Join our diverse force of leaders shaping the course of our nation.
Together We Rise: This Teacher Won't Let Zip Codes Determine Outcomes
Every Monday, we'll bring you a story from our 25 years that illustrates the impact that our network of corps members and alumni have had on education. This week, we feature Chris Scribner (Alabama '13), whose ambitious program has helped make the college dream more accessible for his students.
When we first brought you Chris Scribner’s story in May, his CAP & GOWN Project had led to the number of seniors at Johnson High School in Alabama attending college to rise an astounding five times in only two years.
Now Chris, a 2013 corps member, is reporting that he and his students at the Huntsville public school are taking the necessary steps to make the program—which has taken students on 50 college tours in three countries—an official nonprofit.
“The first half of our mission is getting the kids excited about college, and the second part is guiding students where needed,” he says. “If they want to start their own community service project, we help them with that, whether it’s a nonprofit or as we did recently, a reading program where our students read to elementary school students.
Perhaps most impressive is that while he founded CAP & GOWN, his students have taken ownership in the day-to-day operation of the program.
“In this case, we’re getting CAP & GOWN incorporated in the spring, and hopefully by then, we’ll have our 501(c)(3) status,” he says. “I may have planned the first tour, but they’ve really run with this. They plan the tours now, book the hotels, and do the budgeting.
“It’s a team effort when it comes to the students, our other corps members here, the veteran educators, and the members of the community.”
One of those students is Jailen Young, a promising junior who had “never seriously thought about college” until he got to Johnson and discovered CAP & GOWN. Twenty tours later, attending either Vanderbilt or Georgetown—Scribner’s alma mater—has become his main goal.
“The program hasn’t just changed me,” says Jailen, who has built his networking skills through his involvement in fundraising for CAP & GOWN. “It’s changed my whole neighborhood. It’s exciting to see everyone involved, and the Teach For America teachers here have really helped change things.”
Jailen’s story undoubtedly resonates with anyone who meets him. Partially deaf and at one time, homeless, he recalls his academic struggles as a freshman.
“[Mr. Scribner] was my history teacher, but I was failing,” he says. “Mentally I knew that I was capable of superior work, but things kept pulling me down. For one, I didn’t want to wear my hearing aids. I don’t know my parents that well, but I know they had me as teenagers before my mom split and my dad got locked up, so I was staying at my grandma’s.
“I knew that I went to a school where the average student is four years behind in reading, and no one in my family has been to college. I didn’t know where I was headed.”
The turning point occurred one day when Chris offered to drive him home after school.
“We had to go to two different housing projects to get books and clothes but then I didn’t really know where he should take me after,” Jailen says. “I remember Coach Scribner emotionally asked me to return to my grandma’s house after months away, which thankfully I did.
“That meant a lot to me. He and the other teachers never quit on us, and that was the main motivation I needed. My situation’s a lot better now. And yes, I’m wearing my hearing aids more often.”
Not only have Jailen’s grades improved to the point where he earned an A in Scribner’s AP U.S. History class, he returned to the wrestling team, where he won 54 bouts and qualified for the Alabama State Championships this past season.
“I feel every student should be given the opportunity to work hard,” Chris says in describing Jailen’s situation. “The only difference between our students and the students who come from a more stable home or affluent background is opportunity.”
However, while Jailen is one of many success stories to come out of Johnson High School, Chris refuses to claim any semblance of victory.
“I actually don’t feel good about our results so far,” Chris says, matter-of-factly. “The reality is there’s still about 50 percent of our seniors not going to college. That frustration and that anger is what inspires me to stay longer than I originally planned.
“Our goal is that 100 percent of the students in CAP & GOWN are accepted to college, whether that’s next year or in 10 years, and I won’t be satisfied until we reach that.”
As for Jailen, he already knows what he wants to do with his degree.
“They say a child’s zip code shouldn’t predict where he ends up in life, but unfortunately, Huntsville’s been a model of inequity for decades,” he says. “That’s why I want to become a Teach For America corps member.
“And it’s not just because of Coach Scribner. When I see Mr. Kim is always the first one to arrive at school and the last one to leave, or Ms. Heller sponsoring every extracurricular under the sun, or Ms. Franklin teaching my classmates to love math for the first time, it’s powerful, and I want to be a part of that for my community.”