ANNAPOLIS — Alonzo Washington made it out of the projects and into the Maryland State House, and now he has a new project of his own: help low-income students in the state obtain a higher education.
The 32-year-old delegate from Prince George’s County was in 8th grade and had just moved into public housing in Laurel when Joseph Fisher knocked on his door.
“He said, ‘I just want to introduce myself to you and your family.’ He talked to my mom of course,” Washington said. “He said, ‘I want to be able to help you out, this is my organization, this is what we do.’”
Fisher helped the future politician keep up his grades and finish high school, but Washington wasn’t enthusiastic for the help at the very beginning.
“I was just like, I don’t need nobody telling me to go to college, man,” Washington said. “I already had great grades in middle school. I was a straight A student, I knew where I was going to go, but I didn’t necessarily know how I was going to get there. And it was him that helped me fill in that gap.”
“I just watched that boy (Alonzo), and he’s unbelievable,” Fisher said. “I remember him very well. We had him in homework club, he graduated high school, and he knew where he wanted to go.”
Twenty-five years ago, Fisher created First Generation College Bound, a college access program in Prince George’s County to encourage and assist low-income students who are often, like Washington, the first in their families to go to college.
Washington and state Senator Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, each introduced bills this year to help college access programs such as First Generation College Bound with state-provided grants that would allow them to expand their services.
Both identical bills passed the legislature; Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday signed the Senate version.
“(Alonzo) got interested in seeing how we could get support to scale up programs like First Generation to reach more kids,” Rosapepe said. “He wanted to set up a competitive grant program at the state level to help those like the one in Prince George’s to help and reach more kids.”
The number of low-income students is growing in Maryland, and is at a 14-year high, according to data from Kids Count Data Center. A good indicator of low-income students are those receiving free and reduced-price lunch in public schools, and those numbers are increasing.
According to data from the Kids Count Data Center (http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data#MD/2/0), 43 percent of all Maryland students are receiving free and reduced-cost lunches. This is up from 2000, when 29 percent of Maryland students received free and reduced meals.
Baltimore City has the state’s highest rate, at 86 percent, of students receiving free and reduced school meals.
Somerset County was the second highest rate, at 73 percent.
Howard County had the fewest, at 20 percent of students receiving these meals.
Prince George’s County had 64 percent of their students receiving these meals, and Montgomery County had 35 percent of their students receiving these meals.
In terms of sheer number, Prince George’s County had the most students receiving free and reduced meals.
Of Maryland’s 392,525 students receiving these free and reduced lunches, 79,739 of those students were in Prince George’s County.
Washington, who hails from Hyattsville, said he wants to do something about this, and education is the best way to help secure a strong economic future.
The bill would require college access programs to keep records of how many students they help, scholarship information, high school graduation rates, college enrollment rates, and college retention and graduation rates. This would be shared with the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Essentially, the commission would team up with nonprofit college access programs that have the ability to raise money for their services. With the money Gov. Larry Hogan appropriates in the budget for the commission, they would match contributions for the nonprofits.
The bill leaves it up to the governor how much money the grant program gets for the two years of the pilot program. The bill would not take effect until next year.
Washington said he hoped for at least $250,000 for each year of the pilot program. The money would be split up among nonprofit college access programs in the state that applied for a grant. Washington and his staff worked with five college access programs devoting their efforts to first-generation and low-income students. These organizations would be required to demonstrate their fundraising ability, and the grant program would match it their request.
“While it may not appear to be a substantial financial investment, it’s still to be regarded as an important piece of the puzzle in solving a very important issue for the state,” said John Woolums, the director of governmental relations at Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
Washington said his job right now was to convince the governor that this program deserves to be fully funded — with at least a quarter of a million dollars.
“I’m not letting up. If it’s unfunded, it’s not going to work,” Washington said.
Leaders of these college access programs are cautiously feeling the excitement.
When Fisher started his organization 25 years ago, he started with 10 students. Last year, he helped 160 students matriculate to college, he said, and he can imagine doubling that with grants.
The legislation “put language in place for us to help close that information gap needed for low-income kids to attend college,” Fisher said.
Data from Maryland Report Card, which uses Maryland education data, shows that in 2014, 88 percent of Maryland students graduated from high school (not including people who get GEDs) and 67 percent of those students went to college within 12 months of graduating high school. This is an increase over 2010, when 82 percent of Maryland students graduated from high school.
Maryland Report Card also reported in 2014 that 70 percent of students with a high school diploma went to college within 16 months of graduating high school, and 72 percent went within 25 months of graduating high school.
Low-income students face a lot of challenges to make it to college, said Rachel Mazyck, president of Collegiate Directions Inc., a Bethesda-based college access program.
One major problem is college affordability, and learning about financial aid.
“Some students have some sense of how much college costs but not a real sense of where they can find the money,” Mazyck said. “So we talk very clearly about finding financial aid, applying for scholarships and developing a budget and moving towards whatever financial goals you have even beyond college.”
Washington was one of the students who struggled to make it to college. Though academically gifted and bright, he grew up with five siblings raised by a single mother in public housing, and their family was evicted from their home when he was in the 11th grade, he said.
Under Fisher’s watchful eye, Washington stayed the path to higher education and matriculated to the University of Maryland, College Park, graduating in 2007 with a degree in criminal justice and criminology.
In addition to being a state delegate, Washington now works as a program manager at Prince George’s County Redevelopment Authority, helping to revitalize neighborhoods and boost property values by empowering businesses and residents to improve their building’s interiors and exteriors.
