Raising the Bar for Teacher Training

Teacher training is critical to student success. But despite high-profile education reforms such as Common Core standards and a new state education funding formula, teacher preparation is still not getting the attention it deserves. That's one of the conclusions of "Preparing World Class Teachers," a new study by the education think tank EdSource. We talk to the report's co-author and other education experts about model programs and the best way to reform teacher preparation and credentialing.

New State Law Defines Consensual Sex, Aims to Fight Campus Assaults

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a law that makes California the first state in the country to legally define consensual sex. The "yes means yes" law aims to improve how colleges investigate and prevent sexual assaults by requiring "an affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement" for sex. Victims' advocates are cheering the measure -- but critics say it's too broad and puts an unfair burden of proof on those falsely accused of sexual assault.

PBS NewsHour

Why did no one flag UNC’s bogus classes?

Georgia Tech v North Carolina

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GWEN IFILL: For many years, the University of North Carolina has been a powerhouse in the world of college sports, enhanced by a reputation as an institution which cultivates student athletes.

But, yesterday, an independent investigator provided the most detailed look yet at academic fraud that lasted for nearly two decades and included bogus classes where students didn’t even need to show up.

Earlier this year, the HBO program Real Sports examined what was happening there.

Here’s an excerpt.

The correspondent is Bernard Goldberg.

BERNARD GOLDBERG, HBO Real Sports: At the University of North Carolina, learning specialist Mary Willingham was baffled by what she was seeing from the athletes arriving at one of America’s most prestigious schools.

MARY WILLINGHAM: They’re coming in with reading levels of fourth, fifth, sixth grade. There’s even some who are reading below a fourth grade level.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: You are saying that some kids who are admitted to the University of North Carolina, one of the best public colleges in America, with a fourth grade or even in some cases lower than a fourth grade reading level?

MARY WILLINGHAM: That’s correct. Makes it pretty hard to go to college, doesn’t it?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: You would think. And for many years, the NCAA had a rule to help ensure incoming athletes could handle college work, requiring them to score a certain level on standardized tests, like the SAT or the ACT.

But in 2003, that rule was revoked. Colleges could now put athletes on the football field or basketball court no matter how they did on the tests. And, soon, the term college education began to take on a whole new meaning.

MARY WILLINGHAM: I worked with letters and sounds with some basketball players and some football players.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Give me a demonstration, letters and sounds.

MARY WILLINGHAM: So I start to just show you cards, like a deck of cards, and I hold up C, and I say to you, Bernie, what is this letter? And you say?


MARY WILLINGHAM: And I say, what sounds does the letter C make, and you say?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Either kuh or suh.

MARY WILLINGHAM: And let’s move on.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: But the kid’s in college.

MARY WILLINGHAM: One particular player said to me, please teach me to read well enough, Mary, so that I can read about myself online.

How about this — this letter?

BERNARD GOLDBERG: Teaching phonics to college students may sound absurd, but at UNC and many other big-time sports schools, it was suddenly very important business, because the NCAA’s new policy that eliminated minimum SAT and ACT scores for athletes came with a catch. Roughly half the athletes on each team would have to graduate, or the schools wouldn’t be allowed to compete in the postseason, and would lose out on millions.

That’s one of the reasons, Mary Willingham says, big-time athletes at UNC were funneled into custom-made no-show classes they couldn’t possibly fail.

MARY WILLINGHAM: They would just have to turn in a paper at the end of the semester. There was no class.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: When you say no class, you mean no class?


BERNARD GOLDBERG: They didn’t ever go to class?

MARY WILLINGHAM: They never went to close.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: So, they never took a test.

MARY WILLINGHAM: They never took a test.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: They wrote a paper.

MARY WILLINGHAM: Not really wrote a paper, but maybe copy and pasted a paper from a book or from an Internet site.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: This is a bad joke, what you are describing.

MARY WILLINGHAM: It was a horrible joke. No learning took place.

MIKE MCADOO: I was like, hold up, you know, I got a class. I’m getting credited three hours, and I never have to go.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: That’s not all that surprised Mike McAdoo when he arrived at UNC to play football.

MIKE MCADOO: When I got there, they already had what we were going to major in.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: But you’re not suggesting, Michael, that somebody handed you a piece of paper and said, here are your classes?

MIKE MCADOO: That’s what happened.

