School for Success

(Patrick Michels)

Maria Mora discusses class and work options with a student preparing for summer term.

Students trail into the Austin Community College classroom in ones and twos, taking seats in pale plastic chairs behind long narrow tables. Some wear scrubs, fresh from shifts at the hospital, while others are in street clothes. A few are middle-aged, but most are in their late twenties or early thirties. The only man in the room wears shoes so battered the soles have almost separated. It’s just days before spring exams begin, and a few of the students discuss an upcoming test. 

“What kind of math is it?” 

“It’s easy conversions. How many ounces in a cup and stuff like that.” 

“They don’t let you use calculators. The first time I didn’t pass for three points, because I didn’t have time to finish.” 

“If you study your stuff, you’ll get it.” 

It sounds like any pre-exam college conversation. But not long ago, many of these students could not do high school–level work. Now these working-poor adults are getting a chance at a middle-class life through Capital Idea, an innovative long-term job-training program in Austin. Using mostly public funding, Capital Idea identifies the best job opportunities in the area—in Austin, they’re typically in health care or technology—and pays for participants to go back to school full time, covering tuition and supplies. About 550 students are currently enrolled and, since the program started in 1998, nearly 1,000 have graduated. The goal is ambitious: to place every graduate in a profession that pays a “living wage,” at least $18 an hour. 

This is not like most job-training programs. Rather than spending a few weeks receiving funding to train for a cashier’s job at Walmart, Capital Idea students typically spend three to four years working part time and studying full time before entering their profession. The program is grounded in the recognition that the route from poverty to self-sufficiency is extraordinarily difficult—and that merely offering temporary help with classes or training isn’t enough. “We’re taking something impossible and making it merely horribly difficult,” says executive director Steve Jackobs, who’s overseen the program from its infancy. 

“This is the kind of training that makes a difference,” says Ross Eisenbrey, vice president at the Economic Policy Institute and an expert on workforce economics. Most federal dollars for job training are spent on job-placement programs or short-term training that only qualifies students for low-wage jobs. “They might get résumé-writing advice, how-to-interview assistance, that kind of thing,” Eisenbrey says. 

Capital Idea offers a comprehensive approach instead. The payoff is considerable: Most students earn $14,000 in annual income when they start; when they complete the program, they secure jobs that pay $40,000 on average. But getting there is grueling. Those interested must first attend an orientation and then come in for testing to assess their math and reading skills, along with their aptitude for different types of work. These initial steps often give applicants a flavor of the program; to emphasize that punctuality is essential, for instance, staff members lock the doors before sessions begin. Students must be in the country legally, have a GED or high-school diploma, and be low-income. The only other qualification is at least a fifth-grade level of reading and math. On average, Capital Idea students begin with an eighth-grade skill level. Rather than going through normal remediation classes, which are time-consuming and expensive, the program partners with Austin Community College to offer College Prep Academy, a six-hour-a-day, semester-long program that prepares students for college work. 

Because it’s daunting for those already living in poverty to pay the bills and juggle family responsibilities while studying full time, Capital Idea provides “wraparound services,” helping students find whatever they need, from psychological counseling to better part-time jobs. Staffers also make sure students are using whatever public benefits they are eligible for, from food stamps to rental assistance. Jackobs likes to call those services “scholarships”—temporary but necessary assistance to help get folks through school. The program works with each participant to create a plan, including a target graduation date. In return, students promise to stick with the plan and pledge in writing that, after graduating and landing a good job, they’ll give back to the community—which can mean anything from philanthropy to civic leadership. 

Once they agree to the terms, each student is assigned to one of Capital Idea’s seven career counselors. While the program’s financial component is important, these adult students—for whom college often brings unexpected challenges—benefit the most from the individual attention of the counselors. “We call them case managers, we call them career counselors, we call them career navigators,” Jackobs says. “But their role is to work with students every step of the way through the process, from that basic reading, writing, and math, all the way to graduation.” 

