FEATURE — Spring 2007
   

 
Euclid Williamson (center, back) stays in close contact with Target Hope alumni as they continue their educational journeys through undergraduate and often graduate school. The group forms an extended family that offers ongoing support and encouragement. Students, from left, are Judge Gardner, Engineering Class of ’07; Tiffany Onyemaobi, Arts & Sciences Class of ’09; Ogechukwu Ezeokoli (seated), Arts & Sciences Class of ’09; Whitney Wade, Arts & Sciences Class of ’09; and Natalie Morgan, Arts & Sciences Class of ’08.

High Hopes

Washington University has a growing relationship with the Target Hope program of Chicago; together the organizations are ensuring academically talented students succeed in school, and in life.

by Rick Skwiot

Euclid Williamson has a dream. His dream is based on a belief that all students can be successful with the right opportunities and support. Washington University also believes in this dream and has become a staunch supporter of Williamson and his program of hope.

In 1994, Williamson founded Target Hope with a three-prong mission for students in Chicago: to ensure high school completion, to advance college admission and retention, and to promote graduate and professional school preparation. He based his strategy on positive solutions, creating support systems and safety nets. Although many Target Hope students encounter seemingly insurmountable challenges, thanks to the intervention of Target Hope, those who enter the program and dedicate themselves receive a new lease on a bright future.

Target Hope is only one of several programs across the country helping Washington University find the most talented students from all neighborhoods and backgrounds, including students with low socioeconomic and educational resources, says John Berg, associate vice chancellor for admissions.

“These are bright, talented students who haven’t always gotten the help they deserve in school,” he says. “They are wonderful young people, and they possess unique experiences, knowledge, and perspectives that broaden and enrich all of us.”

Yet of those partner programs that target at-risk students, Target Hope stands out, says Berg, thanks to Euclid Williamson.

“Euclid really knows the students. For us, it’s like having a friend in Chicago who calls and tells us, ‘This is a neat kid.’ And he’s always right. Every one is an exceptional young person of sound character, academic talent, and the drive to succeed. And they’re good kids, too,” says Berg, “students you want in your community.”

Reversing dropout rates

Williamson, who has a background in political science, psychology, and public administration, founded the rigorous, Saturday morning scholarly achievement academy in 1994 in answer to the failure of Chicago Public Schools to adequately educate at-risk minority students.

Since then, while Chicago public high school dropout rates hover near 50 percent, Target Hope has seen 100 percent of its 2,790 students finish high school and start college, 98 percent graduate from college within five years, and 41 percent go on to graduate and professional schools. This despite what Williamson calls “institutional barriers.”

“When I first presented my plan to the Chicago Public Schools,” says Williamson, “they told me that no one would attend.”

But attend they have: Over the years, thousands of high school students have made a commitment to spend Saturday mornings throughout the school year on the downtown campuses of DePaul or Robert Morris universities. There they study math, English, and writing with university professors; read the inspirational works of successful minority Americans; and receive support and instruction to deal with social and emotional roadblocks they all face. This support doesn’t end after high school graduation. Williamson follows each student’s progress.

“It’s simple,” he says. “Smart kids drop out of high school, and smart kids don’t finish college.”

And for financially disadvantaged kids, failure carries stiff penalties. “If their college GPA falls,” continues Williamson, “they lose their scholarship and end up working at places like discount stores.”

But Target Hope—with the aid of Washington University and other institutions—successfully short-circuits failure with care and high hopes, and a built-in support system and mentoring program.

A visionary leader

Target Hope’s success has come about in large part due to the vision and inspiration of its founder.

“Euclid Williamson is a visionary leader and a wonderful role model who has had a remarkable record of success,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “What Target Hope has been able to accomplish over the years is truly exceptional. Washington University has been fortunate to be a part of this effort and to have been able to enroll many talented students nurtured by Target Hope.”

Former Target Hope student Sabrine (Boncy) Rhodes earned a bachelor’s degree in black studies and a master’s degree in social work. While at the University, she met Stephen Rhodes, B.S.B.A. ’01, M.A.Ed. ’04. The two subsequently married and now have a son, Seth Xavier.

Since the first Target Hope class graduated in 2002, all of the program’s students have graduated from Washington University in four years, and most have gone on to graduate school.

Jim McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, echoes that praise of Williamson and his students.

“We always look forward to seeing Euclid and his students when they travel to campus each year for a visit. This is a talented group of motivated students,” says McLeod. “Euclid Williamson is a superb leader and teacher. He is inspirational [and] gifted in so many ways—everyone who meets him wants to help him fulfill the mission of Target Hope.”

That mission, at its essence, seems clear and obvious: “Kids need to feel loved and nurtured,” says Williamson. “They need to feel that people have high expectations for them. They need people who are supportive, people they can turn to.”