GWEN IFILL: Former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein led the investigation that unearthed the new details. He’s a partner at the firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. I spoke with him from Chapel Hill earlier today.

Kenneth Wainstein, thanks for joining us.

Could you, first of all, start by describing the scope of the fraud in years, numbers of students and types of students involved?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft: Well, what we found in our investigation is this is a scheme that went back to 1993, from 1993 to 2011.

There were about 3,100 students that took the paper classes. And the paper classes were classes which, though many of them were designated as lecture classes, they never actually met for lectures. The students never met with a professor. There were no professors or faculty members involved.

And the class was completely managed by the office administrator, and the office administrator did the grading. Of the kids who took those classes, a little over 50 percent, about 51 percent of them were non-athlete students, so regular students. But a good 48, 49 percent of them were student athletes, which is striking, given that only 4 percent of the student body were student athletes.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s start by explaining just the student athlete piece of this. Was this designed to help them remain eligible to keep playing on Tar Heel teams?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Yes, it’s an interesting question. This is one thing we have looked very carefully at. Why did these classes get established and why were they maintained?

We found that really they were established by the office administrator in the African Studies Department. She did it because she — frankly, she had had a tough experience as a student here in Chapel Hill, felt that she wasn’t supported, and felt that she wanted to do something to help kids who had troubles, who were having difficulty getting through their curriculum.

So she is the one who set up these classes, made them available to students and student athletes and non-student athletes. And then you had a number of counselors who were the counselors for the student athletes who saw these classes, and saw them as an opportunity to boost the GPAs of their players and maintain their eligibility to play NCAA sports.

GWEN IFILL: Describe what you mean by paper classes, bogus classes. We keep hearing the term shadow curriculum. How did that work specifically?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Yes, another important part of our investigation was to find out what these classes really were.

And what we determined is that these were classes where the office administrator in the African Studies Department would sign kids up for a class, sometimes designated as a lecture class, but the class would never meet. The student wouldn’t have any work that he or she would have to do, other than a single paper that would have to be turned in at the end of the year. That paper would get turned in, but it wouldn’t get graded by a faculty member.

It would get graded by the office administrator, really the secretary of the African Studies Department. And she would basically give an A or a B-plus to any paper that got turned in, no matter how good it was. And we saw some which were very strong papers, kids did a lot of work, others which were terribly subpar and really were just filled with copied material, which meant that a kid got a high grade for a three-hour class for doing nothing more than just turning in a paper that had a bunch of copied material in it.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Wainstein, we have been hearing about this scandal at UNC for some years now. But it’s kind of shocking how long it went on. How was it allowed to go on for so long?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Well, that’s another part of our investigation I think that has really caught people’s attention, which is, here you have a university which really is one of the finest universities, always has been and is now one of the finest universities in the country, and is one that is completely committed to the highest ideals and standards of academia.

And the question is, how in the world could this go on for so long, about 19 years, in a school like that? And what we found is that there just simply wasn’t the oversight that was needed. You had a university that I think was populated by people who were high-caliber academicians and administrators who trusted each other to be — to do the right thing by the students. And the vast majority of people did.

And, you know, they — so they didn’t think that they really needed to look. There was a bit of a blind spot there. And in addition, I think you saw this attitude that if we have too much micromanagement, maybe that’s going to undercut the independence and the creativity of the professors and of the academics.

And so, because of both those reasons, they just didn’t have a tradition of having strict oversight. And, as a result, you had a department and this office administrator and her department chairmen who were able to carry this on for all those years. And it just wasn’t detected at the higher levels of the administration.

And I can tell you that that has been changed over the last few years. The university has put those oversight mechanisms in place, so this can’t happen again.

GWEN IFILL: You mention a bit of a blind spot. Along the way, did any of the sports coaches or any of the professors object? Did they raise the red flag?

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Well, you had limited knowledge around the university of exactly what these classes were.

You had a lot of people who knew that these were easy classes, that you didn’t actually have to show up to class. They were being taught as an independent study. But you had only a limited number of people who really knew that these classes, you know, didn’t involve a professor at all. So you had no faculty member, and that they were absolutely being run and the papers were being graded by an office administrator.