Today, the students are here for their weekly “VIP” meeting with counselor Maria Mora. VIP stands for “vision, initiative, and perseverance”—qualities every Capital Idea student needs. While Capital Idea has much higher success rates than traditional short-term job programs, the dropout rate is still significant. Of the 2,500 who have started in Capital Idea, about 1,000 have left the program or paused their studies indefinitely. The counselors don’t let their charges leave easily. They’ll visit them at home, try to create alternative plans, and make repeated appeals by phone. One counselor tells me she continues to send Facebook messages for months after students stop responding to calls and e-mails. 

The classroom falls silent as Mora, a small woman in her early fifties with a perpetual smile, begins to offer practical advice on matters that would be second nature to most college students. After more than ten years with Capital Idea, Mora has learned how to keep people positive while pushing them hard and holding them accountable. It helps that she can empathize with what the students go through. Mora grew up in the West Texas Panhandle as the second of ten children. Neither of her parents had more than a fifth-grade education, and she knows the challenges of being the first generation to go to college. 

Mora tells the students—all studying to be registered nurses—to research their teachers before signing up for summer classes. They’ve taken questionnaires to determine their ideal learning styles, she reminds them, and they need to find teachers who are a match—and who aren’t horribly dull. The students chime in with basic questions: When are applications due? Why can’t I register for the class I want? Others are worried about assessment tests in chemistry and anatomy, which they must pass before they can take nursing classes. Students can take each assessment no more than three times a term. 

One student asks when she can start taking the assessment test again, having failed it this spring. Mora recommends a prep class instead and promises that Capital Idea will pay for it. “Everybody is different, guys. I’ve had students who are 4.0 GPA, Honor Society, and human anatomy was a challenge for them,” she says. “It could be math for somebody else. If you’re attempting and attempting, let’s stop. Let’s do something else. Some of you need a bit more help, and we’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll pay for the classes.’ Not everybody asks for it, not everybody needs it, but if you need it, it’s there for you.” 

If you need it, it’s there for you. That, above all else, is the key to Capital Idea’s success. It’s also why it’s costly. Capital Idea invests about $4,000 a year per student, with a total annual revenue of $3.9 million. About $1.7 million comes from grants and another $2.1 million from taxpayers. When lawmakers see the cost, they often balk. But Capital Idea is fortunate to have a strong ally—and lobbyist—in its parent organization, Austin Interfaith, a social-justice coalition of churches, labor, and community groups affiliated with the national Industrial Areas Foundation. In the small house meetings it holds around the community, Austin Interfaith kept hearing from folks struggling to live on low wages—and also from businesspeople struggling to find skilled workers. Inspired by a successful long-term training program in San Antonio, Project Quest, Austin Interfaith helped launch Capital Idea. Half of its board members are Austin Interfaith members; the rest are business leaders. Together, even during a budget crisis, they have teamed to rally supporters and lobby local and state lawmakers to maintain the program’s funding. 

Capital Idea’s results are hard for even the flintiest lawmakers to argue with. Christopher King, director of the Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources at the University of Texas, has closely studied the program’s results and says it’s a great deal for the public because it creates middle-class workers—and taxpayers. With short-term job programs, “you get a little bump in employment and the earnings go up briefly, but then it flattens out.” Not so with Capital Idea. Within eight and a half years, the public investment is fully paid back, and over the first ten years, each dollar returns $1.65 to taxpayers—and over 20 years, more than $5. “This is really a remarkable, noteworthy impact you’re looking at,” King says. But the initial cost, he adds, is one reason that there are only about 30 similar programs across the country.

 

Maria Mora is multitasking as usual, driving to Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital for a VIP while talking on her cell phone, reassuring a woman who’s completed the prerequisites for the nursing program but is waiting to hear whether she’ll get in. The program has become competitive in recent years, Mora says, and it’s increasingly difficult for students to get accepted. 

Mora spends much of every day meeting with students, either in groups or individually. To accommodate the students’ schedules and transportation difficulties, she holds her VIPs in different places around the city. She’s currently got 85 students. That means keeping up with 85 class schedules and GPAs, 85 family dynamics, 85 sets of challenges. (Because Capital Idea does not reject anyone who meets its qualifications, the counselors often have such high loads.)

