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Beating the Odds: Sometimes the System Responds

By Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center

When someone like Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III tells me that there is an educator I need to meet, an individual who has “beaten the odds” and is making a difference, I pay attention.  Hrabowski is the highly regarded president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and since he began there in 1992, he has received national recognition as one of our top university presidents.  He’s also the author of Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males, and Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women.

Hrabowski has made presentations for the AVID Center, and I have also heard him keynote conferences on several occasions.  He’s informed, inspiring, and has the same kind of spirit that AVID educators do.  At UMBC, he emphasizes the development of a scholar identity by creating a unified peer group and providing a supportive environment as well as high expectations, especially around math, science, and engineering.

Recently, he appeared on 60 Minutes.  In the interview, Hrabowski described the math, engineering, and science focus at UMBC, where 41% of the degrees are awarded in those fields, compared to the national university average of 28%.  The Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which he began with a focus on African American students, has now expanded its reach, graduating 813 scholars.  Ninety percent of them go on to graduate school.  In short, Hrabowski is a key figure in equity and achievement in the U.S. and is passionate about math and science.  He also understands the chilling legacy of racism, having grown up in segregated Alabama.  He participated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Children's Crusade" as a 12-year-old, and the memory of a hateful encounter with the county sheriff still lingers. 

Hrabowski understands acceleration, having entered college at age 15. 

And he knows that our boys, especially young men of color, are often failed by our educational system. 

Last year, I met with Hrabowski and Dr. Joe Hairston, the recently retired and very successful superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.  I shared with them one of our AVID Center efforts, our African American Male Initiative (AAMI), focusing on developing support  structures and acceleration for African American male students in six school districts across the U.S. 

One of the AAMI sites, Woodlawn High School, is in Baltimore County.  Both men asked me a lot of questions about our AAMI work, few of them easy to answer.  They know what is at stake for these young men, most of whom are the first in their families to consider college.  Hrabowski’s questions about what kind of data we were getting, what kind of test scores we were seeing, and what comprised our college readiness measures were particularly thought-provoking.  After all, that’s the “end game”:  college readiness.

Shortly after the meeting, I saw Hrabowski again at a conference, and he told me to keep him informed about our work.  But this time, he added, “There is a man you need to talk to.  I think you will find his story interesting.”

That’s when I began my conversations with Dr. Dave Heiber, the founder and executive director of Concentric Solutions, a non-profit group which provides professional development and direct support for school districts like D.C. Public Schools, helping them improve the behavior patterns of at-risk students.  He and Hrabowski became friends after Heiber asked the UMBC president some challenging questions following a presentation.  Heiber now considers Hrabowski his most significant mentor. 

If you just read Heiber’s resume, you wouldn’t think of him as a student whose life mirrors those of the at-risk students he serves.  With a B.A. from Lincoln University, where he graduated with a triple major and a teaching credential, he moved on to Temple University and received a Masters in African American Studies.  A Doctorate in Education from Morgan State University rounds out his credentials.

At 35, Heiber embodies what one would expect from an educational professional.  A father of three, he is articulate, passionate, research-oriented, and is strongly focused on helping recover students—mostly male—who are at risk of dropping out.  He has developed a protocol for home visits, a three-step process that brings students who are not attending back into school, holds them accountable, and provides a support structure.

But Heiber’s path to higher education did not start after high school.  It started after he spent time in prison.  Heiber’s story also underscores the need for all of our systems to respond, to be proactive, to follow the example Dr. Hrabowski has set at UMBC.

As Victor Saenz reminded us at a recent College Board presentation, for every 100 girls in kindergarten, there are 116 boys; for every 100 girls who start high school, there are 100 boys; for every 100 girls who start college, there are 77 boys. 

Dr. Dave Heiber didn’t just “beat the odds,” he beat the system, with the help of mentors, social workers, and a judge who saw Heiber’s potential.  Three strikes and you’re out?  Not in Heiber’s case.  After a career as a teacher and school administrator, he founded his own non-profit.

Read a few of his responses to my questions below.

As a young man, in some ways, you had a normal youth.  But some tragedies struck that got you off track.  Can you describe your early years, what led you astray, and what got you back on track?

I was bi-racial, but didn’t know my African American birth father.  My mother was 18-years-old when she had me, and she left me in the hospital.  It was my maternal grandparents who actually brought me home, and to this day, I refer to my grandparents as my parents because my grandfather was such an inspirational force in my life.  My mother went to live in Florida with her boyfriend, and every memory I have of her from my childhood is centered upon drama.  Despite all of this, as you mentioned, I had a fairly normal upbringing. 

I was raised in Newark, Delaware, where my grandfather was a truck driver, and my grandmother was a domestic housewife.  While I was in high school, I started running track, and by my senior year, I had received quite a few scholarship offers.  Then all of a sudden, my world was turned upside down when just days before Christmas, my grandfather died of a heart attack, while he was Christmas shopping.  We had always had a close relationship, since my uncle, who I think of as my brother, was closer to his mother.  The time period following this tragedy was a difficult one, and not one teacher or one administrator spoke to me about the passing of my grandfather.

