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Admission Possible: Closing a disturbing divide in Minnesota's educational landscape

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In a yearlong series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile will be followed by comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Fatima Omar
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Fatima Omar

When Fatima Omar graduated from St. Olaf College in May, her mother wept through the ceremony and then went on a phone-card splurge, calling Somali kin in England, Sweden, Kenya — truly, around the world — to brag that her daughter had become the first in her family to earn a college diploma.

“I just let her have her day,” Fatima said, rolling her eyes with loving indulgence.

Nearly 15,000 low-income students and their parents have a shot at “having their day” as a result of Jim McCorkell’s drive to coach disadvantaged high-school kids through college admission and beyond.

McCorkell founded Admission Possible 10 years ago, operating from a bedroom in his St. Paul apartment with little more than an inspiration, a supportive wife and encouragement from a few donors.

Obama took note
President Obama summed up the results at a White House event honoring innovative nonprofits: “Ninty-nine percent of the Admission Possible class of 2008 got into college — 99 percent. ... The vast majority stay in college and earn degrees. Admission Possible operates in just two states now. So imagine if it was 10, or 20 or 50.”

Exciting? You bet. It’s also humbling for the youngest son of high-school dropouts who reared five kids on factory wages in Northfield, Minn.

“I have been humbled by the students that we work with, by what they’ve overcome and by their level of success,” McCorkell said.

Also humbling is the dedication of hundreds of young AmeriCorps workers who serve as Admission Possible coaches. They “believe so totally in the idea of helping someone else that they are willing to work extraordinarily hard for almost no money,” McCorkell said.

McCorkell works at the point on the pipeline where even the brightest of the low-income kids often lose in the competition for college admission.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
McCorkell works at the point on the pipeline where even the brightest of the low-income kids often lose in the competition for college admission.

“Last year we had 500 recent college graduates apply to come to work here,” McCorkell said. “When I say to a lot of business leaders that we have a line 500 people deep, all of whom want to come to work 60 to 70 hours a week for $11,000 a year, they ask, ‘How do you get that?’ ”

Now, McCorkell and his team are getting ready to meet the challenge Obama threw down, to expand Admission Possible to other states.

Propelled by Minnesota’s success and failure
The national drive is propelled by Admission Possible’s success in Minnesota, which in turn was propelled by the urgency of the need for low-income students to get an extra academic boost.

A disturbing divide cuts through Minnesota’s educational landscape. On one side, middle- and upper-income kids thrive academically in keeping with the state’s longstanding emphasis on quality education. On the other side, low-income minority kids can’t seem to get a toehold on success.

Not only is this a breach of social justice. It also is a serious economic problem.

Minnesota has prospered because Minnesotans have been well-educated. Only 10 states claimed a higher percentage of college graduates in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And Minnesota is second only to the state of Washington in hanging onto its college grads, said a study reported by Forbes in 2009.

Now, Minnesota’s prized educational attainment is in jeopardy because minorities account for the state’s fastest growing group of children. And, for one reason or another, those are the kids lagging far behind their better off classmates.

You don’t need to be an economist to see that this is bad news indeed for the state’s future well being. But many economists have said as much, and several organizations are working to close the education gap.

Vallay Varro uses pipeline imagery to summarize the various efforts. She is the executive director of Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now (Minncan), a nonprofit that was launched in January to research the problem, mobilize resources and advocate for change.

Think of a pipeline running through the childhood years. There are leaks all along the pipelines of the kids who aren’t succeeding in school, Varro said.

Thus, repair work — reading to preschoolers, helping eighth graders with math, coaching high schoolers on college entrance requirements — is needed at many points of the pipelines, she said.

“It’s really about making sure that wherever you identify the leaks in your pipeline you are fixing those leaks,” she said.

McCorkell works at the point on the pipeline where even the brightest of the low-income kids often lose in the competition for college admission.

Drilling for a future
To understand how Admission Possible works, follow the story of Nousoua Moua, the 18-year-old son of Hmong immigrants.

“In junior high, I was a pretty bad kid,” he said. “I was hanging out with the wrong crowd.”

Nousoua Moua
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Nousoua Moua

When he got to St. Paul Central High School, his worried mother pressed him to find something that could put him back on a track where he had a shot at college.

He was accepted into Admission Possible in his sophomore year. There would be no charge. Instead, Moua was expected to perform community service. He helped with landscaping at a school.

Moua’s composite score on his first practice ACT college entrance exam was 15. Not good. Eighty-five percent of recent high-school graduates were doing better than that.

In his junior year, Moua was assigned an Admission Possible coach and a schedule. He was to report every Tuesday and Thursday for two hours of intensive drills on fractions and equations, semicolons and commas — a range of topics in English, math, reading and science. He also would practice writing essays.

