Touring the future

We believe kids need rich learning experiences outside of the classroom. Find out how the Historical Black Colleges and University Tours taking place in our Turnaround High Schools are impacting students.

Story by Valerie West.

 

Boarding a bus with 40 students for a weeklong tour may not seem like a dream spring break, but for Nicole McKinney, it’s one of the highlights of her year.

Nicole has spent 16 years in the United Way network — 12 of them in Detroit — and currently serves as the Director of High School Success for United Way, as a liaison to River Rouge, one of three schools in our Turnaround work, one of the schools in United Way’s High School Turnaround Initiative. The Turnaround Initiative was created in part to improve graduation rates in some of the city’s historically low-performing schools.

Nicole has been involved in the work since its inception. Her main function today is to work with schools to identify their needs and find resources through vendor partnerships and corporations to fill those gaps, which includes ACT preparation classes, a robotics club and mentorship programs.

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While touring HBCUs, students get a taste of what college life has to offer.

“These partnerships allow schools to bring in services that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to manage and instead focus on classroom instruction,” she said. “I feel proud and privileged to be a part of this work.”

Nicole offers her time and talents to foster meaningful relationships and experiences for the kids outside of business hours. Her biggest accomplishment has been managing the now-annual tour of Historical Black College and Universities (HBCU) that takes place over spring break. For many students, this tour will mark the first time they will travel outside the city of Detroit.

While she loves the opportunity to create these opportunities, the planning can be time-consuming.

“Sometimes, it’s very stressful, but this is what I am supposed to do. I think about the people who did something for me that changed my life, and I want to pass that on,” she said.

It’s become a popular experience for students, who overwhelming shared positive feedback about the trip in their feedback surveys.

“It made me realize that I should start to plan my future now and to look at all the opportunities that I have been given, and to appreciate them because not everyone had the opportunity to come and visit all these wonderful colleges,” wrote Janet, after attending the HBCU tour in 2014.

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The students also get to visit sites like the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, Tenn.

“It made me realize that I should start to plan my future now and to look at all the opportunities that I have been given, and to appreciate them because not everyone had the opportunity to come and visit all these wonderful colleges,” wrote Janet, after attending the HBCU tour in 2014.

The students not only get a taste of what college life has to offer, they also get to visit historic sites like the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., and the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, Tenn.

“Students need to see something beyond their own environments,” Nicole said. “They need rich experiences.”

And the HBCU spring break tour has become a coveted one. Students must meet grade requirements to be considered for the trip. Last year, when a local newspaper covered the school’s graduation, several of the students interviewed said the HBCU tour was the highlight of their school experiences.

The HBCU spring break program was so successful that Harper Woods, another school that’s a part of United Way’s High School Turnaround Initiative, also adopted it. Harper Woods is part of a second network of schools called the GM Network of Excellence, which was created thanks to a generous $27.1 million gift from the GM Foundation in 2010.

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For many students, this tour will mark the first time they will travel outside the city of Detroit.

For many of these students, the HBCU tour is the first real taste of what life after high school can offer.

As a first-generation college graduate, Nicole understands that students still need guidance after high school graduation, and she maintains many relationships with former students to offer that advice for those entering college.

“Sometimes when kids hit a barrier, like financial aid or getting a bad grade, they will drop out or change majors. They need a mentor.”

When talking about a River Rouge senior who wants to become a doctor, Nicole fights tears. The young man is from a family of six and would be the first in his family to attend college.

“Statistics would tell you that the odds are against him, but he can do it,” she said. “I want to see him become a doctor. This work is my purpose.”