But of those people who did know about that, a number of them were counselors over in the athletics — in the program that provides academic advising to athletes. And they didn’t raise their hand. They didn’t say that these problems existed. And, in fact, they took advantage of them.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, UNC is not alone in this. A lot of universities have been implicated in these kinds of questionable activities.

And it makes you wonder if the term student athlete is a little bit backyard at this point.

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Well, there have been other schools that have had some problems. And those have been reported, and the NCAA has dealt with some of them over the years.

And I think if there is one positive outcome to this whole episode, and I think there will be several, but one of them is, I think any university around the country that reads this is probably going to step back and think, boy, we better go look and see whether there is something like this here.

That look-back didn’t happen with UNC. And they regret that greatly, because had they looked back, looked in their own — on their own campus to see whether this kind of problem existed, they would have found it and hopefully would have prevented a bunch of kids getting deficient educations for a number of years.

GWEN IFILL: Kenneth Wainstein, thank you for your investigation and your report.

KENNETH WAINSTEIN: Thank you very much. Good to talk to you.

GWEN IFILL: University administrators say they have already started taking several steps to make sure similar abuses don’t happen again. That includes spot checks to make sure classes are indeed taking place, real reviews of an athlete’s eligibility, and the creation of confidential channels, so employees can report potential problems.

Nine employees have been fired or disciplined so far.

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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On campus, fight Ebola panic with information

         by the NewsHour's American Graduate Project

Students work in class at the School of Health Professions at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center, where students prepare for careers in health services. Photo by Joel Aguilar

How does an off-hand comment about Ebola turn into campus-wide panic? Like this:

teacherslounge“Mr. Aguilar, we have students texting and saying that a student on campus has Ebola,” Nurse Belk told me after a student was sent home for an ear problem.

“Why are they saying that?”

“The student sent a text to his friends that he was sent home by the nurse and then the students started saying in class that he had Ebola.”

I told Nurse Belk that we needed to talk to the class immediately and contact the sick student to make sure he was not spreading misinformation.

Meanwhile, in our Veterinary I class, Ms. Ortega, who has firsthand knowledge of hospitals’ preparations for Ebola, presented the facts about Ebola: its origin, how it “jumped” from animals to humans and current practices for dealing with the virus. Students were able to use their medical background from their freshman and sophomore years to put the current situation in perspective, keep the facts about viruses in mind and stay informed.

Social and local media have saturated the airwaves with so much information on Ebola events that it gets difficult to focus on what is true and not. Like Nurse Belk and Ms. Ortega, educators across the country are listening to what information is being shared at school and stand ready to counter misinformation with facts. The worst thing we can have is a misinformed student body, which creates opportunities for bad choices.

We are fortunate to be a health-related magnet high school — because our students are science-oriented, they are well-prepared to deal with a possible Ebola outbreak. Our students are taught to research, evaluate information and then make a final determination on how to proceed; they understand that making a wrong diagnosis can harm individuals entrusted to their care.

But schools that are not health-focused can still provide a great deal of information through biology, health education and other sciences that expose students to relevant topics. School nurses and counselors can provide presentations to staff and students to educate them further on precautionary measures on Ebola. Staying updated also helps avoid panic. In Dallas, our district has sent out updates each time a specific event makes the news and has provided us with information on what we were doing to assist and support our community.

The Ebola situation is serious, but panic can lead to other health problems such as anxiety and stress. I would caution educators not to ignore questions or hide information from students. If we don’t tell them what is happening, they will hear it from someone else — someone who may not have their best interests in mind. Students and parents entrust us to provide a safe and secure environment in times of uncertainty, and we are their lifeline to accurate information.

Joel Aguilar is principal at the School of Health Professions at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center in Dallas.

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More college campuses swap ‘No means no’ for ‘Yes means yes’

A poster from Ohio State University's Yes is Sexy Campaign.

A poster from Ohio State University’s Yes is Sexy Campaign.

When the sexual assault prevention group Culture of Respect attended the Dartmouth Summit on Sexual Assault in July to promote its forthcoming website, the group went by a different name. The nonprofit passed out business cards and marketing all emblazoned with the phrase “No Means No.”

For the last two decades, that’s been the slogan of choice for sexual assault prevention efforts, and just a few months ago it seemed like a perfect fit for the new organization. But in the weeks leading up to No Means No’s official launch, the organization began having second thoughts.

