From grade school to graduate school, UT helps students from
Alexis Blackman has called herself a Longhorn since she was a kindergartner on a new campus with a promising name: the University of Texas Elementary School. Now it’s official. Having earned a full scholarship from the University Co-op, she is fulfilling her dream to be the first UT Elementary student to attend “Big UT.”
George Mitchell, the Co-op’s recently retired CEO, vowed in 2008 to fund a scholarship for the first Little Longhorn to land on the Forty Acres. Mitchell and the Co-op have been involved in the school since its first days, providing orange and white uniform shirts for the students at the start of each academic year and gifts during the holidays. The kids call him Grandpa George.
As for Blackman, from UT Elementary she went on to Austin’s Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders and then Crockett High School, where she earned numerous awards, including one for remaining in the top 10 percent of her class every year she was there. She attributes her success to the solid foundation UT Elementary gave her.
Like many of her fellow alumni, Blackman says the strong teacher-student bonds at the school made it easier to succeed in the later grades.
“UT Elementary School teachers had high expectations for all of us, so we held ourselves to higher standards. The best teachers I had were at UT Elementary.”
Designed to be a model that exemplifies best practices in urban education, UT Elementary opened as a public charter school in 2003. With its focus on science and math programming, health and wellness, multicultural arts, and social and emotional learning, the school provides a high-quality education for students in East Austin. Seventy percent of the 300-pupil enrollment comes from low-income homes.
At UT, Blackman has chosen to major in electrical engineering, which she first became interested in as a fifth grader. Her desire for a career in the computer industry is rooted not just in her early exposure to science but also in the philanthropic values that UT Elementary instills in its young learners.
“One major career goal of mine is to develop hardware and software that will be cheaper, so that low-income families like mine will have access to a computer and the internet,” she says. “Especially since education is shifting online at all levels, not having a computer in your home is a disadvantage on top of being low-income.”
Part of the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, UT Elementary is one of DDCE’s numerous “education pipeline” initiatives. These are designed to help ensure students from diverse, low-income backgrounds are academically successful and continue on to college and graduate school.
“I wish I could find the person
Blackman continues her DDCE association this year with access to services provided by Gateway Scholars, one of several signature student success programs in the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence (LCAE). Intended as a bridge for first-year students as they transition to the university, Gateway Scholars provides academic and social support, tutoring, and peer mentoring.
“Our vision for LCAE is to provide a world-class college-success experience for all of the students who come into our center,” says Aileen Bumphus, UT’s associate vice president for academic diversity initiatives. “This means having all of our programs in the center aligned and linked to a set of commonly shared experiences. Some of these experiences would normally not be an option for the students we serve.”
Examples include leadership development, a distinguished lecture series, community service opportunities, and a study abroad program. The extra effort is paying off. The nearly 2,000 students in LCAE programs are thriving, with first-year retention and average GPA closely correlating with those of the freshman class as a whole.
Joseph Gallardo, BS ’14, is another LCAE success story. He was a high school dropout and was homeless for a time. But he went back to get his diploma and then did so well at Palo Alto Community College in San Antonio that he applied to UT and was accepted.
Initially overwhelmed by the university’s scale, Gallardo looked to LCAE for support.
“I just stepped foot on campus and felt so intimidated; I felt like everyone was a genius,” he says. By his senior year, the communication major was not only a straight-A student but also an LCAE mentor for 15 struggling sophomores and four freshmen.
He became interested in law after participating in another education pipeline initiative, this one a pre-graduate school internship offered in conjunction with UT’s nationally recognized Intellectual Entrepreneurship program.
“That is what I love about this university and DDCE — so many opportunities,” Gallardo says. For him, those included a stint as an Archer Fellow with the U.S. Supreme Court and then as an intern at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, also in Washington, D.C. He is now enrolled at Harvard Law School — a tough decision for a Longhorn who was accepted at 12 law schools including UT. But his orange blood runs deep.
DDCE’s Multicultural Engagement Center sponsors several graduation celebrations for UT’s diverse student groups that complement UT’s official spring commencement. The events give graduates and their parents, family, and friends an opportunity to come together and celebrate their accomplishments.
As a featured speaker at the 2014 Latino Graduation ceremony, Gallardo told the audience, “I really don’t know how I snuck into this amazing place, but I wish I could find the person who took a chance on me and give them the biggest hug, because the University of Texas has truly changed my life.”
Learn more about the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at diversity.utexas.edu.
LITTLE LONGHORNS, LITTLE SPACE
UT Elementary School is launching a capital campaign to build new classrooms. In 2011-12, an administration building, cafeteria, and gymnasium were completed with the support of many donors, but students continue to attend classes in portable buildings that are showing their age. Find out how you can help at utelementary.org.
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