Teacher helps seventh-graders outline paths to college

EVERETT — Annamarie Jordan is on a mission to get kids to college.

The walls of her Voyager Middle School classroom are plastered with university logos, drawn with colored pencils and markers by seventh-graders.

The students were tasked with picking a school they want to attend one day, and these pictures hang overhead to remind them that higher education is in their future.

“I don’t want to hear, ‘I can’t,’” Jordan, 42, told her class. “You decide if you can do it. You decide.”

Last week, Jordan’s students graduated from the “Believe” program, a college prep curriculum she designed this year.

Located in south Everett, Voyager provides free and reduced-price lunches to a majority of its students. Jordan says 87 percent of her seventh-graders come from families where no one has gone to college.

The purpose of “Believe” is to get these kids thinking — at a very young age — about the value of higher education.

“It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s that they don’t know how to do it,” Jordan said. “That’s the only difference between kids in a more affluent school and ours. It’s not that they’re not smart, it’s that they don’t know how to access the system.”

The final project of the program is for each student to outline a path to higher education in 10 steps, beginning with graduating from Ms. Jordan’s class and ending with being accepted to a university.

Students spent the last week of the school year asking Jordan how to tweak their 10 steps: What SAT score should I aim for? How many years of a foreign language do I take? How many letters of recommendation will I need?

For Kiyanna Meis, Step 3 was to “get used to studying more, so I can reach my goal of a 3.0.” She thought that GPA would set her up for Step 10: getting into the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Kiyanna wrote that she was going to get a 3.0,” Jordan said. “Then she looked at the UCLA website and saw that their minimum GPA is a 3.4.”

So Kiyanna used Wite-Out to cover up the 3.0 and wrote “3.5” in its place.

A lot of research led to this point. The students kicked off seventh grade by mapping out their life goals and filling in career-interest surveys. Then Jordan and her teaching assistant, Alissa Brazil, took them out to see what those careers look like. Students interested in law enforcement toured the Everett police station, while those considering medicine watched a livestream of an autopsy. Others saw the inner workings of Comcast and Seattle television stations.

Then came tours of college campuses. The class went to Western Washington University, Seattle University and DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond. At the University of Washington Bothell, they were “freshmen for a day,” sitting in on a class taught by instructor Julie Shayne and receiving a homework assignment.

“When they left they were like, ‘College isn’t that hard, I can do that,’” Jordan said. “Taking the mystery out of it is a big deal. That’s half the battle.”

Jordan talked to them about scholarships, loans and grants. She had them do what most kids don’t do until the end of high school: write to the college they want to attend.

“They had to write an argumentative essay giving reasons why it would be a good idea for that college to send them a T-shirt or a sweatshirt,” Jordan said. “I’m really big into tangible items as reminders.”

The students sent letters to colleges across the nation, from the Seattle and Bothell campuses of the University of Washington to UCLA and Yale. They wrote to Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Princeton, West Point, Oklahoma State, New York University and more.

“I told the kids, ‘I have no idea if they’re going to write back,’” Jordan said.

They did. Day after day, packages arrived at Voyager Middle School. Inside were hoodies, T-shirts, pennants and backpacks.

“It was like Christmas every day,” Jordan said. “I would have the kids open them in front of the class.”

Jordan took photos of the students with their gifts and posted them on a board that says “We are headed to college!”

Yuliana Janda, an aspiring photographer who wrote to the Art Institute of Seattle, received a hand-written response from a member of the administration who was a first-generation college student.

“It was a very touching letter,” Jordan said. “Because for Yuliana, she’ll be the first person in her family to go to college. It resonated with her.”

Jordan has seen firsthand what an education can do. She gave birth to a daughter as a sophomore at Seattle University, and having a bachelor’s degree helped her raise the child as a single mother.

She’s eager to spread the program outside of her classroom. When the district assigned her to tutor a student who had been suspended, one of the first things she did was ask him about his career interests.

“He started talking to me about how he loves to be in the forest, and how he loves to be around trees and plants,” she said.

She told him his homework was to look up relevant careers and college programs.

After some research, the student decided he wanted to be a botanist. Jordan took him on a trip to UW Bothell, where he visited the wetlands with Ian Barlow, an undergrad who runs the campus’ green house.

“Now he’s hooked,” Jordan said. “Every time I meet with him he’s like, ‘I can’t wait till I go to UW Bothell and get to be a botanist.’”

While most of this year’s students used the program to target four-year universities, Jordan knows these schools aren’t for everyone. She talks to her class about technical schools, beauty colleges and the military. One student, Zach Mosher, plans to get his college degree after being a medic in the Marines.

Whatever their paths may be, the students are empowered to choose for themselves. They’re going to take French in high school. They’re going to do Running Start and graduate with a two-year degree. They’re going to get accepted by Yale and UCLA and WSU and West Point. In Ms. Jordan’s class, they become authors of their own lives.

Hearing students announce these plans keeps Jordan always wanting more.

“If I know that I helped one person change their life, that’s like changing the whole family tree,” she said. “How could you ever get burned out on that?”

Quinn Russell Brown: 425-903-6341; qbrown@heraldnet.com.

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