With the start of the 2017-2018 academic year comes excitement for new beginnings. Whether it’s the first day of kindergarten or the long-awaited exit out of elementary school, the first day of school signifies the start of a new journey. For many, though, that new beginning isn’t always a cause for celebration, but rather a wake-up call that pretty soon, their fate will no longer lie in teachers and guidance counselors. Instead, it will lie in their ability to properly map out their future. For high schoolers in particular, the first day of school jitters are accompanied by a larger, sometimes daunting question: What’s next for me?
Since the fall of 2015, RVA Future has helped students within the Richmond Public School system answer that question. Growing out of the Mayor’s office’s efforts to support Richmond residents and foster community wealth-building, RVA Future has spent the past two years inside the five high schools they serve interacting with students at every level. The organization encapsulates the entirety of pre-collegiate preparation, from academic profile development to mapping out post-secondary education paths, and assisting in the college and financial aid application processes. Ultimately, students are encouraged to identify their career goals and possibilities, and then work backwards to develop an actionable plan to achieve them upon graduation.
Too often, students deny themselves the benefits of higher education, be it at a two-year or four-year institution. For first-generation college students who lack familial support through the application process, the chances that they’ll
even begin the process are bleak compared to those whose parents attended a college or university. This is why an organization like RVA Future is so crucial to today’s students. Far too many students in Richmond Public Schools (RPS) walk across the stage and earn their high school diploma completely in the dark about what’s next. Whether it’s community college, a four-year institution, the workforce, or the military, youth deserve mentors and leaders dedicated to helping them become productive members of society.
Toria Howell, Program Director at RVA Future, has dedicated her life’s work to ensuring all students—regardless of socioeconomic status—have equal opportunity for success after high school. Not only was she instrumental in launching the program, but she’s also hired a staff that believes in the potential of RPS students and works daily in the schools to provide support for both students and families alike.
“I graduated from RPS after attending Collegiate School for two years, and I saw disparities in my neighborhood that weren’t represented in my private school,” Howell explains. “[At Collegiate], we had full-time college advisors that worked with students to make sure they got into the best colleges, but kids in my neighborhood weren’t talking about college and career goals.”
According to their website, Collegiate School offers a challenging curriculum of academics and extracurricular experiences that prepare students to engage the challenges of a rapidly changing world with creativity and confidence. This disparity between Collegiate and the public school system sparked Howell’s interest in providing a support structure in her own community. With degrees in English and African American Studies from the University of Virginia and a Master’s degree in Education, she knew that in order to get to the root of the issue, she needed to experience education at all levels. Her résumé includes positions in both college advising and teaching, and now, with RVA Future, she’s able to approach college planning with a robust understanding of unique obstacles students face. Her top priority was getting into the schools, so the organization’s on-site Future Centers ensure that their full-time directors are a familiar face within each school they serve.
“Our directors’ job is two-fold,” she explains. “They provide direct services, such as helping students navigate the college application process, helping them with their scholarship essay, and assisting with the FAFSA application so they can receive student aid. Their
other job is to facilitate collaboration between other like-minded, like-missioned programs.”
The truth is that RPS has provided these types of resources before RVA Future arrived, but unfortunately, there was no centralized location that allowed easy access for students and families. With the Future Center, students now have a one-stop-shop for their post-secondary education path, with each organization working closely together to provide a dynamic and seamless experience for the student.
“RVA Future serves as a facilitator for collaborations between all of these programs and services,” says Howell. “There were far too many resources for us to not see better outcomes.”
Thanks to RVA Future, RPS is beginning to see those better outcomes.
The class of 2017 had 42% of 12th graders across five high schools complete at least one college application, an increase from the year prior. Additionally, 46% of students completed the FAFSA application, which is a 7% increase from RVA Future’s first year in RPS high schools. Lastly, RPS saw a 12% increase in students attending college, 7% higher than the organization’s initial goal of 5%.
With 88% of 12th graders connecting with Future Centers, it’s no surprise that these percentages are on the rise. Howell and RVA Future understand that this success is attributed to the collaborative effort between all programs and their commitment to making students’ access to resources as uncomplicated as possible.
The world of college applications and mapping out a career path can be intimidating, especially for students who may be the first of their family to begin such a journey. However, organizations like RVA Future peel back the layers, allowing students to see how tangible higher education and wealth-building is for them, despite their upbringing. RPS is filled with bright students who have purpose, potential, and passion to create their own destiny, and it’s up to the community to continue supporting these types of programs and initiatives.
It takes a village, and collectively, the Richmond community can help redefine what it means to be a product of Richmond Public Schools.