West Side students plan, fund their own college tour

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Fourteen girls from Legal Prep Charter Academy loaded into vans today for a three-state, spring break college tour they planned from scratch.

Three chaperones are accompanying the students this week as they travel through Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana to visit the University of Akron, Kenyon College, Ohio State University, Ohio University, Northern Kentucky University and Butler University.

The four-day trip is unique because the group of sophomores came up with the idea – and did the fundraising – themselves, said Taylor Brand, who teaches 9th and 10th grade algebra at the school, which opened in 2012 in West Garfield Park.

The students are part of Brand’s advisory (or homeroom). She checks up on their grades, stays in contact with their parents and makes sure they stay on track – and now she’s leading the college tour.

“I describe it to my girls as their school family, so I’m kind of like their school mom,” the 23-year-old teacher said.

Brand said they came up with the idea after Skyping with her mom during during class. Brand’s mom talked to the girls about the importance of keeping their grades up.

After that, they kept asking if they could go visit Mama D, Brand said.

“I kind of let it drop, but they didn’t let me forget about it.”

Knowing she couldn’t just take her class to visit her parents in Ohio, Brand said she suggested another idea, and the spring break college tour was born.

“It’s the first trip of its kind that I’ve seen,” said Rebecca Lewis, manager of teacher leadership development for Teach for America.

Lewis works with Brand, who’s a teacher for Teach for America. She said Brand’s strong relationship with her advisory girls and math class is impressive.

“She wants to create a short path to help them get to college,” Lewis said.

She said she hopes the trip will open the student’s eyes to what experiences are outside their community on Chicago’s West Side.

Over 85 percent of the legal-themed school’s 810 students are considered low-income, according to the school website.

Brand is laying the groundwork to show other teachers throughout Chicago what is possible for their students when they go above and beyond, Lewis said.

Brand said she wants her students to fall in love with the idea of going to college and grow closer as a group.

But the girls had some hesitation about the trip, Brand said.

“It’s their first time being away from their family and the West Side of Chicago,” she said.

Brand said they’re nervous because they have never been on a college campus. Many would be the first in their families to attend college.

“There’s a lot of fear of the unknown,” she said.

On the funding site the group created, Brand said the school “is 99 percent free or reduced lunch, so funds are extremely limited.”

“We have hosted a dodgeball tournament, sold taffy apples, sold Valentine’s flowers and helped with our school’s Valentine’s dance in efforts to raise this money,” Brand said.

Their efforts raised about $200, then they launched the fundraising site two months ago and now have raised $3,530 – $200 over their goal.

Brand said she’s excited and grateful for the support they’ve received, but she’s more excited for the girls because they’ll be able to see what they can accomplish when they put their mind to something.

“They should be so incredibly proud that they thought this up and raised the money,” Brand said.

Any extra money raised will go to sending the students to summer programs and set aside for future local college trips, she said.

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