If someone had asked Waltrip Junior Leticia Cisnero last year where she wanted to go to college, they wouldn’t have gotten much in the way of an answer.
“I would have said frankly I don’t know, I wasn’t thinking of it,” she said.
Then she heard about a new program at her school called OneGoal and decided to fill out an application for it. She was accepted into OneGoal and started meeting weekly with French teacher Jennifer Donaldson to set a goal for college and chart a path to get there.
“At first I thought she really didn’t know what she was talking about,” said Cisnero. “It took me about the first six weeks to warm up to her.”
Fast forward a year, and the scenario is much different. After researching schools and student aid programs, Cisnero hopes to attend either Sam Houston State University or the University of North Texas. She recently took the SAT for the first time and has a better understanding of what she wants her ultimate score to be. She’s also done a lot of soul searching.
“My obstacles [to college] would be my past – my GPA is not exactly where I would wish it would be but I am working hard to fix it,” said Cisnero. She says she also realized that the people she considered her friends influenced her in negative ways.
“I actually relied a lot this year on my boyfriend, [who] helped me stay on track and made sure I had what I needed to succeed,” she said. “I also just realized what I needed to get done.”
Cisnero is one of 25 fellows in the OneGoal program at Waltrip. A similar program is also underway at Booker T. Washington in the Leader area.
OneGoal is a non-profit organization which started in Chicago in 2007 as an afterschool program called Urban Students Empowered with its headquarters at a Caribou Coffee. Over the next five years OneGoal evolved from an afterschool program to an in-school, three-year model.
What’s unique about OneGoal is that the program doesn’t target the top performers in a class – because those students already have opportunities, but rather those whose college prospects are narrower. OneGoal fellows come into the program with an average of 2.7 GPA, a 876 SAT, and a 15 ACT score. Students are in for three years, starting with their Junior year of high school, and finishing after their first year of college.
A University of Chicago evaluation advised by Nobel Laureate James Heckman found that OneGoal increases college enrollment and college persistence rates by 10 to 20 percentage points.
“In the first five years of programming, [the founders] saw students deeply engage in their college path with unprecedented enthusiasm, and those students had college enrollment and persistence rates well above those of their peers,” said OneGoal Manager of Development Brilliance Jones. “The leadership knew to make the impact we needed to close the college divide and ultimately allow for real opportunity for all students, we needed to prove ourselves beyond Chicago, and after a rigorous search, Houston was selected as the first expansion region.”
Jones says that OneGoal’s partnership with Waltrip stemmed from a relationship that they already had with Principal Dale Mitchell through a partnership with his former campus.
OneGoal is now in Chicago, Houston, New York, Massachusetts, and Metro Atlanta with plans of expanding into the Bay Area.
“Essentially, we look at student demographics [at a school] and where we believe our program can have a significant impact on the post-secondary – and life – opportunities that our students are able to access and the general college-going culture,” said Jones. “Now that we have some more established partnerships within Houston, we utilize our networks of principals, district leaders, and other stakeholders to connect us to other school leaders, teachers, stakeholders on new campuses to start conversations about partnership and take it from there.”
After a school is selected, a teacher needs to be chosen to lead the program.
“We are looking for effective teachers who are culturally competent, and can build strong relationships with students,” said Jones. “Individuals who take full ownership of their failures as well as their successes, and truly believe that all students deserve the opportunity to go to college if they so choose.”
At Waltrip, this teacher is Jennifer Donaldson. She was approached by Principal Mitchell last year about OneGoal.
“I have always enjoyed working with students outside of the classroom in clubs and coaching so OneGoal seemed like a great fit to merge academics and extra-curricular,” Donaldson says.
Donaldson and her students spent much of the first semester team building since many of the students did not know each other. She also challenged them to think about why they wanted to go to college.
For Waltrip OneGoal fellow – and first generation college student — Marbella Ledesma, the first class was a unique experience.
“At first, I had to warm up to the idea that I was going to be deciding my future education with a few random strangers,” she said.
But now the class members are not strangers, but friends, who are rooting each other on.
“I never expected them to help each other so much,” said Donaldson. “It’s refreshing to see the kids together. You don’t get that bond always.”
The challenge for Donaldson is time.
“OneGoal provides this incredibly well-organized and curated curriculum that keeps the students engaged and constantly asking questions,” she said. “I know what needs to be taught, we work through the material and feedback is returned to the students but there are just so many teachable moments that occur in our 53 minutes a day.”
The results so far, do show that the program is working. Donaldson says that forty percent of her students show GPA growth, notable in a junior year which includes Pre-Cal and Physics. The expectation for all the OneGoal students is As and Bs and fellows have organized their own study groups. They also have one SAT under their belts as a baseline to improve upon. Fellows are narrowing in on seven best fit colleges, one of which is a reach, that they will apply to next year.
Overall in Houston’s OneGoal schools – which have two graduating classes so far – 78 percent of students have enrolled in college, and of those who enrolled last year, 86 percent persisted into sophomore year, according to Jones. Ninety-eight percent of Fellows enrolled in OneGoal graduated from high school.
At Waltrip this spring, enthusiasm is running high.
“Our class motto is, ‘One Goal or No Goal’ and the students designed a class mascot which symbolizes their – and our – dreams,” said Donaldson. “We aren’t perfect but they are steering towards it each day. It’s incredibly satisfying to witness a kid internalize their dreams and really commit to working hard for a long term goal.”