Real-world learn­ing for at-risk youth

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ethan Mill­man

When she was in sev­enth grade, Cas­san­dra Thrower-Smith had a heart trans­plant, sav­ing her life but hin­der­ing her aca­demic progress.

Be­tween miss­ing months of school and the men­tal toll of liv­ing a dif­fer­ent life than the rest of her peers, Thrower-Smith’s grades be­gan to slip.

But with the help and sup­port of the Porter-Billups Lead­er­ship Academy, the re­cent high school grad will be at­tend­ing Regis Uni­ver­sity in the fall with a con­sid­er­able schol­ar­ship.

The pro­gram, started in 1995 by long­time Regis bas­ket­ball coach Lon­nie Porter, at­tempts to give at-

risk and low-in­come youth ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties that will pre­pare them for the real world. The academy started with 20 stu­dents and now has 178 en­rolled. For­mer NBA star and Den­ver na­tive Chauncey Billups teamed with Porter to ex­pand the pro­gram in 2006. Academy lead­ers hope to have 225 stu­dents in the pro­gram by 2020.

Billups, a long­time ad­vo­cate for chil­dren, said he wanted to be a part of the academy to give kids op­por­tu­ni­ties that would lead to more suc­cess sto­ries. The academy fills gaps left by large pub­lic schools that may not give some stu­dents the at­ten­tion they need, of­ten fo­cus­ing on pre­par­ing kids for real-life sit­u­a­tions, Billups said.

“We have a fi­nan­cial lit­er­acy class. They don’t do that in other schools,” Billups said. “We fo­cus on a lot of things (other schools) don’t teach in the school sys­tems. There are a lot of things we do that they just don’t do that are tan­gi­ble when you go out into the world.”

3-week pro­gram

The academy, a three-week-long sum­mer pro­gram at Regis, en­rolls stu­dents as they are en­ter­ing the fourth and fifth grade, keep­ing them in the pro­gram each sum­mer through their ju­nior year in high school. Stu­dents who fin­ish the academy and are ad­mit­ted to Regis are given a full-tuition schol­ar­ship to the uni­ver­sity.

“The big­gest thing is that we’re giv­ing them hope, op­por­tu­nity, ed­u­ca­tion and the skill set to be able to have a chance to be suc­cess­ful when they get out in the world,” Billups said. “For me it’s about giv­ing these kids a real chance to suc­ceed in life.”

Porter started PorterBillups when he was still coach­ing. He no­ticed many of his play­ers just weren’t aca­dem­i­cally pre­pared for col­lege and lacked the skills to get a job.

He wanted to change that.

“These were 18-yearold and 20-year-old kids who weren’t equipped to come to col­lege,” Porter said. “They didn’t know how to in­ter­view for jobs. They were miss­ing a lot of these skills. They might get book knowl­edge, but do they get com­mon sense? Life skills? Life lessons? Ba­sic things you need to live in our so­ci­ety, those weren’t taught.”

In­stead of fo­cus­ing on more tan­gi­ble re­cruit­ment fac­tors like grades or test scores as the academy picks par­tic­i­pants, stu­dents are eval­u­ated for their lead­er­ship qual­i­ties.

“You just see a kid and you can just tell,” said pro­gram di­rec­tor Staci Porter-Bent­ley. “You see that they take charge in the class­room, they ad­vo­cate for their class­mates, they’re the ones who vol­un­teer to do things.”

Fam­ily is all in

The pro­gram is fo­cused on kids, but when a stu­dent is ad­mit­ted to the academy, it’s a com­mit­ment for their en­tire fam­ily, Porter-Bent­ley said. Par­ents are ex­pected to en­cour­age their child’s ed­u­ca­tion and keep them on the right path. Some stu­dents leave af­ter the first few years if they’re not meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions.

“For our ris­ing fourth and fifth graders, we talk to them about why they’re here, what their pur­pose is and teach them to be lead­ers,” Porter-Bent­ley said. “If af­ter those cou­ple of years, if they don’t fit the mold, we let them know this might not be the pro­gram for them.”

Once in the pro­gram, the academy’s stu­dents take a va­ri­ety of classes rang­ing from tra­di­tional math and science classes to more spe­cial­ized cour­ses, like fi­nan­cial lit­er­acy and so­cial jus­tice. Each class is taught to en­cour­age di­a­logue and spec­i­fies stu­dent par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Me­gan Cof­fey Parker, a grad­u­ate of the pro­gram who now teaches at an el­e­men­tary school in Jef­fer­son County, said the in-depth classes she took while at Porter-Billups left a last­ing im­pact on how she looks at classes.

“When I’d be at Porter-Billups, I re­mem­ber that we’d go so much deeper with top­ics,” Parker said. “I grew to love classes like that. My love for that came from Porter-Billups.”

Parker also said that Porter-Billups left her with a de­sire to let stu­dents know how vi­tal an ed­u­ca­tion can be.

“Grow­ing up with­out taught me to ap­pre­ci­ate the op­por­tu­ni­ties that are there,” Parker said. “I want to give back and help kids like that. I know what it’s like to feel like there isn’t a lot out there. Porter-Billups lets kids know that ed­u­ca­tion can take them far.”

Be­yond an ed­u­ca­tion or a schol­ar­ship, for some Porter-Billups alumni, the academy was much more. Thrower-Smith said that as she was go­ing through surg­eries and health un­cer­tainty, the academy gave her a sup­port sys­tem.

“Dur­ing some of the years I was go­ing to classes, I wasn’t into it men­tally be­cause of the sit­u­a­tion I was in,” she said. “It’s hard when you aren’t liv­ing a nor­mal life. I learned that ev­ery­body has a story. Peo­ple can change your life. I had a lot of peo­ple who looked out for me there. Ms. Porter-Bent­ley, Mr. Porter, my teach­ers — they made sure I was OK. Be­cause I had them, I had peo­ple who were in­vested in me.”

Pro­vided by Regis Uni­ver­sity

For­mer NBA star Chauncey Billups talks with kids in the Porter-Billups Lead­er­ship Academy at Regis Uni­ver­sity. For 22 years, the academy has been help­ing stu­dents through their mid­dle school, high school and even col­lege ca­reers.

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