In a room painted purple and white, a class of third graders write letters to their pen pals – ACU students – using pencils with ACU logos. They end each school day with a Wildcat chant.
If you ask the students where they are going to college, 75 percent of them will say ACU, said Robin Carlile, their teacher.
The children at San Jacinto Elementary may live in a district with the highest poverty and crime rates in Amarillo, but already they are well on their way to becoming college students, said Carlile.
Each of the elementary school’s classrooms has a sponsoring university that gives the children a glimpse of what life can be like after high school. ACU is the sponsor of Carlile’s classroom.
The students of the San Jacinto Elementary have not always had this vision for their future. At the beginning of her 9-year career at the school, Carlile said she often saw children who were not being supported by their parents or by their teachers.
“A lot of their parents have never graduated from high school, let alone college,” Carlile said. “There had come to be a mindset that that’s the best the children can do.”
That changed when the school adapted the No Excuses University program in 2007. No Excuses is a national program for academically struggling schools. It encourages children from grade school up to set their sights on graduating from college.
But the program’s biggest impact of comes from its teacher training, which challenges teachers to stop lowering their expectations for underprivileged students.
“Children will rise to whatever you expect of them,” Carlile said. “There’s no excuse for the adults in their lives not to teach them like any upper-middle class kid.”
Carlile has seen this mindset transform the lives of students, teachers and parents. The school went from being barely acceptable by state standards to exceptional. Over the past few years, Carlile’s students have had a 100 percent pass rate for the tax test.
Scholarship programs and a new computer lab for parents to earn their GED’s have helped convince parents that college is a possibility for both their children and themselves. Students around Amarillo have asked to transfer to San Jacinto Elementary because of its college focus, Carlile said.
As an ACU graduate, Carlile wanted her alma mater to have the opportunity to be a part of what the elementary school was doing. She sent ACU Today a picture of her classroom wearing ACU T-shirts. That started a partnership that has lasted three years.
The ACU Alumni Relations Office sent T-Shirts the children could keep as well as shirts for the Elementary school to use as the children’s uniform every Friday, Carlile said. ACU Leadership Camps have also sent things like stencils and key chains.
Carlile brought all of the kids copies of The Optimist after Sing Song. She had her students differentiate between fact and opinion in one of the articles. Carlile was going to have them do another project where they clipped out parts of the newspaper, but none of the students wanted to cut up their papers.
ACU has not stopped at sending papers and trinkets. Members of the Servant Action Leadership Team have paired up with all of the third graders and committed to writing to them over every semester, said Â , senior biochemistry major from Abilene.
Huggins, a SALT officer, said the college students and third graders both take pictures around their schools with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Willie the Wildcat. They send the pictures to one another with the pen pal letters.
“They really get to know each other,” Huggins said. “The kids are learning writing and communication, and it ties ACU students back to their roots.”
The third grade class has also gotten something in the mail from the president of the university. Carlile sent President Phil Schubert a letter introducing herself after he was inaugurated. He sent her back a handwritten letter with a message for the whole calss.
“I don’t believe any other classroom has the overwhelming response that we have had from ACU,” Carlile said.
Through the letters and gifts ACU has sent, the children at San Jacinto Elementary have begun to understand that college is more than learning in a classroom, Carlile said. It is a wonderful experience that opens opportunities both during and after the time spent getting a degree.
Last month the class learned about African Americans escaping from slavery before the Civil War, Carlile said. The children were asked to identify their own steps to freedom. Each of them drew college as their final step, and most children colored it in purple and white.
“They all know college is the way that they will have freedom one day,” Carlile said. “I believe one day we may see one of my kidos going to ACU.”