“The swiftly evolving conversation about defining sexual assault signaled to us that we needed to reframe our name as something more positive,” said Allison Korman, the group’s executive director. “And it’s even possible that ‘No means no’ will be an outdated or irrelevant concept in 10 years. Students may not have even heard of the phrase by then.”

That’s because at a growing number of colleges, “No means no” is out, and “Yes means yes” is in. And it’s more than just revising an old slogan — from coast to coast, colleges are rethinking how they define consent on their campuses.

Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed legislation requiring colleges in the state to adopt sexual assault policies that shifted the burden of proof in campus sexual assault cases from those accusing to the accused. Consent is now “an affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity.” The consent has to be “ongoing” throughout any sexual encounter.

On California campuses, consent is no longer a matter of not struggling or not saying no. If the student initiating the sexual encounter doesn’t receive an enthusiastic “yes,” either verbally or physically, then there is no consent. If the student is intoxicated, there is no consent.

California is the first state to make such a definition of consent law, but other states may soon follow suit. In New Hampshire and New Jersey, state legislators have introduced bills that would also link state funding for colleges to their definition of sexual assault, requiring the use of affirmative consent. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, plans on proposing legislation that would require a uniform definition of consent similar to California’s to be used for all of the state’s private colleges.

Earlier this month, the State University of New York system adopted that same uniform definition at all of its 64 campuses. The California State University System adopted its new definition months ago. Every Ivy League institution except Harvard University has adopted some form of affirmative consent. According to the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, more than 800 colleges and universities now use some type of affirmative consent definition in their sexual assault policies.

“There’s quite a surge in support of a ‘Yes means yes’ formula,” said Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education. “It’s certainly an ongoing movement, and is likely to be a generally positive thing. At the same time, it’s not easy to develop a good definition of affirmative consent. We wouldn’t want a one-size-fits-all approach for a variety of institutions.”

Moving From ‘No Means No’

Victims’ rights advocates continue to praise the idea of affirmative consent and the momentum the concept has recently gained. Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, said campus sexual assault policies could even “fill in some of the holes” in criminal laws regarding consent. In many states, consent is still based on a victim verbally or physically resisting, even as colleges within those states adopt affirmative consent policies.

Because colleges use a lesser burden of proof than criminal courts — preponderance of evidence rather than beyond a reasonable doubt — it makes sense to have a different definition of consent on campus, Dunn said, though she would ultimately like to see states adopt similar definitions at the criminal level as well. In order to comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, colleges must investigate complaints of sexual assault, even if students decline to go to the police.

“Traditionally we’ve focused on a lack of consent as someone fighting off an attacker,” Dunn said. “You looked for evidence of resistance. We only talked about what consent was not, which is not a very helpful paradigm. From the victims’ side, it says we have to resist. But even looking at this from the perspective of someone being accused, the traditional definition is telling them that it’s O.K. to do this until the victim says ‘no.’ That’s not really a helpful definition for them either because it can really be too late at that point. With affirmative consent, it’s simple. Consent is consent.”
“No means no” hasn’t always had such a negative connotation.

The Canadian Federation of Students popularized the phrase as part of a well-received, and still ongoing, sexual assault awareness campaign it launched in 1992. The group even owns the trademark in Canada, wielding it to stop the production of clothing and other merchandise that make light of the phrase (like a 2007 t-shirt that said “NO means have aNOther drink”). The same year the campaign was launched, the Canadian government adopted affirmative consent as the country’s legal standard, making “No means no” just a slogan, not a binding definition of consent.

The slogan has become well-known in the United States as well, though over time some college students began to use it as fodder for offensive jokes. A Yale University fraternity was suspended for five years in 2011 after its members marched around campus chanting “No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal” during a pledge initiation event. Just last week, a fraternity at Texas Tech University was stripped of its charter after painting the same phrase on signs during a party.

Unlike Canada, “No means no” is both a slogan and, in some states, the definition of consent. While there were efforts to create a uniform affirmative consent definition for all colleges during the recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, they were not successful. Meloy, of ACE, said she’s supportive of affirmative consent but believes that the final definition of what that phrase means should be left up to individual campuses or college systems. “I think institutions’ governing boards are the place for this to be discussed and considered,” she said.

But it’s that lack of a standard definition for affirmative consent that has led some colleges like Harvard not to adopt it.