The coach pursued Moua when he skipped sessions, pulling him back to the program.

At some point, it dawned on Moua that “she is more than a teacher ... she is a friend.”

In his senior year, they focused on college application deadlines and financial-aid basics. He drew up a detailed marketing plan for selling himself to colleges.

Moua scored a 23 on his final ACT exam, placing him in the upper one-third of high-school graduates nationwide. He applied to six colleges, and all of them accepted him. With guidance from his coach, he applied for 15 scholarships.

And now he is set to start classes this fall at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.

Where would he be without Admission Possible?

“I have a friend who says he wants to go to college. ... In May, he finished the application. The deadline was December,” Moua said. “If I had not been in Admission Possible, I would be the same as him, a big-time procrastinator.”

Dropouts ... tough life
McCorkell himself could have been one of the kids needing Admission Possible if not for a series of leaders who influenced his life. His parents, in their own way, started the chain of leadership. Theirs was a classic story of teens whose love leads to pregnancy.

“They dropped out of high school, and they had a pretty tough life,” McCorkell said. “Dad worked many years in a factory and later as a house painter. He would get laid off every winter. … My mother worked [in a laundry] ... until she had a bad work accident and damaged her right hand permanently.”

His parents pushed their five children to get the education they, themselves, had missed. A turning point came when his mother got enough training after her injury to land a job at Carleton College.

McCorkell, the youngest, watched his older siblings go on to college. The expectation that he would follow them was all but written in the family’s DNA.

“My mom had really wanted to go to college,” he said. “The story she always told was that her dad had saved the money for her to go to St. Olaf. She was on a pathway for that, getting good grades and so forth. And she never got there. That broke her heart, and it was one of the reasons she motivated all of her children to go to college.”

So McCorkell worked hard in school. And he made use of the Minnesota law allowing high-school seniors to take college classes.

Jim McCorkell with Admission Possible graduates, from left to right, Abdihamid Geyre, Brendan Ireland and Lily Moua.
Courtesy of Admission Possible
Jim McCorkell with Admission Possible graduates, from left to right, Abdihamid Geyre, Brendan Ireland and Lily Moua.

In a political science class at Carleton, he met his next influential leader: Paul Wellstone, the dynamic professor who would go on to become a United States senator.

“We had a bunch of students complaining about how you can’t make any change in the world,” McCorkell recalled. “It was this very cynical point of view that everybody is corrupt and nobody is really committed to the public good. (Wellstone) would step back and say, ‘If the people in this room can’t change the world, then who can?’ ”

Wellstone commanded his students to “go out, try to find your corner of the world and change it.”

McCorkell was motivated!

He enrolled in Carleton and took almost every class Wellstone taught. Upon graduating in 1990, he volunteered to work on Wellstone’s first Senate campaign, and after the victory he landed an internship in Wellstone’s Senate office.

Continuing in Wellstone’s footsteps, McCorkell eventually taught political science as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

It took three years for him to realize that the typical college professor was not a bit like the rabble-rousing Wellstone.

“I liked the teaching and the college environment, but I wasn’t an intellectual who wanted to study and write articles,” he said. “I realized it probably wasn’t going to be the right thing for me.”

Unsure what he wanted to do, McCorkell signed up to work on Wellstone’s re-election bid in 1995.

That ended when Wellstone won.

“At that point, I felt a little lost,” McCorkell said. “I still didn’t know what I really wanted to do. I wasn’t going to be a campaign worker my whole life. ... In a way I felt like a failure.”

He applied to do graduate studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Thanks in part to a hand-written recommendation from Wellstone, he was accepted.

“It was a pretty remarkable experience to be at one of the best universities in the world as the son of people who hadn’t finished high school,” he said.

Never forgetting Wellstone’s challenge — find your corner of the world and work to change it — McCorkell thought his corner might be in housing renovation where he could provide skills, jobs and shelter for low-income families.

Then, while daydreaming in a real-estate class, McCorkell suddenly saw his future.

He had been teaching for Kaplan, the for-profit company that charges students to prepare them for college entrance exams.

“I found myself thinking, ‘What if you provided that kind of support to low-income kids?’ ” he recalled.

“I have an entry in my journal for the day the idea came into my head,” he said. “It was really a peaceful moment because I had felt so much angst. I had felt like — not like a screw up, but like let’s pick something and do it. I had sort of been trying and failing. ... So this is what I should do with my life. Everything had led up to this. It really was a dramatic moment.”

Temptation
Meanwhile, he met Christine Greenhow, a former high-school English teacher who was working on a doctorate at Harvard. Eventually, they were married.

