selected to attend one of 22 top colleges and universities throughout the United States.

How does that happen?

Selection begins with nominations from teachers, counselors, and administrators of inner-city schools in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. From September through December of each year, the hundreds of students nominated in each city are invited to participate in what Posse Foundation President and Founder Deborah Bial terms a "dynamic assessment process." The three-month process begins with large events in each city at which hundreds of students confront a wide range of creative and intellectual challenges while divided into groups of eight to 10. Posse staff and carefully trained volunteers watch each group closely, pinpointing students who stand out from their peers. The specific evaluation methods used by the Foundation during the three-month interview process are a well-kept, proprietary secret.

"In general, we look for kids who demonstrate leadership and great communication skills," says Bial, who this year earned a doctorate in education from Harvard University through her research into alternative college admission criteria. "We're looking for kids who work well in teams and have an ability to express themselves. We're looking for motivation and a desire to succeed. All of this comes out in a dynamic setting. Although it's a very intuitive process, I suspect you would pick the same kids I would pick, even though I've been doing this for 15 years."

Of the 623 students nominated this year from Washington, D.C., area high schools, about 60 percent will survive the large-group assessment process, Bial says. They undergo a second, one-on-one screening that Bial describes as "behavioral" interviews. "It's a very holistic process that take into account traditional criteria such as grades, test scores, and life experiences," she says. Students who continue to shine become the elite group from which final selection of 10-member posses are made jointly by the Foundation and the admission staff from the school where each posse is headed.

During the eight-month run-up to their first year of college, newly selected Posse scholars meet weekly with trainers and their peers for two-hour workshops that address four areas: academic excellence, cross-cultural communication, leadership skills and team building, and group support. Students also participate in a writing program that uses lawyers, journalists, and college professors as academic coaches.

"Posse is one of the most comprehensive college access and support programs in the U.S.," Bial says with a sense of pride. "We hope to be in five more cities in the next 15 years. Year one we had five kids at one university. This year, we'll have 260 at 22 colleges and universities, with four schools taking two posses. By 2020, we want to be selecting 1,000 Posse scholars each year, and we will need about 80 partner schools to make that happen."