Harvard’s policy forbids what it calls “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” stating that “conduct is unwelcome if a person did not request or invite it and regarded the unrequested or uninvited conduct as undesirable or offensive.” Earlier this week, 28 current and former Harvard law professors said the policy could deny due process process to those who are accused and that its definition of unwanted conduct was too broad and vague. Student activists, meanwhile, said the definition doesn’t go nearly far enough, and urged Harvard to change its definition to one of affirmative consent, saying in a petition that “the absence of a ‘no’ does not mean ‘yes,’ and our university policy should explicitly recognize that.”

Mia Karvonides, the university’s Title IX officer, said that Harvard uses a standard that is “consistent with the standard in all federal civil rights laws that apply in an education setting,” and that even its peers in the Ivy League don’t truly use an affirmative consent standard as they don’t require a verbal yes at every turn
“The closest any college comes to a defined affirmative-consent approach is Antioch College,” Karvonides said. “Under their policy, consent is given step by step at every point of engagement during an intimate encounter. You must verbally ask and verbally get an answer for every point of engagement. ‘May I kiss you? May I undo your blouse?’ ”

‘An Absurd Policy’

When the Antioch approach was introduced in 1991, it was widely mocked, including in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, for what some saw as reducing a sexual encounter to a series of robotic yes and no questions. That critique of affirmative consent has been renewed in recent months as more colleges began to adopt similar policies. John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, said, the idea that students would ask for permission at every point of a sexual encounter is “unreasonable.”
“It just isn’t the way things work,” Banzhaf said. “How would this work in practice? Suppose the guy asks, ‘May I touch your breast?’ Does that mean through her shirt? Over her bra? Does that mean he can touch her bare breast? Does it mean he can touch it with his hand or his lips? What if this all happens in succession? As things escalate, is he supposed to ask before each of the 20, 30, 40 steps? Nobody talks like that, not even lawyers.”

Earlier this month, anti-sexism group UltraViolet tried to illustrate that affirmative consent can be natural and sexy by releasing an online video ad that mimicked retro pornography. In the purposefully grainy clip, a college-aged pizza delivery boy brings an unwanted pizza to a young woman’s apartment. When the man apologizes for his mistake and refuses to force the pizza on her, she finds his seeking of consent attractive and one consensual act leads to another. As the couple moves from kissing, to lying on top of one another, to removing their clothing, they often pause to quickly — breathlessly — ask “Is this O.K.?”

The Consent is Sexy Campaign offers campuses a series of posters making the same point, and some institutions have established campaigns of their own to explain why asking for consent is not a mood-killer.

Others are not so concerned with whether affirmative consent policies are awkward or un-sexy, but whether they’re dangerous and unjust. In a position paper, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education argued that there is “no practical, fair, or consistent” way for colleges to ensure an affirmative consent standard was followed. “It is impracticable for the government to require students to obtain affirmative consent at each stage of a physical encounter, and to later prove that attainment in a campus hearing,” FIRE stated.

Furthermore, most campus policies state that yes does not mean yes if a student is intoxicated. At Cornell University, for example, a student cannot consent if he or she is highly intoxicated. At the same time, if the accused is also highly intoxicated, he or she cannot use intoxication as a defense. In the case of two intoxicated students, Cornell’s rules place the responsibility on obtaining consent with whichever student is the “initiator of further sexual activity,” saying that “the inability to perceive capacity does not excuse the behavior of the person who begins the sexual interaction or tries to take it to another level.”

“It’s an absurd policy,” Joe Cohn, FIRE’s legislation and policy director, said. “How can the dean of the English department or a physics professor or whoever else is on the panel at a hearing know who was the initiator and who was not? What it really means is that if someone accuses another student of sexual assault in a situation like this, then the student who did not do the accusing is immediately considered to be the one responsible for initiating the conduct.”

Banzhaf said switching to a “Yes means yes” standard that includes nonverbal cues only adds more ambiguity to obtaining consent. What colleges and states should actually focus on, he said, is removing any remaining ambiguity around “No means no.”

“I don’t think the problem is the definition of consent,” Banzhaf said. “The problem is that too many guys simply don’t take no as no. They’re either drunk or stupid or have been conditioned by our society to believe that no means maybe and that if they keep pressing that no may turn into a yes. In most states still, for it to be rape, the guy must use force or threat of force or the woman must be totally incapacitated. That’s what needs to change. We have to have a unified understanding of consent and that should simply be that no really means no.”

