Perfect grades and high test scores are no excuse for 17-year-old Javian Pierson to miss a tutoring session.
Two afternoons each week, the Scotlandville Magnet High School junior gets help with her schoolwork and in preparing for college from the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, an organization dedicated to helping high achievers like Pierson reach their potential.
Since she joined BRYC last year, Pierson has expanded her dreams beyond Louisiana’s best schools, setting her sights on scholarships to the nation’s top colleges.
“I have more drive,” Pierson said. “I see how it’s not out of my reach.”
Founded in 2008, BRYC helps smart, motivated students who thrive at school despite a lack of resources. Most teens in the free program come from single-parent homes or tough neighborhoods or live near the poverty line.
BRYC isn’t teaching basic skills. The nonprofit organization provides volunteer tutors, college admissions help and — perhaps most importantly — a support system to help high achievers chart a path to the country’s best schools and important careers.
“They don’t quit for anything,” said Lauren Robinson, director of junior programs at BRYC. “They’re really wonderful. They’re so motivated and so bright. They work so hard.”
Students who choose to become BRYC fellows — the organization’s name for participants — must maintain a 3.3 GPA. They take an average of 120 hours of ACT college entrance exam preparation, resulting in an average score two points higher than the national average of 21 and three and a half points higher than the Louisiana average of 19.2. The highest score possible is a 36.
It’s about more than college, said Lucas Spielfogel, BRYC’s executive director. Spielfogel wants to help the students “develop as people.”
“It’s very important that in BRYC students are building and developing their own critiques of the world so that when they go off to college, they aren’t going through the motions, but they are critical thinkers,” Spielfogel said. “They are questioning the things they are experiencing and that are happening to them, and ultimately they are taking on leadership positions in whatever organizations they are a part of.”
To make it all happen, BRYC depends on the community. The organization receives funding from several corporate sponsors, including ExxonMobil and Dudley DeBosier Injury Lawyers, and from local foundations. Dozens of Baton Rouge families also donate personally.
On a Wednesday afternoon, teenagers buzz around the BRYC office across Interstate 110 from downtown Baton Rouge. Hundreds of college pennants cover the walls of the halls the students pass through everyday.
Downstairs, dozens of students and their parents meet to plan a college field trip to Houston and Austin, Texas, while upstairs, teens study or grab a bite from the BRYC kitchen.
With a snack of chicken, bread and ranch dressing and a chemistry book, Jasmin Mungai, 17, studies in the tutoring room.
A junior at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, Mungai joined BRYC when she saw a friend in the program earn a prestigious scholarship to Emory University, an elite school in Atlanta.
She wants the same kind of future.
“It’s a support system of kids with like minds who want to succeed and go to a good college and have a good career,” Mungai said. “That is a good environment to be around.”
Since joining in her sophomore year, Mungai has learned more about herself, she said. For instance, she gained confidence in her writing skills after a creative writing assignment, and she started working at her school newspaper.
She points to a poster on the wall in the study room that lists two ways of looking at life — a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.
“Some people think they can’t do things, and they’re not good at certain subjects,” she said. “Some people have a growth mindset and think they can be good at anything.”
Downstairs, LaShaun Robertson, BRYC’s senior program director, informs three dozen parents and students about the Texas college tour. Again and again she reminds them of the importance of scholarships.
“Without scholarships, there is no way some of these kids can afford to go to some of these schools,” she said after the lecture. “It’s free money. You can’t pass it up.”
Students at BRYC are directed to apply to at least three schools — “a reach, a match and a safety” — Robinson said, but most apply to eight or more. And they seek scholarships from lots of different sources with the help of the program.
Every bit of help with college and career planning is needed, says Leroy Harrison, whose son James is a BRYC fellow.
“Since he’s been in the program, he’s been exposed to various levels of social groups and different people from different walks all over our good city,” he said.
Markelle Dunn agrees. The junior at Baton Rouge High attends school with other motivated students, she said, but the fellows at BRYC share a similar background.
“It’s nice being around like-minded people who want to uplift and motivate people,” Dunn said. “Even at school, it’s nice, but you don’t see people with the same vision.”