Torrence Robinson looks at today’s minority youth and sees a generation filled with potential that might go largely unfulfilled. He’s not talking about kids at risk of succumbing to drugs and gangs. He’s talking about “students of promise” who just don’t see the promise of going to college as applicable to them.
“These are kids in the academic middle, not fully engaged in school activities or taking advantage of resources that could help them,” says the 44-year-old director of education and workforce for Texas Instruments Inc. “With the right motivation, inspiration and a road map, they can be on the road to academic success.”
Robinson calls his initiative “The Compelling Why.” Acting on his own without official sponsorship from TI, Robinson is setting up conferences for area minority high schoolers featuring role models who mirror them – only older. No athletes, no entertainers – who “disproportionately influence the masses of young people,” Robinson says – but rather local, approachable men and women personifying success that aspiring students might actually achieve. The trick is to trigger that aspiration. Students need to be shown the importance of getting an education, becoming engaged, getting motivated and taking responsibility for their futures.
After the speeches, students meet representatives of existing (but often ignored) programs such as AVID, Education Is Freedom, Group Excellence, Project Still I Rise and Urban League of Greater Dallas. The students can sign up on the spot and immediately put the services to work. Panelists spark the interest. Support organizations provide the follow-through.
Robinson’s parents were high school educators in Paterson, N.J., near New York City. Not going to college was never an option for Robinson, who earned his degree in computer science from the University of Maryland. But many of his peers didn’t have that same parental push. Unfortunately, many minority students still don’t get that push.
Robinson’s idea gathered dust on his “shelf of ideas” for years. He was inspired into action last October after attending TEDxSMU, an annual symposium on ways to shape the future. In late January, he held a proof-of-concept event for 50 black male C-plus students attending Franklin D. Roosevelt and A. Maceo Smith high schools in Dallas, “straddling the fence between academic success and academic complacency.” It was held at Southern Methodist University. For many, it was their first time on a college campus. That’s another key component. Robinson wants to show them where the vision takes hold.
Geoffrey Orsak, dean of SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering, helped host the session and says it was remarkable. “I was just so moved by the truly honest give-and-take between the participating community leaders and these high school students,” says Orsak, who intends to continue the school’s support. “This is the kind of program that really does make a difference.”
Robinson is planning four to six seminars for the Dallas and Richardson school districts in the fall. Each will target up to 200 black or Latino 13- to 18-year-olds, males and females, with speakers who match them. “When I explain the concept to an administrator, I can see their brains begin to work about how this might apply to the young people they’ve had challenges in reaching,” he says. “Students tend to tune out the future.”
Robinson wants to videotape and edit the seminars into motivational snapshots and store them in an online library. Dallas-based AMS Pictures provided the initial video production services pro bono. Success will be measured by how many students sign up for and then actually use the services. Before and after student surveys will be conducted. Once he has a track record, Robinson hopes to get funding from corporations. Until then, he’s looking to socially responsible entrepreneurs to give his program a leg up.
Robinson attended a debriefing session with 17 students at Roosevelt where one poignant moment stood out. The teacher asked the students how many knew at least five people who’d continued their education after high school. Three raised their hands. Then the teacher asked how many knew at least five people currently in prison. Everyone raised his hand.
“That really spoke to me that I’m on the right path,” Robinson says. “These students have the ability. They just need a different vision of what’s possible.”
(Dallas Morning News, Making the most of ‘students of promise;’ 12:00 AM CST on Wednesday, April 7, 2010 by Cheryl Hall)