She pulls into the parking garage and rushes into the building. Inside the hospital, Hilda Hernandez, a 42-year-old student in her first semester with Capital Idea, is waiting nervously. Hernandez tells Mora of her struggles with nursing simulations. She is worried about how to make ends meet while staying on top of her studies. Mora nods and encourages her to consider working with Premiere Staffing, a company that hires workers for different hospital roles, like nurse’s assistants. Mora tells her that once she starts working in a hospital, she will feel better. 

These meetings give students a chance to vent their frustrations and fears and to get practical advice and encouragement. Often, their families and friends are unfamiliar with the challenges they face, and few can sympathize the way fellow classmates and counselors can. The meetings are also essential for catching problems early: helping students find tutoring, if need be, or in Hernandez’s case, helping her find a better job.

Another nursing student, Maria Roman, arrives and Mora introduces her to Hernandez. “What level are you in?” Roman asks. Hernandez holds up one finger; she’s in her first semester of the four-semester program. “It goes by so fast,” Roman tells her. “They keep you so busy.”

“She’s in level four,” the last level, Mora says of Roman. “She can tell you level one is the easiest, but—”

“But I cried the whole time,” Roman says. 

It’s a short VIP; both students have finals to prepare for. Before they leave, Mora focuses on Roman. She has only exams and the state boards to conquer before she’s a nurse. “You feel ready?” Mora asks. 

“No. Can I repeat the whole school so I can feel ready?” Roman half-jokes. 

Thirty-two years old, Roman emigrated from Mexico at age 19, when her family received permanent--resident visas. Within three months, she moved away from the small border town of Del Rio, where her family had settled, to enroll in a federal job-training program in San Marcos. “No English. I didn’t know anybody—nobody,” she says. “I wanted to go back. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know where the bus station was.” The two years in the program earned her a Spanish GED and a certification as a nurse’s assistant. But Roman made less than $9 an hour and her English was still insufficient for more advanced work. She spent the next five years working in a doctor’s office before she heard about Capital Idea. 

For the past five years, she’s been in the program—first as an English Language Learner, then taking her prerequisites, and now, after two years in the nursing program, she’s almost finished. Except for one weekend trip to South Padre Island more than six years ago, Roman cannot remember a vacation she’s had. On the rare weekend when she’s free, she visits her family. The one time she tried to date, she soon realized that there was no time—squeezing in a date once a week was too much. It sounds like a lot to sacrifice, but Roman says she’s “never tried to look at it that way. If I did, I would be very depressed.”

She’ll be the first person in her family to graduate from college, and when she begins work as a registered nurse, she’ll be paid around $22 an hour, more than $40,000 a year. Roman’s the third of nine children, and all of her younger siblings have followed her into college or community college, except the two who aren’t out of high school yet. Neither parent got beyond sixth grade, and money is still tight. Roman’s mother works part time as a home assistant to a family with an ill child. Her father works 12-hour shifts at an oil refinery. 

Last semester, the pressure caught up to her. Roman was trying to work 32 hours a week as a nurse’s assistant in addition to making good grades in her classes. “I don’t want to call my family and say, ‘Hey, I’m failing,’” she says, her voice breaking. “I don’t want to go back to them. They’re having their own problems. I feel like I’m a grown-up. I should not be relying on them—not even for the emotional part. I say, ‘Hey, I’m doing well, I’m doing well.” 

But she wasn’t. As her workload took a toll, Roman’s grades dropped, and she skipped a VIP with Mora as she got more discouraged. The counselor was immediately in touch. “She e-mailed me: How you doing? What you up to? I have not seen you. How’s the school going?” 

Capital Idea paid Roman’s rent for the month, allowing her to cut back work hours and focus more on school. Mora, meanwhile, called and e-mailed to root Roman on. Her grades came back up. “She’s kind of been my cushion,” Roman says of Mora. “I guess being too headstrong for my family, I never go back and say, ‘I’m having trouble.’ So Maria has been a lot for me.”

Soon after she leaves the VIP, Mora gets a call. Roman has a job offer. 

