“Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can use to change the world,” captures your attention upon landing on the Leap Year website. The quote by Nelson Mandela has good reason for being front and center on the homepage. Leap Year Founder and Executive Director, Amber Scott, uses education every day to create what she calls “an army of changemakers.” Amber’s enlisted are low-income high school graduates who want a crack at higher education but, due to circumstances beyond their control, face overwhelming barriers to success. Through a year of comprehensive programming and wraparound services, Amber sends low-income students to the front lines of college classrooms and beyond.
What made you decide to start Leap Year?
I’m a child of first generation college students. My maternal grandfather only had a third-grade education and moved my mom from rural Arkansas to Flint, Michigan for better opportunities. A big part of my family was service and education; my family really emphasized the value of education because when you don’t have access to it you really understand the value of it. Service and education have always been at the center of my family.
Being able to see how a college education can lift a family from low-income Flint, Michigan to the upper middle-class suburbs of Boston really made me think about why my parents were the exception and not the rule of mobility. We know that college is one of the best opportunities to have financial security, so why is it that only 1 in 10 low-income students graduate with a Bachelor’s degree? A major component of that trend is that the majority of our low-income college students are not ready for college when they graduate high school. Even the low-income students who are doing what they are supposed to be doing are not prepared for college like kids from private school. They have done everything they are supposed to do but aren’t prepared for higher education academics. And even before that their parents never went to college so they are at a disadvantage when filling out the applications. When your parent can’t help you with your applications, as an 18-year-old you start an application but then don’t finish it. Or even if you do get into college you have to navigate things like FAFSA and housing. It’s also well documented that low-income students of color are not prepared for the climate of life at college. For me as a black woman, it was challenging. There are a lot of social challenges that you are confronted with in such a foreign environment. Often low-income students feel like they don’t belong, that college is not a space for them.
We know that there are many tough factors for kids when they go to school so we figured we need to put them in a position to succeed. Not just helping them get in, but making sure that they are successful once they are on a college campus. Why don’t we give low-income students the ability that wealthy kids have to be prepared academically and emotionally so that when they step on a college campus they’re going to thrive and be successful? All kids deserve to be prepared to succeed.
Tell us a little bit about what your services look like.
We are paid service learning gap year that helps low-income students get into and succeed in college. We do that by focusing on three things: academics, confidence building, and service.
We know our kids are struggling academically so we do a lot of tutoring. We work with them on note taking, organization, and active listening. A lot of our academic tutoring is reviewing basic writing and math, as well as learning critical thinking skills. Through this, we also give our kids a chance to retake the ACT. Giving them that second chance is a big deal; we saw the average ACT scores go up 2 points which is pretty significant. We also do a lot of essay writing and presentations. One of our alums who is in college now called me today and told me she has to give a presentation in class every week; she said, “If I hadn’t been in Leap Year, I’d be freaking out!”
We also do a lot of confidence building. So much of what we do is helping students feel like they should be in college. A lot of the messaging they get is that college is for people who don’t look like them and for kids who don’t come from their neighborhoods. If you don’t have that message combatted at home or in the community, it is easy to let that mindset sink in. We make sure the kids know that they are smart and they belong in school. We tell them that they will have to work hard but that doesn’t mean you don’t belong there and you’ll find your own group. We know that when kids are more confident that actually help with the academics.
The third part is of Leap Year is service. We want to shift things; it can’t just be these students going to college and leaving for somewhere else. They have to give back to their community. We drill in service because we want to have a ripple effect. Our kids tend to feel like the world impacts them severely; we are trying to show them that they can have an impact on issues they see as problems in the world rather than the world only impacting them. We want to empower kids to contribute, that then leads back to their success in college.
How does it feel to have your first three kids graduate from Leap Year and get into college?
Amazing! Irvin is at Clayton State and Briana and Shay are at Middle Georgia State. I love that the girls are together; they totally support each other. It feels surreal that we have our first cohort of kids in college. Leap Year has only been around for a year and we have managed a lot in that time: we had the idea and then 6 months from that we launched our pilot and 6 months from that graduated we our first class. It has been a really difficult journey with what I tell my kids are ‘fun challenges’ we have to take baby steps and solve. It is amazing to have the impact on these kids and otherwise they would not be going to school right now which is a shame because they are brilliant. Giving students a community that makes them feel supported really takes a whole village of services.
I’m excited to have worked with these three Fellows and to keep in touch with them. But I’m also excited about where they are now and where they will be. And I’m excited to plan for next year! I’ll gladly continue with my lack of sleep to make this happen.
What’s next? Tell us about your upcoming cohort.
We learned a lot during the pilot and started small on purpose so that we can be nimble and get the model down. We started with three students and next year we’re hoping to have around 15 which is really exciting. Next year will be the first full year cohort; the pilot was truncated at 6 months which was a little stressful. It’s really hard to get students ready for college in half a year!
Also, we are hopefully going to be adding our paid service component. Because it was the pilot, we didn’t have our 501(c)3 nonprofit status so we couldn’t apply for AmeriCorps to pay the kids for their service. But this year we are hoping to have that element added so that our Fellows can be paid because our student’s parents can’t afford to support their gap year experience. That’s our next year and from there we are excited to flourish and grown in this city.
How can people support you or submit students they know who would be a great fit?
Our application mirrors the college application process and we rely on high school teachers, as well as community members, to identify students. The biggest way you can get involved is by sharing this with first generation students who could really benefit from this type of support. On our website, we have a Fellows tab where you can learn the details of participating in Leap Year. Then subscribe to get our updates and you’ll be notified when our applications open in March. If you know someone in the community or have a family member who would be a good fit, send them our way.
We are also looking for financial support. If you or your company want to get involved, we would love to have student sponsorships or donations to the work that we are doing.
Finally, we need volunteers. One of the most impactful ways to get involved is to come talk to our kids. We always start by asking speakers about their education and different jobs. Our kids only know the jobs they see, they don’t see the journey or recognize that not everyone who works at Google is an engineer. There are tons of things you can do in the world that isn’t being a doctor or lawyer; our students just haven’t been exposed to them. We also need volunteers to mentor students and set up tours at companies so our kids can be exposed to different workplaces. Or even come along on our community service projects and give back with us!