The Maryland Higher Education Commission itself has a number of grant and financial aid programs for low-income students in the state, said Jon Enriquez, the commission’s director of the Office of Research and Policy Analysis. They also do outreach and have community programs to give primary school students information that would demystify the college application process.
“We hope a program like this would accomplish some of the goals stated in the program, which is increased opportunity for low-income students,” Enriquez said.
One issue with the way the bill was passed is that there is no set budget, Enriquez said, so it would be hard to guess what the tangible effects of a partnership between the commission and nonprofit college access programs will look like.
“The idea of the grant is to help bring in partnerships from organizations that work with low-income students, and so we would be open to, interested in ideas that they might bring to the table,” Enriquez said.
Oftentimes, high-achieving low-income students “undermatch,” said Gail Sunderman, director of the Maryland Equity Project.
“The thing about undermatching, students just don’t think about applying to either the flagship or an Ivy League or those kinds of schools because they think they’re very expensive,” Sunderman said.
“What’s oftentimes the case with the more Ivy League kind of colleges, if a low-income student gets in, they might get more financial aid than if they go to a more selective college, but students don’t know that and aren’t so inclined to think they can apply to those.
The Equity Project is a University of Maryland research program focusing on state educational policy.
Part of the challenge in addressing low-income students’ education opportunities is helping them recognize their potential and ensure they don’t underestimate themselves, and help them avoid “undermatching.”
“It’s already been documented and proven over and over and over again that environment hinders learning, you know, due to lack of resources,” Fisher said. “Whether it’s material or human. And socially, economically deprived communities, they lack those resources and as a result, the skills and resources they have to achieve.”
Alicia Wilson credits College Bound Foundation, a Baltimore-based college access program for her success as a lawyer at Baltimore firm Gordon Feinblatt.
The youngest of three children, she was unsure she could afford to go to college straight out of high school.
“I was real with the situation that I might not be able to afford to go to college straight from high school, and might have to defer that dream to work before college,” Wilson said. “So I chose a vocational trade school to have the training to go straight to the workforce and work my way through college.”
Then she became involved with College Bound Foundation.
“Obstacles that could have been obstacles, like money or confidence for me, weren’t an obstacle,” Wilson said.
She went on to study at University of Maryland, Baltimore County for her undergraduate degree and then attended the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. She had full scholarships to both schools, and now does all she can to raise money for the program she credits for her success.
Jimmy Tadlock, College Bound Foundation’s program director, said part of what they need to do to ensure students who make it to college don’t drop out is coach them on all things financial.
Pell Grants, much like free and reduced price lunches, are a good indicator of low-income students, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Across the state, of the students who receive Pell Grants, only 76 percent of them make it past their first year in college, and 47 percent of students who receive Pell Grants go on to graduate, according to a Maryland Higher Education Commission report.
Tadlock said one of the biggest issues he has seen involves housing for students who go to college, and they don’t realize that they were supposed to put down a deposit or assume that it is automatically covered by financial aid and they don’t have to handle it themselves.
Students are also not always aware they need to buy their own textbooks and school materials that were provided to them in K-12 schools, Tadlock said.
These are kinds of problems that discourage students right off the bat, and sometimes students who feel wholly unprepared drop out.
Understanding the application process is integral, Mazyck said.
“We focus on getting students to college, but 1 out of 10 first-generation, low-income students who gets to college actually graduates from college,” Mazyck said. “So all our work to get them into college might be lost if a student isn’t actually coming out with a degree.”
Rosapepe said colleges need to be more proactive about recruiting low-income students, instead of putting the burden on these students to make their way to a higher education institution on their own.
“Most low-income people have a lot of problems. When you add to that, a selection admissions system built for educated middle-class people, it’s a mismatch,” Rosapepe said.
“So they need to change the way they do business at the colleges to recruit. The campuses are not shy about recruiting athletes.”
The process of getting students interested in education, especially higher education, has to start in elementary school, said Cheryl Bost, the vice president of Maryland State Education Association.
An elementary teacher in Baltimore for 26 years, Bost said she believes in a hands-on approach that shows students everything they can achieve if they keep furthering their education.
“I would get the kids out to Annapolis, other parts of the state, so they could see life in a different place and have different experiences,” Bost said. “Go camping, nature walks. Low-income students don’t see life beyond where they walk and where the bus can take them.”
Bost said that higher education should not be narrowly defined as a four-year institution.
“We can’t ignore the technical and vocational programs,” she said. “They have to see a bigger variety of things they can do. Four-years are one of them but not the only option.”
After Washington’s four years at the University System of Maryland’s flagship campus, he became the youngest chief of staff for now-Delegate Will Campos, D-Prince George’s, when Campos was on the Prince George’s County Council. He ran for the Democratic Central Committee for Prince George’s County, then was promoted to the State House as a delegate in 2012 after former Delegate Justin Ross retired, leaving a seat open.
He won his seat again in the fall, and he joked about now he is now senior to Campos, whom he worked for years before.
Washington said he wanted to give back, but when it came to creating change in his community, he was impatient waiting for it. When it came down to it, he took matters into his own hands.
“We face a lot, man. We face social issues, we face health issues, sometimes there’s even hunger issues that some of our kids face,” Washington said.
“That’s why this bill is so important, because here it is, an opportunity that some family who is qualified for them but don’t know about them. We face an educational, informational disadvantage.”