Despite school efforts to prepare them for college and the outside world, many of Sanford Jeames’ students at Eastside Memorial High School have never seen people of color in high-paying, high-powered jobs.
Jeames is working to change that.
His idea to partner the school’s students — nearly all whom are Hispanic or black and from low-income families — with college students and professionals of similar backgrounds in a long-term mentoring program received accolades Monday from other educators.
Jeames, the high school’s coordinator of health science programs, is the winner of the inaugural $10,000 Rather Prize, awarded to the best idea to improve education in Texas.
Jeames’ STEP Up Challenge, for Student Training and Enrichment Project, will help prepare the students to attend college and pursue majors and careers that are underrepresented in minority populations. The project will partner with two- and four-year colleges, community agencies and companies for internships and apprenticeships.
“Especially for students of color, it’s not that there is a lack of desire or ability, it’s the lack of exposure,” said Jeames, 50, who attended segregated schools in Alabama as a child and has earned a doctorate in health administration. He also is an adjunct professor at Huston-Tillotson University. “I really want to create those opportunities for students.
“We want our students to see themselves beyond high school. We want them to see themselves beyond the neighborhood they live in. … This is 2016, and we have a large segment of our population who don’t leave their neighborhood.”
The prize announcement, made Monday evening during SXSWedu, is particularly meaningful to embattled Eastside Memorial, a campus known for chronic low performance before making a remarkable turnaround in the past few years. The school underwent a churn of school leadership and programs, was closed by the state, was rebranded as two academies and almost was given to a charter school operator.
In 2013, the state threatened to close the school for the second time, even as gains were underway. Since then, the school has posted double-digit gains in graduation rates, hitting 94 percent last year, and passed state standards for the first time in 13 years. Last year, then-state Education Commissioner Michael Williams visited the school to announce it no longer was under threat of closure.
“Eastside Memorial’s idea is exciting to us because it really shows the completion of their comeback,” said Martin Rather, co-founder of the Rather Prize and grandson of longtime journalist and co-founder Dan Rather. “To be able to create an idea with a mentoring program and put that into place is going to set their kids up for success for many years and hopefully for other students across the state to be able to follow that model.”
Part of the prize money will provide students stipends in their apprenticeships, as well as proper interview attire.
“Many of our students don’t have neckties or dresses and clothing for professional interviews,” Jeames said.