For many, a surrogate family

That support comes in many ways for these inner-city youths from communities torn by gang violence and schools where they face derision and hate for striving to achieve academically, says Williamson.

“We provide a safe haven where excellence can be rewarded and celebrated,” he says. “We also have professionals who lecture on self-esteem, relationships, AIDS, substance abuse, and conflict resolution.”

And, when recommended, Target Hope collaborates with social-service organizations for counseling. It’s that sort of social support, which public schools don’t provide, Williamson says, that helps Target Hope students succeed.

“At times we serve as a surrogate family. We’ve dealt with kids with a 4.0 GPA but who were homeless and still needed support,” he says.

Excellence expected, excuses unaccepted

A key ingredient in Target Hope’s recipe for success is Williamson’s rock-solid belief in the intellectual gifts and energy of students—and his insistence that all of his students work for success. “I think all kids are capable,” he says.

“We don’t look at grades or ACT scores,” says Williamson. “We simply have students write an essay telling why they are interested in learning.”

“Mr. Williamson holds everyone to high standards regardless of background,” continues Sabrine Rhodes. “He tells us we can meet the mark, whatever the mark might be. He doesn’t allow anyone to settle for mediocrity.”

Students are admitted solely on the basis of that essay—and a stated commitment to attend the academy on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for 10 months each year.

“Excellence is expected,” says former Target Hope student Sabrine (Boncy) Rhodes, “excuses not accepted.”

After graduating from Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Rhodes earned a WUSTL bachelor’s degree in black studies and master’s degree in social work. She also married a Washington U. alumnus, Stephen Rhodes, who is an investment advisor, and she worked as a school social worker. She’s now the mother of an infant son, Seth Xavier, and is embarking on a career as an artist, creating charcoal and gray pastel portraits and renderings.

“Washington U. wasn’t on my radar. I hadn’t considered it because of the tuition costs,” she says. “But Mr. Williamson encouraged me to explore new options and experiences. It wasn’t just about tuition but showing us we were able to enter and succeed.

“Mr. Williamson holds everyone to high standards regardless of background,” continues Rhodes. “He tells us we can meet the mark, whatever the mark might be. He doesn’t allow anyone to settle for mediocrity.”

One way Target Hope helps high school students explore new options is through an annual two-week campus bus tour with stops in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and St. Louis—including Washington University, which, says Williamson, has given Target Hope exceptional support, including extensive financial aid for its students.

In addition to hosting Target Hope students on their yearly campus tour, the University stages an annual graduate and professional school conference for Target Hope collegiate undergrads.

“Washington University funds the program entirely. No one else we’ve worked with has done that,” says Williamson. “They put together a great program, and Mark Wrighton comes on Saturday to open the conference and comes back on Sunday evening at its close. How many chancellors or college presidents would do that?”

Helping students believe in themselves

Williamson carries out his mission on a shoestring budget, without a cent of federal money, relying on grants from private foundations and some corporate support.

“The model we’ve done doesn’t take a lot of money, but it does take leadership and moral and philosophical change,” says Williamson.

“And Target Hope is not the only success. There are other models as well,” he says. “I don’t know why [public schools] don’t get it and reform themselves.”

Williamson first developed the Target Hope model with African-American students and since has successfully applied it in Chicago’s Latino communities as well.

“We found it can work with any group,” he says. “You have to be creative and ask students: ‘What are your needs?’”

Those needs even extend to pocket money for entering freshmen. Williamson recounts moving two incoming Target Hope students from Chicago to the Washington University campus via bus, only to discover one had come to college with but $32, the other with only $20. So, like a father, Williamson dug into his wallet.

Indeed, Target Hope students view the organization like an extended family.

Natalie Morgan, a junior Spanish major, said that as a Target Hope high school senior she benefited from Target Hope graduates coming back to talk with and counsel her and others. Likewise, when she came to Washington University, Target Hope members were there to greet her.

“The Target Hope network is like a family that’s already established on campus: someone to cling to, someone from Chicago, people who are like brothers and sisters,” says Morgan.

Likewise, Morgan feels a sense of community and responsibility for Target Hope students coming behind her. “Now it’s my turn to help them so they don’t fall through the cracks.”

Whitney Wade, a sophomore psychology and African and African American studies major, says that the Target Hope network extends beyond Washington University to campuses across the country.

“We can call them anytime and talk to them,” says Wade. “There’s a range of personalities and talents in Target Hope students, who reinforce what happens in the classroom. We always look out for each other and keep up with the idea of being a family.”

That sort of individualized help and care lies at the foundation of Target Hope’s substantial success.

Rick Skwiot is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.