Before they knew it, the couple faced a crossroad in their lives. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. tried to recruit McCorkell, offering a potential six-figure signing bonus — more than enough to pay off his student loans.

“It felt a little crazy to walk away from that,” he said. “I was tempted.”

He thought of his mother who had worked so hard to help him succeed.

“She was starting to get a little worried, like am I ever going to get my act together?” he said.

Now he had the ticket for a future that could fulfill her dreams. Could he throw that away to chase an untested idea offering no certain income?

He credits Greenhow with keeping him on course. She told him, “Don’t get sucked into that trap. You want to change the world. You want to start Admission Possible.”

'What do I do now?'
While she finished her studies at Harvard, he made several trips to Minnesota, stirring the waters for support, crafting a business plan and running it past tough-minded critics.

Everyone he consulted advised him to meet R. Winston Wallin, a former executive at Medtronic and Pillsbury and a leader in the Twin Cities philanthropic community. Wallin, who died in 2010, had chaired Carleton’s board of trustees. McCorkell hoped that would give him a connection.  

Six supporters sent letters of introduction, and then McCorkell called Wallin’s office.

“I assumed I wouldn’t get him, but the secretary put him right on the phone, and there I am talking to Win Wallin!” he said. “I’m a little bit like ... ‘What do I do now?’ ”

Wallin offered to meet in Minnesota the next week. McCorkell, still in Massachusetts, mooched enough frequent flyer miles from a friend to cover the plane ticket.

Wallin donated $25,000, and soon General Mills did the same.

Admission Possible was a go.

In the fall of 2000, they moved to St. Paul and set up shop in a bedroom of their rented duplex on Lincoln Avenue.

Donations would depend on their ability to process credit cards. But the banker wanted to see their place of business.

“So I remember the banker coming over for a tour,” McCorkell recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I kind of do business in this back bedroom.”

After six months they did move into a real place of business, above a liquor store on University Avenue.

Key insights on leadership
At that point McCorkell made a critical decision: As determined as he was to help disadvantaged kids, he would lead others to that work, not do it himself.

“I always had pretty good clarity that I wouldn’t be the one to work with the students,” he said. “This sounds weird to people. I’m not really good with high-school kids. I feel awkward around them. I’m not a natural with them.”

In retrospect, he said, that understanding of his own limitations was “a key insight on how to be a social entrepreneur — or, for that matter, to be a leader.”

“You’ve got to learn what you’re good at and what you’re not,” he said. “Then you spend your time doing what you’re good at, and you find other people to do what you’re not good at.”

So they hired four recent college graduates to coach the first group of 35 high-school students.

That was the second decision McCorkell now credits as a key to Admission Possible’s success: He would deploy youthful dedication by hiring national service workers.

“The critical idea for what we do as an innovator is not that we are trying to get kids into college,” he said. “Lots of people have been trying to do that. ... We were the first ones to try to harness the spirit and power of national service to address the problem.”

Winging it
Even though most of the students in that first group got into college, McCorkell now admits that “we really didn’t know what we were doing.” They had curriculum for the students, written by Greenhow and a colleague.

“But I wasn’t sure how to best teach the test preparation,” he said. “I had worked for Kaplan. So we went out and bought a bunch of books from a store. I would sit there with these four coaches. I’d say, ‘Here’s how you teach this stuff.’ ”

Even so, they had to take a flying leap the next year when AmeriCorps, the national service program, awarded Admission Possible a grant for 26 coaches.

“We went from two high schools to eight, and then we had to hire all of these people,” he said. “We didn’t know how to do all of that.”

They also didn’t have enough money to make the payroll initially. AmeriCorps wouldn’t reimburse them for the salaries until the end of the program. But meanwhile, those young coaches needed to eat. So he had to scramble for more money.

“There was a lot of winging it,” McCorkell said.

Still, he was having the time of his life.

“I don’t remember having that much doubt,” he said. “I wasn’t really overwhelmed either. ... A lot of it was fun and exciting.”

Through a series of growth spurts, McCorkell and his team attracted enough supporters and grew to the point where Admission Possible was able to pay about $3.1 million in expenses in 2010 and put some money in reserve too.

According to forms that nonprofits are required to file with the Internal Revenue Service, McCorkell’s base salary was $114,705 in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, 2010, plus $43,413 in bonus pay. That was up from total compensation of $36,019 in 2001.

Measuring success
One reason donors have stepped forth is that Admission Possible can show solid results for the investments.

Walk into Admission Possible’s St. Paul office, and you see walls loaded with plaques and charts celebrating specific accomplishments: 98 percent of Admission Possible students have gained entrance to college. On average, those students increased their ACT scores by 21 percent while in the program. Nearly 80 percent of the students who enrolled in college have graduated or still are working toward degrees.

