From Elgin to historically Black colleges: U-46 seeks to cultivate college dreams

When Teresa Lance took a look at the colleges that came to recruit Elgin Area Unit District U-46 students, it was what she didn’t see that left the most lasting impression.

And she worried it would have the same impression on the district’s 2,100 Black students.

Lance, the district’s assistant superintendent of equity and innovation, saw a lot of military recruiters and Illinois-based schools. They were all excellent options for students preparing to graduate from the district. And yet, there were no historically Black colleges represented.

Since at least 2017, the district’s Illinois State Report Card data shows fewer U-46 students enroll in college than the state average. In some years, the district has trailed that average by as much as 6 percentage points.

There is no breakdown of the statistics to show what particular obstacles stand in the way of U-46 students who don’t go on to college. But Lance believed the first step was getting students to aspire to a college degree if that fit the visions they had for their futures.

“When I look at the role of education, I look at us doing our absolute best so that when students leave us, they have the choice to attend college, go into the workforce for a high-wage, high-demand job, and, if they want to, go into the military,” Lance said. “We believe in this college and career atmosphere. We also believe our students have options when they leave us.”

For students of color, and perhaps even more so for Black students, the college options available in Illinois may lack a key ingredient: a feeling of belonging.

A variety of literature and research — including Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” — argues having an educational atmosphere where students can understand and embrace their racial identities fosters resilience and a positive self-image, key aspects to young people believing they can succeed in college. Minority students, Tatum says, tend to self-segregate because it provides a safe space for shared identity and experiences.

It’s rare for a college or university to see Black students account for the majority of its population.

In Illinois, Malcolm X, Richard Daley and Wright colleges are among the majority Hispanic post-secondary schools offering a nearby option for U-46’s 19,700 Hispanic students who may seek out an environment where they can more immediately find fellow students they can relate to.

But of the 107 historically Black colleges and universities in the United States, none are in Illinois. That can make them feel out of reach.

To address that, U-46 schools began paying for the transportation, hotel and meal costs to send busloads of students to a dozen historically Black colleges and universities three years ago.

It started with the district’s three Title I schools — a federal designation for schools with a high percentage of students from low-income households. It spread to a districtwide program last year. And then, in January, the U-46 school board unanimously approved a plan to spend $114,000 to take the largest group of students yet on a tour of the schools this March.

Larkin High School Principal Krystal Bush went to a historically Black school and sent all four of her children to historically Black colleges and universities.

“Just seeing there were others there like them, it was a great experience for them,” Bush said.

It wasn’t a difficult task to get her to chaperone the trips. More difficult is one of the barriers to students actually attending college.

“It’s the stigma of leaving home and the stigma of parents afraid to let go,” Bush said. “People want to keep their babies close. But allowing them to go on these trips, that’s the first step.”

There is now a waiting list of students who want to go on the trip at Larkin and other district high schools. Bush has instituted a minimum GPA requirement for students who want to go on the trips, making the experience as aspirational as it is inspirational.

“It opened up our students’ eyes,” Bush said. “The traditions at HBCUs are valuable to our students.”

Cost is another barrier to college. In addition to the cultural traditions of historically Black colleges, they also tend to be more affordable, even at out-of-state tuition rates.

For example, the most recent comparable data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has an average in-state net price (after scholarships and financial aid) of $14,544 per year. At Kentucky State University, a nearby HBCU, the net out-of-state price is $11,473.

The early results of the U-46 tours are promising. Students from last year’s tour put in applications at a dozen HBCUs. Lance said the district aims to increase that number, as well as seeing students accepted and attending the schools. Her interviews with the students who attended the tours also revealed an added benefit of feeling more at home even within U-46’s own classrooms.

“Overwhelmingly, there was this increased sense of belonging,” Lance said. “From the bus ride itself to building camaraderie when they are in the hotel and when they are touring the campuses and seeing adults that look like them. The students overwhelmingly spoke to the increased sense of belonging after having those experiences.”

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.