During a recent trip to Tucson, Ariz., I took part in a meeting with school officials, school board members, past and present elected officials, organizers of youth programs and, most importantly, parents and students. Many of those in attendance shared powerful stories about the serious challenges facing children in south Tucson and the heroic efforts that are being made to confront the issues to ensure that children succeed.
I was reminded again of how important it is for everyone to work together to address the needs of students during the school day, but also to address the needs of the children out of school. This was the spirit I saw as people talked about programs and strategies. Every story I heard deserves to be retold, but one story in particular caught my attention because it illustrated that one person can start a chain reaction to make a difference.
It started as a love story. Jansen Azarias met Barbara “Barbie” Maestas six years ago. Barbie had a ten-year-old son named Timothy, and Jansen began tutoring Timothy. Soon a number of Timothy’s friends joined the tutoring sessions in Jason’s living room. Today, Jansen and Barbie are married and Timothy is a high school graduate and enrolled in college.
Jansen soon learned that there were many students in the south side of Tucson who shared the experiences of attending a low-performing school, broken families, gang affiliations, crime, drug abuse, incarcerated parents, poverty, and a lack of support. Inspired to make a difference, he started organizing volunteers and working out of the Mission View Assembly church. At the end of the second year there were 60 students involved in daily programs. Realizing the high need, Jansen and Barbie quit their jobs and devoted full time to what they called Higher Ground.
Today, this program reaches 150 students who receive daily homework tutoring and enrichment activities such as football, dance, jujutsu, art, boxing, bike club, and choir. Students also receive training in financial literacy and character development. Higher Ground expands its program every year, and partnered with the Tucson Unified School District to move into the historic Wakefield Middle School. The organization has also partnered with eight other faith-based groups and five community organizations, as well as with several departments at the University of Arizona, Phoenix University, and Pima Community College.
With the help of these partners and the commitment of more than 50 volunteers, students and their parents pay nothing for participating. All programs are coordinated by a small staff of five people and an annual budget of $150,000, and even with this small staff, students and parents can reach Higher Ground 24/7 if they need anything from financial assistance to an intervention.
Higher Ground is an out of school program, but participant’s school performance has shown improvement. Last year, 93 percent of the students improved their grades and 60 percent were on the honor roll for the first time.
While Jansen and Barbie are extraordinary people, what they have done can be duplicated in other places. First, Jansen started by listening to students and taking seriously what the students said they needed. Secondly, they both used the resources and networks that they have in the community and the church to begin the work. Third, they required that the parents make a commitment. Fourth, they developed a working relationship with the school district and with other community organizations. And finally, they never lost track of where they started with a focus on listening to the kids and responding to their needs. It is a simple model that can be duplicated anywhere.
Ken Bedell is a senior advisor in the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Center at the U.S. Department of Education