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Meet Jenny T.

Campus Spotlight: College Access Support at H. Grady Spruce High School

In this conversation, Program Specialist Jennifer Torres-Quintanilla shares her experience as a college access provider at H. Grady Spruce High School in Dallas Independent School District. She is joined by a representative of Dallas County Promise, Amani Thomas, to discuss the experiences, challenges, and outputs of her campus-based college access work with students in their senior year. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.

Part II: "All Things FAFSA at H. Grady Spruce High School"

Amani: Jenny, first let’s talk a bit about your background. Are you from Dallas?

Jenny: I'm actually from Fort worth.

 A: Where'd you go to school?

J: I went to Trinity Valley for high school. I attended SMU for college and studied human rights and public policy, and I'm getting my master's now.

"Our current students got to hear from them and hear about the realities of college, how one student failed his first chemistry test and quickly learned how important studying really was. You could see that it finally clicked for them after hearing it from a peer and they’re realizing, 'Oh wow, this can happen and if it does, this is what I need to do to be successful.'"

Spruce Embrey

A: So why don't you tell me a little bit about how you got involved and began working with the school system on behalf of us [Dallas County Promise]. Then, explain to me a little bit about your work and then how it relates to your job here.

J: When I graduated from SMU, I didn't know what to do with my life. Human Rights isn’t  a very direct college to career  path. I was a McNair Scholar when I was in undergrad when the director of the department who was in charge had been mayor and had seen me do research throughout my undergraduate years. He said, “Hey, I know you're graduating, do you need a job?”, and of course, I was like, “yes, I need a job!” At that time I really didn't even know what I was going to be doing. He just said we were going to be doing college advising. I never saw myself working in a high school working with high school students, but I figured why not, and that's when I learned what we were doing, which was becoming a CAP vendor for the district.

A: A CAP vendor?

J: Yes. Right now the [Dallas Independent School] district has three CAP vendors, or college access providers: EIF, ASP, and then ourselves, SMU. It was going to be the first year that the program was going to be piloted. SMU piloted this program starting with Spruce. I’ve been here [at Spruce]  since the pilot four years ago and it really has grown. I’ve been able to  form and shape  how I wanted the program to be and the progress has been significant.

A: As a CAP vendor, what do you see as the real value of college?

J: I went to an all-white private [high] school through scholarships. So to me, going [to college] was what was expected of everyone. I went to [school with] students whose parents were lawyers and doctors and my parents were not, I was first gen. I didn't even know what college meant, but because I was surrounded by a community that expected me to go to college I ended up at SMU. When I came [to Spruce] I expected that to be the norm and I found out very quickly that it wasn’t. It wasn't a fault to students, teachers or the community; it’s just that no one knows or understood. So it was hard for me to adjust my mindset: This is what I thought, and this is where we're at. How do we get them to the point where college is an expectation or reality? At the time, it wasn’t a thought for most kids or even an option for them in their minds. 

A:  How do you see Promise playing a role in making college a reality or even making it possible for students to enroll, attend, et cetera?

J: For me, Promise can be a conversation opener because before, if I would talk to students about college, they said, “well, we can’t afford it”.  At some point, I would mention community college because it’s a bit more affordable and things like that. But now we can say with full conviction that if you complete the Promise steps, it’s all paid for. Money is no longer an issue so what’s next? Then we can have more real conversations and they’ll say “I’m scared of leaving home” or “ I don’t know what I want to study”, but it gets me through the [financial] barrier where kids would automatically shut me out.

I've also seen it work in opposite ways where kids will know about it and that it’s free. For example, last year, or maybe two years ago, our salutatorian and the brightest girl I've ever met with great SAT scores and awesome grades in AP classes had the possibility to go anywhere. She chose to go to community college with the Promise because it was free. I was surprised because, in all honesty, she could’ve gone to schools like UTA. But for her, Promise became top of mind because it was free and she figured -- why risk going anywhere else?

Spruce Uta

A:  Now as a CAP vendor I’m sure you’ve seen the positives and negatives. Have you heard of any negatives?

J: What I've seen more of an issue is that they fear it's going to be another Spruce. Everyone is from around here and believes that it’s not like going off to college if they’re still living at home and just commuting. It doesn’t feel like the college experience - that’s the biggest complaint I’ve heard from my students. What I’ve heard, also, is that instead of wanting to go to the nearest community college at Eastfield, they want to attend Richland or El Centro. They’re looking to get away from the community they’ve grown up in because college is known as the time when you’re supposed to go away. I don’t think they realize there’s going to be students from other schools there, but I think our communities often only feel as big as the ones that we see at times.

A: I can understand that from personal experience and that’s definitely something we’ve heard before. So, as a CAP vendor, how do you measure your impact? What is something that makes you really proud of doing this work?

J: For me, I look at the data around our FAFSA completion. From my first year at Spruce until now, we’ve come up from 30-40% completion rates to about 81% at the end of last year. Our biggest success has been with the senior commitment ceremony at the end of every year. In the first year that I did it, we had about 70 students participate and then last year we had over 170. Just seeing how much that number of students has increased and how many students are committing to going to college or the military, that means a lot. Also, our program provides college trips for students where we attend universities nearby. One year we took the top 6% of our students, about 13, to UT Austin and we got to meet former Spruce students who live on campus now. They met with us and it was such a proud moment to see the fruits of my labor in their happiness and excitement. Our current students got to hear from them and hear about the realities of college, how one student failed his first chemistry test and quickly learned how important studying really was. You could see that it finally clicked for them after hearing it from a peer and they’re realizing, “Oh wow, this can happen and if it does, this is what I need to do to be successful”.

PART II: Campus Spotlight - All Things FAFSA at H. Grady Spruce