 

The following day, Mora sits in a cubicle. There’s noise all around, as service programs meet with clients at the Austin Community College’s Workforce Solutions Center. Like the other counselors, Mora holds VIPs and drop-in hours here each week. The center serves as an integrated one-stop shop for a variety of services, from food stamps to public housing to short-term job training. Some of the programs, like Capital Idea, are nonprofits renting space while others are state or local public services, but often the groups find themselves working together. In the lobby are all sorts of folks—moms holding crying kids, military veterans who are allowed to jump to the front of the line, and teenagers just out of high school looking for job advice. In the entryway, a poster gives tips on job interviews, including being early and wearing conservative business attire. The vast majority of the people served here aren’t Capital Idea students. But many participants in the program rely on the same services. Here, in a visible demonstration of what “wraparound” means, Mora and others can get students enrolled in additional programs they might need, like child care or health care. 

Mora sits at her desk, answering e-mails and ready in case a student wants private time with her. Her next VIP is with Haruna Asafotei, an African immigrant who’s in his third year with Capital Idea and in his second semester in nursing school. He’s smiling but clearly fretful. 

“How’s everything going?” Mora asks cheerfully. “I hear you’re very stressed.”

“Yes,” he says, laughing. “I’m not meeting the high marks. So I’m scared that a little drop—”

“Will put you under?” says Mora, finishing his sentence. 

“Yes. Am I OK?” Asafotei asks.

“You’re OK. Even if you make a C, C means continue.”

“That’s all I need. I don’t want an A. These are the most difficult classes.”

Mora smiles. “This is nursing school,” she says. She checks to see if he’s meeting with tutors. He is, every day.

Asafotei has a wife and two children back in Ghana, and of the $1,800 he makes per month, pre-taxes, he tries to send at least $200 home. If someone fails a class in the nursing program, he gets kicked out. Asafotei fears that he will be next. 

“Everybody’s looking up to you, waiting for you,” Mora says. “Everybody’s back in your country, right? So they think you’re just sweeping the dollars here, and you should just send them to ’em.”

“That’s not happening,” Asafotei says. 

“Know that God is with you,” Mora says. “You’re not alone. You’re not totally alone.”

Later, she tells me she’s already trying to come up with options for Asafotei. “If he should fall, we need to be there to pick him up immediately and reroute,” she explains. “I know how hard he works. He could not make it, and I have to be ready to have a plan for him in case he doesn’t.” (Two weeks later, Asafotei will pass all his classes.) 

When he arrived from Ghana five years ago, Asafotei says, he did not expect things would be quite so difficult. “Before I came here, I had the perception there’s no poor man in America. I came to America to see you have people begging for money, you have people who are homeless, you have people who are destitute.” He still has hope that anything will be possible for his children in this country, if no longer for himself. He wants to bring his family over from Ghana as soon as he’s able. 

“If I was to be born here or I had arrived here earlier, I would have achieved my highest potential,” he says. “You can be whatever you want to be provided you have focus and assistance. Where I am now, if I become a nurse, I think I’ll be in the situation enough to assist them to be whatever they want to be.” 

 

At her graduation ceremony, on a Friday morning in May, Maria Roman wears a black strapless dress underneath her lab coat. She’s let her sisters do her makeup and hair; some of her classmates say they barely recognize her. For the family’s first college graduation, her parents have made the 240-mile trek from Del Rio, along with four of her sisters and two brothers-in-law. It’s the first time they’ve visited her in Austin. As she waits for her name to be called, Roman tells herself over and over, “Stay strong, don’t cry.” Mora and Capital Idea director Steve Jackobs have also come to cheer as Roman walks across the stage. Afterward, she tells Jackobs she’s looking forward to going into the community to talk about her Capital Idea experience.

Roman will now have two weeks to study for the state nursing exam. Then she begins her new job as registered nurse at Saint David’s South Austin Medical Center. “I have a career I can take anywhere I want to,” Roman says. “It feels really good to know I can support myself.” She’s already looking forward to finding her own apartment and helping her two younger sisters, who are struggling with money in four-year colleges. As for vacations? “Oh my gosh,” she says. “I’m planning already!” 

The family takes her out for lunch and then heads back to Del Rio in the afternoon. Roman’s father has work the next day. Before they leave, her sisters gather around her, describing their admiration for what she’s done, how she’s inspired them. It takes Roman by surprise. “I didn’t think they saw me that way, as a role model,” she says. “I thought it was just me, doing it for me.”

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