Community Stories

CAP And GOWN Project Prepares Underrepresented Students For College

Cap and Gown Project sends Huntsville's poorest students on college tours.

Isiah Franklin, a student at J.O. Johnson High School, describes himself as a normal student who loves video games and wants to go to college. But he also knows the hardship of having a single mother who had to keep him home from school for weeks at a time because she didn’t have gas money to drive him there.

He is only in the 10th grade, but he’s already faced more than most 15-year-olds will ever have to deal with. Franklin has lived in cheap motels and homeless shelters, changed schools 10 times, lived in seven cities and has struggled with hunger—every day.

“It’s normal for my first waking thought to be, ‘I wonder if my brother and I will get to eat today,’ because it’s a typical summer day, and we don’t get to eat school lunch,” Franklin said.

Franklin is also part of the CAP and GOWN Project, a group of students and teachers who take trips to college campuses in hopes of inspiring students in all areas of Huntsville to seek higher education. 

Chris Scribner and Emily Heller were Teach for America teachers in 2013 when they started CAP and GOWN. They decided to take a few students to Vanderbilt University, just to show them a college campus. And what started as an impromptu field trip turned into a motivating factor for the Johnson High School students.

“I’ve been suspended plenty of times, and every time I’ve been suspended, it has had zero affect on my behavior,” Franklin said. “What did have an affect on my behavior was knowing that if I maintained high attendance, good grades and [good] behavior in class, then I might be able to attend college tours.”

Both Scribner and Heller stayed on at Johnson after their Teach for America tenure expired.

In the past three years, Scribner and Heller—along with a handful of other teachers who chaperone—have taken 94 college tours to 57 campuses. They focus on historically black colleges and those who will help students financially.

In 2012, only 8% of Johnson High seniors reported matriculating to college right after their senior year. In 2015, 60% reported acceptance to a two or four-year college or university. One CAP and GOWN success story highlights a girl who recently earned a $250,000 scholarship to Georgetown University. 

Relating to Students

Scribner and Heller both say the magic happens when students get out of their familiar environment and see what can happen if they work hard in school.

One group of students in particular stands out. The rising seniors were freshmen in 2013 when CAP and GOWN started. Heller describes them as the proof point of the project and said their teachers consider them to be an outstanding class in every aspect.

Another student, Azende, was a behavioral challenge for all of his teachers, but after attending one college tour, he fell in love with the idea of continuing his education and was more engaged in school for the rest of that semester.

Emily Heller can relate to the students because she grew up in a similar situation—single mother who drank too much and an unemployed father. She understands how bringing baggage into the classroom can affect behavior and learning.

“My brothers suffered through some of the same kinds of things my students go through,” Heller said. “They got kicked out of our high school for various levels of behavioral problems, so I do see a lot of my brothers in my students.” 

Chris Scribner said most students respond to opportunity over discipline. While teaching students there are consequences for their actions, they are more focused on teaching them to strive for their dreams.

“If we don’t support our students now, we’re going to be supporting them one way or the other,” Scribner said. “We want to make sure our students are contributing to the community because they’re definitely smart enough.”

J. O. Johnson High School was closed in May, and teachers and students were moved to the new Jemison High School. Scribner and Heller plan to keep taking students on college tours.

Up until 2015, CAP and GOWN was funded by profits made at the Johnson wrestling matches whose team members Scribner coached. In May, CAP and GOWN received 501c3 status and will start raising funds through the Community Foundation.

Keep up with the CAP and GOWN Project by following them on Facebook or donating to the Community Foundation.

About the author

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Jessie Harbin

Jessie is a newlywed living in Meridianville with her husband and three dogs. She's learning to sail on their 26-foot sailboat in Guntersville. At the time of publication, nobody has fallen ill because of her cooking.

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