FasTrac program moves, keeps assisting students

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When Tejeria Beacham started her freshman year Monday at the University of Northern Iowa, she became part of an exclusive but growing group.

Each member of FasTrac — a 3-year-old student support program formerly based at City High School in Iowa City — who has graduated high school has gone on to college. That’s 23 students in all, 18 of them this year, said FasTrac director Henri Harper.

Beacham, 18, who graduated from City High in the spring, credits FasTrac with putting her on track for college.

“I think I wouldn’t have been as focused on college” without FasTrac, she said. “I think I would have been focused on finishing high school.”

Despite FasTrac’s success at getting kids into college, Harper saw his position as City High’s Juvenile Court liaison cut at the end of last school year, and the program was revamped.

Harper was allowed to apply for the new position but declined. Instead, he expanded FasTrac into the community and has included elementary school students.

It is now part of the Mayor’s Youth Empowerment Program, an Iowa City-based non-profit organization that serves people with disabilities and at-risk youths.

“We focus on change,” Harper said. “If the kid’s not changing, we’re doing something wrong.”

FasTrac helps students with academics, encourages community involvement and prepares them for college.

It started after an alarming number of fights and some racial tension at City High in the fall of 2007.

There are now 65 kids in the program and 20 more on the waiting list. Most of the participants are black, although Harper said more Hispanics and whites are joining. The majority moved to Iowa City from elsewhere.

FasTrac is tailored to each student’s needs. Some just need motivation. Others have gotten in trouble. Not everyone comes with a lot of baggage.

Eighteen-year-old James Taylor, a 4.0-GPA student at City High who now is a freshman football player at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, said some students joined “to be recognized as the kids who didn’t get in trouble.”

Harper doesn’t baby the kids and doesn’t allow them to blame others if they have problems. He said that what makes FasTrac unusual is that the kids aren’t told what to do. Instead, he tries to get them to want to do things, like study, get a job, go to college.

“It’s a difficult concept for a lot of people, but it works for (the students),” Harper said.

One example is work. Many kids say they want a job, Harper said, but what they really want is the money. FasTrac teaches them that if they’re going to have a job, they must be on time and be productive.

New to the program is a van that FasTrac kids drive around selling snacks from. It’s a trial run before Harper helps them get a job.

Bree Marshall, an 18-year-old City High student, said the van, dubbed “Fast Snack,” has taught her “patience with the customer and a lot of responsibility, and how to keep up with the money.”

The program also has taken students to lectures at the University of Iowa, college visits throughout the country and to civil rights memorials in the South.

Harper is FasTrac’s only employee, although teachers, parents and community mentors play a big role. FasTrac is not curriculum-based.

City High’s new program is called FAME, for Future, Academics, Mentoring and Expectations. There will be lessons on leadership and college preparatory work, said first-year Principal John Bacon.

He said that while school officials will encourage students to participate in FAME, they will refer students to FasTrac who could benefit from the program.

Danielle Washington, 14, is a freshman at City High who joined FasTrac.

“I thought this would help me understand about college,” she said. “I also wanted to keep my grades up since I’m a freshman.”

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