Backpacks and Blueprints: An Inside View of Beyond Housing’s Holistic Approach to Education

For nearly a decade, 22-year-old Alexis Rice-Scott has been a familiar face at the Pagedale Family Support Center. Little did she know when she heard about it from a friend in middle school in Normandy how much it and the many other initiatives within Beyond Housing’s comprehensive offerings would shape her educational journey.

At the time, she just thought being at the center after school was fun. She liked the game nights, African drumming classes, literacy activities, and challenges like the vocabulary bee where she won a refurbished laptop. Plus, the center, which is a mainstay for education and enrichment activities for dozens of children each year, was right down the street from her grandmother’s house, where she and her mother lived.

Even when Alexis aged out of the Pagedale Family Support Center’s offerings, she kept coming back. She volunteered at Freedom School in the summertime and at other programs. She helped younger students with their homework and marveled at their progress. “I’ve watched these kids grow up too,” she said. “They’re just like I used to be.”

As a college student, she still comes to visit the staff, including James McGowan, Beyond Housing’s College Access Program Manager. When they first met, his primary role was to sign up students for the College Savings Program, which helps high schoolers build a nest egg for advanced education and provides funds to match their deposits. In the last 10 years, it has served 360 students, supporting them with more than $1.1 million toward college.

Alexis recalls talking to James about the program during her early years at the rigorous Metro Academic and Classical High School in St. Louis. “The savings opportunity was a really big thing for me,” she said. “No one had asked me to do anything like that before.” It got her thinking more seriously about college—and how to pay for it.

Finding Funds for a Promising Scholar

Alexis steadily built strong academic skills, got a job at the 24:1 Cinema in Pagedale (which Beyond Housing owns), and participated in experiences like the Wyman Center’s Teen Leadership Program (which was held at Beyond Housing’s offices). But even with such a solid background, she wasn’t able to secure the financial support to attend any of the historically Black colleges and universities to which she had been accepted.

James encouraged her to explore Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, as an option, and the disappointed scholar reluctantly took his advice. She toured the campus, talked to a fellow Normandy school district graduate who attended it, and gradually warmed up to the idea. Perhaps most importantly, James had told several Drury alumni about her, and they were willing to help pay for her school.

With their support, Alexis received a presidential award scholarship all four years at Drury, as well as other grants and awards. Although finances were still tight, she knew her team back in St. Louis was still behind her. I would have had many more hardships without James,” she said. “He cares about me and my schooling.”

A Blueprint for the Future

The College Savings Program has helped more than 100 students from the Normandy school district graduate from college. The 2021 college graduates celebrated via video in late June along with the 25 high school graduates who participated in the College Savings Program (known as Viking Advantage at Normandy High School).

Alexis finished college in May 2021 with a degree in multimedia production and journalism and a minor in criminology. (You can hear from her at 25:00 in the video.) A career in investigative reporting is at the top of her list of options … but first she wants to capitalize on one experience that COVID cut off for her: living in Korea.

Her study abroad experience was cut short in 2020 only two weeks after she arrived in Korea. She’s now studying to become certified as an English teacher so she can return, this time in a professional capacity, and fulfill her dream. She’s also working at the 24:1 Cinema and volunteering at Freedom School.

At her Drury graduation, she decorated her cap with the Korean word for blueprint. “It’s the name of one of my favorite Kpop group songs,” she explained, “and the message behind it means a lot to me. Basically, it’s saying that I create the layout or “blueprint” for my own future.”

It seems only fitting for a Pagedale Family Support Center vocabulary champion to carry that word on with her to her next adventures in life.

Going Beyond Basic Support for Families

Beyond the Backpack is Beyond Housing’s annual one-stop-shop for school supplies, physicals, immunizations, haircuts, snacks, and more. It not only gets students and their families excited about another year of learning, it engages many community businesses and organizations in supporting education at the local level.

The event is one of the opportunities for Beyond Housing’s Family Engagement Liaisons to start their work for the new school year. The team of 12 has representatives in every Normandy school, where they work closely with the staff and families. From September 2020 through April 2021, they had more than 6,850 engagements with families—228% of the program’s goal, a remarkable achievement. They also referred 317 families to partner organizations, completed 419 home visits, and provided 5,470 resources.

Through these and other education initiatives, Beyond Housing is addressing the interrelated needs of families in North St. Louis County, serving the community holistically, and creating change at the systems level by partnering with the local school district.

All of this opens the door for deep, trusted relationships like those Alexis has with her mentors. She says she will carry the staff with her in her heart as she embarks on her future endeavors. “When they say they want to be involved with you, they really mean it,” she says.

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