My grandfather was a great provider, but he never owned a home.  My grandmother and I became homeless after his passing because my grandmother hadn’t worked outside the home, so she took a job as a maid.  Three or four months down the road, she complained of a headache, and she was ultimately diagnosed with lung cancer.  During that period of time between my grandfather passing away and my grandmother being diagnosed with cancer, I started running with the wrong crowd and got kicked out of high school.  I tried to re-enroll in school, but it didn’t work out.

I ended up being sentenced to eight years in prison, two of which I ultimately served, on charges of second-degree burglary.  Once I was locked up, despite my grandmother’s chemotherapy, she would still come to the prison to see me once a week.  One day, during one of her scheduled visits, she didn’t show up.  I was able to call my uncle later that night, and he told me that she had become bedridden.  Not long after, she passed away, but I couldn’t attend the funeral because of my prison sentence.

After receiving the tragic news, I was allowed to walk around the prison facility, and it was at that moment where I had an epiphany and wanted to get my life in order.  It was also around this time that several individuals informed me about the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which focuses on mediation and self-reflection.  Mary Miller and John Shuford were two of AVP’s coordinators, and they spoke on my behalf at my hearing, and that ultimately helped me be released after two years of my eight-year sentence.  In fact, I was the first person, and I believe the only person, for whom the presiding judge, Judge Barron, has ever amended the sentence during his career.  When I was released from prison in December, I was first sent to live with John Shuford, and then my uncle.  It wasn’t long before I was arrested again though.  After being released a second time, I started looking at colleges.  Mary wanted me to go to the University of Delaware, but a good friend of mine from high school recommended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, so I applied there without Mary knowing, since the application fee was only $15.

I started working at a video store around this time.  When I arrived home late one evening after work, my home confinement officer turned me in for violating my terms.  I was sent to prison for the third time.  I was kept there for three weeks, until the judge told me that he would give me just one more chance.  I was actually released only a few days before I had to be at Lincoln University for orientation.  I had never been able to respond back to Lincoln, so I couldn’t tell them that I would be attending and to reserve my room.  Upon being released from prison, I was provided with $50.  I was a practicing Muslim at the time, and I went straight to a service, where I gave $20 of that $50 as an offering.  A man whom I met during the service gave me a ride to a friend’s house, and when I shook the man’s hand as he said good-bye, he gave me a $50 bill.  Right there is when I knew, once you dedicate yourself to doing what’s right, it brings back what’s right.

Mentorship is an important part of the work that you do with school systems, and you benefited from many mentors.  How do you feel we can do a better job in our school systems, in terms of utilizing mentors?

I feel it really boils down to two key parts.  First of all, the strategy and intentionality of the school are very important.  Secondly, the capacity and the commitment of the mentor are incredibly crucial.  If you don’t have that deep commitment as a mentor to see the student through the good, the bad, and the trying, you’re not doing your best as a mentor.  I had my share of fair-weather mentors, who were only there during the good times.  Dr. Hrabowski was there during the good times and the bad, and that’s what makes him, and mentors like him, special.

In trying to differentiate between the two parts, it’s really equal part intentionality of the school and mentoring program, and capacity and commitment of the mentor.  Something that happens consistently is that we don’t make it explicit as to how we measure success and how we measure whether a mentor program is working.  Doing so would allow us to see what one thing a mentor is doing that is really making a connection with the mentee, and where another mentor may be coming up short.  Being a mentor is a huge responsibility, and just being an adult and having experiences in the world doesn’t make someone a mentor.  If you’re in a classroom, you’re differentiating instruction.  If you’re a mentor, you have to be able to differentiate the way you mentor, depending upon the background and attitude of the person looking up to you as a mentee.

Can you talk a bit more about your educational background and the path you traveled?

No one in my family had gone on to college when I was in high school.  My family wasn’t really involved when I was looking into college, but they were excited, since everyone in my family was working-class at the time.  I initially wanted to be an attorney, and when I ended up going to Lincoln University, I double-majored in History/Education and Political Science.  My junior year there, I was chosen as “Mr. Lincoln,” which indicated a combination of academic and social prowess, and it included free room and board.

At Lincoln, I developed an identity as a scholar, and during my junior year, they created a major in black studies.  As a result, I began taking elective courses in African American history, and I took three additional courses, in order to get a triple major of History/Education, Political Science, and Black Studies.  I ended up graduating in four years, sometimes taking as many as 24 course units in a semester.  I could have graduated in three-and-a-half years, but my last semester, I solely did student teaching and won the Outstanding Student Teacher of the Year award. 

