Education initiative allows high school senior to shadow UT students

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rza Independent High School senior Emelia McKay accompanies UT junior Stephanie McCoy, Kinesiology and exercise science major, to class as part of the Garza Initiative, a program that encourages students to continue their education after high school. The initiative pairs college mentors with high school students, many of which did not fit into traditional school settings, to show them the opportunities available in college.

Photo Credit: Tamir Kalifa | Daily Texan Staff

A group of University students has taken the initiative to show underprivileged, underrepresented and unique high school students what they have the ability to do.

From Monday through today, the senior class of Garza Independence High School has been shadowing UT students from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. GIHS is an alternative, self-paced high school for students who were not able to finish or fit into a traditional high school setting and is part of Austin Independent School District.

Damilola Olatayo was an officer for the Gates Scholarship fund and decided to develop a plan to adopt Austin High School’s and create more Gates Scholars. However, Olatayo wanted to do more for Garza after being given a tour of the high school and founded the UT Garza Initiative before becoming its executive director.

“After talking to the teachers and the students, I realized this is really like a family,” she said. “This is really a second-chance school. The teachers just truly and utterly care about the students. They love the kids and they love what they do.”

Members of the initiative hope to provide scholarships, tutoring and guidance to students at GIHS, Olatayo said. They decided to create Shadow Week after hearing that some students had never been to a college campus, and some were born in Austin but had never been to UT, she said.

“I said, this can’t be the case,” she said. “Some of the kids who never even thought about education, some of their parents have been calling saying, I don’t know what you guys did at UT, but my son and daughter wants to go to college. When I heard that, they told the principal it makes me feel as though we’re making a difference as opposed to just visiting the school every now and then.”

About 57 students are visiting UT per day, and all are paired up with a UT student mentor, Olatayo said. Four teachers come along from GIHS, she said.

While the school’s graduation rate is more than 90 percent, many graduates have children at home or live on their own and have to hold down a job, said Linda Webb, principal of GIHS and UT alumna. GIHS is tailored to students who are in danger of dropping out, and students must have 10 high school credits to get into GIHS, she said.

“These are kids who want an opportunity to go to college,” she said. “Life may have dealt them a different hand, the comprehensive school just doesn’t work for them.”

More than 80 percent of Garza students are federally at economic risk, and the school was just awarded the Gold Performance Acknowledgement from the Texas Education Agency for having more kids ready for college, Webb said.

“We are so excited and just thrilled that these young people are taking an interest and giving back before they even get out of college,” she said. “I think they know they’re doing something wonderful, but I do not believe that they yet understand the impact it’s having on kids who’ve been told before, ‘They’re not gonna make it,’ and to have this experience that says ‘Not only can you make it, this is what it’s going to look like when you do, is thrilling.”

GIHS creates a good environment for kids who feel like they can’t excel in a traditional high school setting, said GIHS senior Matthew Krausse. It creates a positive atmosphere and a self-paced setting for students who could be working nights, working two jobs or trying to support their families, he said.

“Today, I went to an organic chemistry class, and it was really cool,” he said. “I didn’t understand a lot of it obviously. It was a second year class, but it was a great learning experience just to be able to see exactly how UT works.”

Published on Wednesday, Novermber 9, 2011 as: Garza High seniors get feel for life as UT students