Inside Higher Ed is a free, daily online publication covering the fast-changing world of higher education.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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‘Terrific students can be found anywhere’: One scholar’s path from homeless shelter to halls of Georgetown


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JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Department of Education recently released data that showed there were more than 1.2 million homeless students enrolled in public schools last year, the highest ever.

As the nation’s educators continue to struggle with the problem, the “NewsHour”‘s April Brown tells the story of one Washington, D.C., teenager who defied the odds and may well inspire other kids in similar situations.

This story is another in our American Graduate series funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

APRIL BROWN: In many ways, Rashema Melson is a typical Georgetown University freshman. She graduated top of her high school class last year and now makes it a point to come early every day, so she can sit in the front row.

But Rashema’s path toward success has not been an easy one. Her father was killed when she was 7 months old, and she spent much of the last three years in a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter with her mother and two brothers, facts that she kept mostly secret while in high school.

RASHEMA MELSON, Georgetown University: It was nobody’s business. And if it was, I didn’t want to be pitied, I didn’t want to be looked down upon as if I couldn’t do it, because I’m a strong person.

CHISA PERRY, Anacostia High School: She was always smiling, very bubbly, very friendly, always the good morning or the hello.

APRIL BROWN: One person she eventually told was Anacostia High School teacher Chisa Perry, who was Rashema’s track and field coach. But for a long time, Perry didn’t know. And she says, regardless of what was happening at home, Rashema always remained upbeat and focused at school.

CHISA PERRY: The best way to describe Rashema would be determined. Anything she sets her mind to do, she will do it.

WOMAN: Rashema Melson!


APRIL BROWN: That grit and determination was on display last June, as the 18-year-old gave her valedictorian speech at Anacostia High, a school that sits in one of the poorest sections of Washington.

RASHEMA MELSON: Life is not fair, but despite that harsh reality, you must keep striving for success.

APRIL BROWN: Rashema began taking classes at Georgetown this summer after receiving a full scholarship to the nation’s oldest Catholic university. She moved out of the homeless shelter and into student housing.

The homeless shelter where Rashema lived during the last few years of high school is only a few miles away from Georgetown, but the atmosphere could hardly be more different. That’s why she spent five weeks of her vacation here in a program designed to help ease the transition.

DENNIS WILLIAMS, Georgetown University: Schools like Georgetown, elite schools, sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that terrific students can be found anywhere, and to give ourselves the mechanism, the means to find them, bring them in and make sure that they are OK. And that’s what this program does.

APRIL BROWN: Dennis Williams, the associate dean of students at Georgetown, runs the summer bridge program that Rashema took part in. Known as Community Scholars, the program offers students tools to help them make it all the way to graduation.

These types of programs have become relatively common in universities across the country, particularly for students like Rashema, first-generation college-goers. Rashema has thus far been adjusting well academically. But Williams warns it can take a bit longer to adjust to some things outside the classroom.

DENNIS WILLIAMS: What’s unusual in Rashema’s case is that she is local, and so that she is from a part of the city that most Georgetown students know very little about, and that the part of the city where her high school is, most of the people in that neighborhood know very little bit about Georgetown. So it really is two separate worlds within the same — within the same city.

APRIL BROWN: Rashema is taking the transition in stride, but is skeptical of one label that many have already given her: role model.

RASHEMA MELSON: When people say I’m a role model, I tend to — I don’t mind. I don’t mind. I just don’t want anyone to put pressure on me, like, you have to be this way because people are watching you.

People are always going to watch me, but I’m always going to be myself, because if I’m not myself, you know, then who am I?

APRIL BROWN: Despite the fact her story has spread across the nation, Rashema says she hasn’t been paying much attention to the media coverage.

RASHEMA MELSON: What is funny is, I don’t even know where these articles are.

APRIL BROWN: For now, Rashema is focused on becoming a forensic pathologist and moving her family out of the shelter for good.

RASHEMA MELSON: I still see that picture in my head of me having my own house, and having my degrees on the wall, having a job to go to from 9:00 to 5:00, having a consistent paycheck, paying my own bills, and just being — being the woman that I always — I always wanted to be.

APRIL BROWN: Rashema says she has also started a scholarship foundation that she hopes will one day help students like her.


This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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