I have truly had some good breaks.  Going back to my freshman year, recall that I was released from prison right before the school year started at Lincoln, and I didn’t even have a dorm room set aside.  A man named Chris Curry found me a converted mailroom that they could put me up in, and so that’s where I lived during my freshman year at Lincoln, before moving into the dorms.

When I graduated from Lincoln with my triple major and teaching credential, I was trying to decide on whether to go to law school or grad school.  When I applied to law school, they told me that my prison record would cause problems down the road, so I ultimately ended up going to, and graduating from, Temple University with a Master’s degree in African American Studies.  I then went on to receive my Doctorate of Education from Morgan State University.

I knew I would have trouble finding a job teaching, but I interviewed with Hartford County in Maryland in 2000, when they were just on the cusp of hiring more minorities.  I didn’t mention that I had a criminal record, and I ended up getting the job.  Not long after though, when I spoke up about my criminal record, they rescinded the offer.

It all ended up coming full circle, because during my time at Lincoln, I had been sending my transcripts to Judge Barron.  When Hartford County rescinded the offer, I reached out to the judge’s secretary, and she told me to come to Judge Barron’s chambers.  It was the first time I had seen the judge in many years, and I wanted to thank him for never giving up on me.  Judge Barron ended up talking to the School Board and convinced them to hire me, which landed me a job with Baltimore City Schools.  Over a six-year span, I went from teaching history and black studies, functioning as assistant principal, and ultimately, serving as managing principal at Southwestern High School.

Tell us more about Dr. Hrabowski and any other individuals who were key influences or mentors in your life and the impact that they’ve had on you?

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, after whom my youngest son is named, changed me for the better and ultimately saved my life.  I’ve always loved him unconditionally, and his influence is the defining reason that I believe you never give up on students.  It’s actually a great story of how we met.  I had asked him a question when he was presenting, along the lines of “How can you be this revolutionary and be the president of a white college?”, and at the time, he just laughed.  Then after class, he ended up pulling me aside, and said, “If I’m training black scientists, and there’s so few of them, am I not being revolutionary?”  From that point on, our relationship progressed from one of mentorship, to one of friendship.

A few of the other key influences in my life are my grandfather, along with Mary Miller, John Shuford, and, of course, Judge Barron.  My daughter has also had a tremendously positive impact on my life.  There’s something special between fathers and their little girls that just can’t be explained.  Even though I was already 30 when she was born, my daughter changed my life.  She made me look at my masculinity differently.  With the impact that all of these people have made on me, my purpose in life is to be as good of a person as I can possibly be: the type of man I would want my sons to be and my daughter to marry.

In our AVID work, we see boys struggling, as far as college and career readiness.  How do we account for this?  What is happening to them?

Boys learn differently.  Although this a documented fact that research supports, we, as educators, do not always take this into consideration.  In addition, we must begin to see boys from all ethnic groups as a heterogeneous group that needs multiple approaches.

Boys experience things much differently than girls.  There are different social and academic pressures that are placed upon them.  The ability of boys to respond to, react to, and process these pressures is not always a given.  Boys must be given a different set of supports for them to be successful and ready to succeed in school and in life.  If we use multiple approaches and a diverse set of strategies that engage boys as active participants, rather than as bystanders, we might be able to ‘recover’ from our downward trend.  In addition, we tend to ‘lose’ boys earlier than girls.  When I say earlier, I am speaking academically and socially.  Boys are almost preconditioned to be disengaged at the first sign of academic failure or social detachment from their peer group.

Why is it so important to focus on assets more than deficits?

Focusing on assets is far more efficient and successful than trying to fill in deficits.  Many of the students that we work with have many challenges.  These challenges range from academic to social and emotional.  Despite these challenges, there is an innate resiliency that these students possess.  This resiliency has allowed them to overcome many of their challenges, and in some instances, meet success.  We use a student’s success as the leverage point and entry point to build a relationship with the student.  Our focus on their success allows us to pinpoint specific areas of strength which students can readily recall when we ask them to perform new tasks or explore new things.  If we focused on what a student didn’t do well, the likelihood that we would be successful would be very small.

In her book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," Michelle Alexander talks about individuals who are forever locked out of society, or as you’ve mentioned before, “forever marginalized.”  How does this marginalization play out?

The reason we have so many people going back into prisons is that they are coming back out with the same skill set; they haven’t been offered any opportunities to acquire a new set of skills, and they come back out to the exact same support system that was surrounding them when they entered prison.  The result of this is the idea of being forever marginalized, or as Michelle Alexander refers to it, being “locked out.”  If you’re already marginalized for whatever the case may be, once you get a criminal record, you’re forever marginalized with a microscopic chance of ever escaping.  That’s just the way it is.

Do you know someone like Dr. Heiber, who has “beaten the odds”?  Let us know.

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Reader Comments (1)

This is a wonderful interview. Thank you.

December 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKarin

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