Release Date: December 15, 2015
College Success Centers open the world of higher education to those who could be left behind
BUFFALO, N.Y. – For University at Buffalo education professor Nathan J. Daun-Barnett, hundreds of completed student financial aid applications that might never have been successfully filed are not enough.
Fresh from establishing the FAFSA Completion Project — a program that sent at least 500 Buffalo Public School students to college who otherwise could have missed the opportunity — Daun-Barnett has expanded his life-changing mission. If the goal is to take advantage of the proven and profound tradition of enriching lives through higher education, his latest plan takes this mission to another level.
Beginning this October, students at two city schools can visit their own College Success Center, space set aside within their schools where they can become familiar with what Daun-Barnett calls “a college-going culture.” While there, students can meet representatives from organizations designed to find and help talented students considering college, explore college programs, learn about what their lives would be like as college students or just meet current UB undergraduate and graduate students who can be role models to college success.
“What if we created a space where we were actively helping these schools develop a college-going culture?” says Daun-Barnett, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, Graduate School of Education, whose FAFSA Completion Project has significantly increased the percentage of Buffalo Public School students who complete their student aid applications correctly and on time.
“We thought there were a lot of ways to do that, but one easy way to do that immediately would be to create a physical space that looks like you’re on a college campus, that has the feel of a college campus and that is all about promoting pro-college-going behavior.”
So now, the first two College Success Centers are up and running. There is a highly functioning and well-funded one at Bennett High School, where Daun-Barnett’s team made a significant impact on financial aid applications. There also is a developing one at International Preparatory School — the former Grover Cleveland High School on the city’s West Side.
The centers have been aided financially by grants from the Westminster Foundation, which is affiliated with M&T bank, and the Say Yes program in the Buffalo Public Schools. Daun-Barnett says it originally cost about $65,000 to set up the space and technology at the center in Bennett. Daun-Barnett’s resolve and ingenuity in finding ways to staff it with volunteers and students also has been a major reason for its success.
The Bennett College Success Center is more what Daun-Barnett hopes will become the prototype. Students visiting there see a design that looks similar to what they would find in Baldy Hall, home of the Graduate School of Education — not surprising, since Daun-Barnett engaged an interior designer who created study spaces at UB. There are large monitor screens on movable carts where Bennett students can connect their computers. There is small area with a white board for small group tutoring. There is a resource area for brochures and applications for colleges. Parents who come in enter through a small reception area designed to make them feel welcome.
As Daun-Barnett says, the space has the look and feel of a college campus.
“Our goal was to create a space that felt different from anywhere else in the school,” he says, “a place where students could engage in casual conversations with college students who shared similar experiences, came from similar backgrounds and have figured out how to be successful in college. So far, we have been able to do just that, but we have much more work to do.”
And as things usually go with Daun-Barnett’s projects, it’s just the beginning. His staff and volunteers already are working with eighth-graders at 10 Buffalo Public middle schools, planting the seed of that same college-going culture in hundreds of students there. Graduate students from UB are working with these students and their parents to choose a high school for next year. They plan to bring students to UB so they can begin to see what college has to offer.
By next October, Daun-Barnett plans to have six more College Success Centers in Buffalo Public high schools, depending on which schools stay open. All will have the same principles and characteristics now on display and available for students at Bennett and International Prep.
Daun-Barnett’s success — clearly aimed at helping these students break the cycle of poverty — revolves around two key personal talents. The first is his ability to understand the arcane dynamics and requirements of grants and public funding that can bring in substantial money. Another is his understanding of the political and bureaucratic world of education and government administration. He has a knack for knowing how to make the system work to get results — results that target the students who need help the most.
“The key to making it work is to recognize how much more is possible,” he says, “when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
He also has the good sense and touch to find key young people — many of them volunteers — who can help. They are nothing short of mentors. GSE graduate student Cherrelle Collins is a former Buffalo Public School student — a graduate of the former Seneca Vocational —who is now assistant director for college success initiatives, including the College Success Centers and the Buffalo FAFSA Completion Project at Bennett. Ledeebari Banuna, a senior at UB, serves as a College Success Center intern as part of the SAGE Internship program through UB’s Intercultural Diversity Center (IDC).
“I had to build trust with that population,” says Collins, explaining her interaction with the students at Bennett. “First off, I’m a Buffalo Public School graduate. And I find that coming as far as I did was a little rare from the school where I came from and from the community in which I was raised.
“There are not many people who make it to grad school. I think it’s because of a lack of information and social support,” she says. “What I found is that these students just needed direction. They needed someone present. They needed someone to represent what going to college is all about. They needed someone to map out this whole idea of going to college and what to do in order to reply.”
The presence of students such as Collins and Banuna are crucial to these College Success Centers.
“If we want to create campus environments that are conducive to the success of all students and increase the footprint of those who go to college,” Daun-Barnett says, “you have to understand where students are coming from who often don’t make the decision to go to college.”
Daun-Barnett and his staff recognize that race, class and family background matter when it comes to helping students imagine themselves attending college and earning a degree. The schools, like the city, are segregated, he says. Many students of color connect best with college students who look like them, can relate their experiences and can show them how to take full advantage of the opportunities available to them while avoiding many of the pitfalls.
That is where students like Collins and Banuna come in, he says. The majority of college students working in the centers are students of color who are the first in their families to attend college and in many cases have faced the uncertainty of figuring out how to navigate the process.
“They know how to get into college,” he says. “And they know how to be successful when they get there.”
And just as Daun-Barnett says, the success of the College Success Centers can rise and fall with the young people working there.
“I am from the Buffalo Public School System,” says Banuna. “When I first got to the University at Buffalo, I quickly noticed how few students from Buffalo Public Schools were at UB. I was very shocked to hear the statistics of how low the graduation rate of the city’s public schools actually was.
“For me personally, it’s very meaningful because I feel I was very lucky because I had two older sisters who were active in helping with my applications. I knew I wanted to go to college and I knew what I wanted to do. And I was very active in finding those resources.
“But I also recognize, just looking at the numbers, not all students have that,” she says. “And also depending on the school you go to, the resources you have access to are limited. So as an intern at Bennett, which is currently being closed and has just one full-time counselor, this becomes even more important. She has to serve so many students and it’s just her. A lot of these students do need extra attention and care.”
Banuna says that was one of the main points stressed by Daun-Barnett: Even with help, the college process is still complicated.
Her heartfelt but level-headed approach is exactly the kind of commitment and frame of reference Daun-Barnett is looking for in College Success Center staff. And when that happens, the rewards and payoffs of a college education open up to those who otherwise probably would have missed out.
“The sky’s the limit,” says Daun-Barnett.