Dallas Man Backs Urban Boarding To Help Children In Poverty
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Share PexelsGetting help with homework, having someone teach you how to take notes and even just getting a full night’s sleep are often privileges that kids in poverty don’t have.The Dallas Morning News reports so what if there was a way to mimic such a home life, which usually is organic in middle class and affluent families?Dallas businessman Randy Bowman says he knows how to do that — by creating an urban boarding experience that’s similar to those at private elite boarding schools. Children would still attend their local schools but spend the week living in communal residence halls with structured support to help them grow academically and socially.The idea may seem extreme at first. But after Bowman spent a year researching urban education and the challenges students face, over and over again, it boiled down to one thing: poverty.Children living in the poverty — which is nearly one out of three kids in Dallas — have to overcome trauma that can include homelessness, hunger, illnesses and even violence. Those are challenges not easily dealt with during regular school hours.“The 71 percent of the day that you spend at home overwhelms the 29 percent that you spend at school,” Bowman said. “Our premise is that home is not a problem. The home is simply under-resourced. We just want these kids to have a fair shot at reaching the highest level of potential.”He recently kicked off his campaign to raise an initial $2.5 million it will cost to build two starter facilities in South Dallas and staff them for the first two years. The program would be open to 16 kids at first, but the hope is to have four homes serving up to 200 students in first through sixth grades at each site he runs.Bowman, 54, is well-known across Dallas. He was a corporate lawyer when he transitioned to entertainment with a client list that included Vanilla Ice. He also founded his own logistics business and took the lead on the Parkland Foundation board that raised millions for the new county hospital that opened in 2015.But Bowman identifies with the children struggling in South Dallas as much as he does the city’s power brokers.Bowman grew up in Pleasant Grove and was raised by a single mother. And he can tell you exactly how many times she was able to help him with his homework from elementary to high school: twice.Her time was spent trying to juggle jobs and raise four children while dealing with various illnesses. When he hears comments about Dallas parents not caring enough to be engaged with their children, he takes it personally.His mom was his hero. So when he looks for ways to give back to the community, she’s always on his mind as he thinks about what would have helped her along the way. He says that’s what drives this passion project for him.“The reason an after-school program is great but can’t quite fill the bill is because we could never — as a family — convince the ravages and challenges of poverty to organize themselves neatly and attack us during a two-hour period after school,” he said. “That’s not the way it works. It attacks you throughout the clock, overnight.”He sees the boarding experience as a way to insulate kids from some of the chaotic and traumatic forces that can quickly derail academics, while giving their parents more flexibility to work or learn new skills.Across the street from South Oak Cliff High School, Bowman looks at 4 acres of land now covered with trees and some scattered debris. He purchased it with his own money just a few months ago to be the first site for his project.Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell has agreed to share space on his campus to open a second location for the boarding experience. Students from the college would also work with the program to provide tutoring, support and some overnight supervision that will include other staff.“Randy’s program just opens up a treasure-trove of possibilities,” Sorrell said at a recent education forum, sponsored by Sen. Royce West, where the idea was unveiled. For example, the college could use the residence halls during the summer months for Paul Quinn’s own programs.Some ideas may seem a bit romanticized, such as having grandparents from the neighborhood work as morning counselors to help get the children ready for school each day. But Bowman sees that as a practical solution to boosting neighborhood support and keeping the kids part of the community.There are a handful of urban boarding schools across the nation specifically geared toward helping kids living in poverty. The most well-known are run by charter school operators who have entrance requirements that include enrolling kids who have been in the foster care system, who are homeless or who have faced other traumatic experiences.Some struggled initially with students fighting, throwing chairs and causing other disturbances. But a 2012 study by a Harvard economist found that low-income kids in one such boarding school with 24-hour support had significantly higher math and reading scores than kids who didn’t get into the program, setting them on track toward increasing their potential for higher future earnings and decreasing their chances of committing crimes.Bowman said he’s met with organizers from some of those groups to learn from their challenges but he’s made it clear that doesn’t want to start his own school.Public schools themselves aren’t really the issue. Poverty is, he said, so why spend time reinventing an entire system?He estimates it would cost about $52,000 per student to offer the program during the startup year, then drop to about $16,000 the next year and even further after that. But families participating wouldn’t have to pay anything. He’s looking for donations to cover the bill.Bowman shopped the idea around first, making sure he had support from key elected officials and pastors. He’s met with local psychology experts to make sure arrangements wouldn’t be detrimental to kids. He surveyed local parents to gauge interest.At the recent forum in South Dallas, pastor Stephen Brown listened to the pitch with deep curiosity. Brown is a former teacher who serves at the Greater Bethlehem Baptist Church.“The concept is shocking, but I’m still very interested,” he said. “I think there’s so much potential. It’s going to be a leap for families, but those who have reached the end of their capacity might be more apt because they are stretched to the max already.”Bowman realizes it’s a big ask to have parents trust someone else with their children and says the program won’t be right for all families. A key to making this project successful is community buy-in to make sure parents aren’t stigmatized for their choice, he said.Affluent and middle class families often turn to outside support to help their kids succeed and that’s called good parenting, he said.“We don’t question how it is that the resource got on the shelf, we just label it an act of good parenting,” he said. “If a poor person reaches up on the shelf and brings this resource down that we’re providing so their children can have a better education, shame on us if we call that anything other than good parenting.”Bowman has applied for several grants. He hopes to break ground on the first residence hall later this quarter and start serving the first families as soon as next school year.