Grantee Spotlight

Creating a Way Out of No Way

Community Build Expands Options for At-Risk Students

By Marguerite Rigoglioso

In the low-income community of South Los Angeles, many high school students desperately want to get ahead, but sheer survival needs often prevent them from doing anything other than working at menial jobs –– or, worse, engaging in destructive or self-destructive behaviors.  Frequently their parents are homeless, jobless, or at risk for both.  Some have been raised in the foster care system, which cuts them off at age 18.  Many face violence both inside and outside of the home.

In such an environment, going to college can seem like a self-centered pipe dream. Most students figure they don’t have the grades for it, anyway.

Enter Community Build, a community development corporation established to address the causes of the civil unrest in LA in 1992 and create employment opportunities.  Since 2001, Community Build’s services have expanded to include a comprehensive college prep and retention program that shows students that a college degree is not only attainable but the best ticket to success.  Supported by scholarship grants from College Access Foundation of California over the last two years, Community Build is providing at-risk students with the skills and resources they need to get to college, do well, and graduate.

“We tell young people they really can’t help anyone else –– including their families –– unless they help themselves first,” says Keisa Davis, the manager of Community Build’s scholarship program.  Toward that end, the organization works with students “where they are,” says Davis, which means helping those who want to pursue higher education whether their GPA is a 2.5 or a 4.0.  Such a “no judgment” attitude has made them particularly successful at recruiting males to their program, despite the dismal rate of college going by young men of color.  “They see that we really care and that they have a place to go to if they’re dealing with family problems,” Davis says.

Community Build offers tutoring, academic advising, assistance with college and financial aid applications, SAT preparation, and college tours.  With CAFC funding, the organization has also awarded 59 scholarships in the last two years, ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 each.  The scholarships are flexible enough to address what Davis calls “the real barriers to college” –– the fees and living expenses for which families just don’t have the money, such as housing deposits, rent, airfare, books, and groceries.  “Our scholarships are all about what financial aid doesn’t cover.  Our aim is to offer a holistic approach through case-managed supportive services,” says Davis.

As a result, 59 students who would not have been able to go to college otherwise are now in their first or second years at schools in the California university, state, and community college systems –– as well as universities farther afield, ranging from historically black colleges to prestigious institutions such as Bucknell and Oberlin.

“Community Build is my sole support,” says scholarship recipient Junique Boswell, a freshman at San Francisco State, who plans to become a criminal defense attorney.  That support has also been emotional:  At the start of this semester, Boswell’s mother died and her father pressured her to come home.  Keisa Davis explains, “We stayed in close touch, contacted her dean of student affairs, directed her to a counselor on campus, and paid her airfare to come back for the funeral.  This is the very kind of situation where a student is otherwise likely to drop out.”

“Community Build does an excellent job helping students to embrace opportunities that will create better life circumstances for them and their families,” says CAFC program officer Tamara Moore.

“We’re very grateful to the foundation for investing in us and our students,” says Davis.

For more information on Community Build, click here.

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