Those results have been confirmed in an evaluation by Wilder Research and an audit by ICF International.

In response to concerns that Admission Possible might be selecting students who would have succeeded anyway, Christopher Avery of the Harvard Kennedy School recently analyzed the program and concluded that Admission Possible students were 20 to 30 percent more likely to go to college than comparable students who weren’t in the program.  

McCorkell said that getting measurable results was a personal priority.

“What if you do all of this stuff and it doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “I was really worried about that. I had walked away from that McKinsey offer and a whole bunch of things. ... I wanted to make sure this works, or I needed to go on and do something else.”

Then there were the students and young coaches who had placed trust in him.

“We say to kids in this program that if you come and do what we tell you to do, you will get into college,” he said. “That’s a pretty serious obligation.”

Jim McCorkell and Traci Kirtley congratulate graduates.
Courtesy of Admission Possible
Jim McCorkell and Traci Kirtley congratulate graduates.

So Admission Possible constantly tests its own effectiveness.

“At a philosophical level I often get frustrated by many in the non-profit sector who say, ‘We are doing God’s work. Trust us.’,” McCorkell said. “Well maybe you are maybe you are not. You had better measure it — you know, trust but verify.”

Standing in for parents
Based on results, Admission Possible has expanded.

It’s not stopping with high school anymore but coaching many students through college too.

Fatima Omar — the Somali woman whose mother was so proud to see her graduate this spring — said her college coach provided the support many of her St. Olaf classmates got from parents.

As the daughter of an immigrant who spoke no English, Omar had no one at home she could consult when financial aid questions arose or when she was struggling in chemistry or when she agonized over changing her major.

“I did not have a support system,” she said. “I didn’t have a mom who knew how to get through the system.”

Admission Possible coaches stood in.

“They were there,” she said. “They do not give up on you”

Now, before she goes to graduate school, she plans to work for a year as an Admission Possible coach.

“I tell people that was my dream job,” she said.

Milwaukee and beyond
Admission Possible also expanded recently into Milwaukee.

And it is poised to open in 10 other cities during the next few years. McCorkell said the top candidates for the next sites are Omaha, Portland and Chicago.

And once again, McCorkell is facing leadership challenges, beginning with the question of whether he can lead the national organization.

“Sometimes somebody can start something but they can’t lead it,” he said. “We are working really hard to make sure that I can, because I’d like this to be my life’s work.”

'Driving Change' panel: McCorkell shows key leadership trait in finding capacity in others

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Comments (5)

Wonderful story. Sad reflection though on the hit and miss availability of help by the colleges.

Thank you for this great article on Admission Possible. As a veteran teacher in St. Paul, I watched as this program helped numerous students at my high school, Arlington (now closed), gain admission to a whole slew of colleges throughout the state. I believe we were the first school in St. Paul to get on board. In fact, in the photograph of three Admission Possible workers with Mr. McCorkell, both Lily Moua and Brendan Ireland graduated from Arlington High School. It is unfortunate that the article mentioned Vallay Varro, who during her brief (appointed, not elected) stint on the St. Paul School Board was one of the four votes that closed our school. I have an idea for a followup article. Why don't you interview Lily and Brendan and ask them for their opinions concerning the closing of their alma mater at the end of the 2009-2010 school year? Once again, thank you for highlighting the great job done by Admission Possible.

Admission Possible is obviously a significant achievement. Mr. McKorkle and his associates have my admiration and thanks. As related in the proverbial story about the little girl saving one of manny star fish stranded on the beach, one student at a time, Admission Possible has made a difference in their lives as well as in the lives of their families and communities.

The situation Admission Possible and this story highlights, however, is the tacit acceptance by the people of Minnesota of a two tier education system: a well funded and effective system for wealthier schools versus a minimally funded and ineffective system for people lower on the economic ladder.

It is ironic that we applaud the success of Admission Possible but are unwilling to provide the financial support necessary for all Minnesotans to receive a comparable education.

We can take pride in Admission Possible, but it is more difficult to recognize why it is necessary in the first place.

Great point, Joel. When school funding was turned over to the state one of the advantages was to right situations like you describe. Unfortunately, poor state funding through the Pawlenty years has made that experiment a failure and wealthy communities still have good schools while poor communities have bad ones. That problem along with the inability of many poor families to prepare their children for learning once again indicates a need for early childhood education and ongoing programs to help the poor be successful in school. Simply hiring "Teach for America" graduates just doesn't cut it. Very poignant article.

Great article about a most important issue!

Suggest you do another story about a place where public high school education really works: North Minneapolis' Patrick Henry High School. This school sends many of its grads to college. Admission Possible is quite likely a part of their success story, too, but so is the administration, faculty, support staff and volunteers who make this happen!