Empowering Student Success Beyond High School: A Conversation with Jade Valdez and Ben Richardson

hawkins@growyourgiving.org Uncategorized

The Hispanic Development Fund (HDF), a regional affiliate of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, was founded in 1983 to improve the quality of life of Latino families in Greater Kansas City by engaging the Latino community in philanthropy to build stronger communities through grantmaking and scholarship support. Today, HDF oversees several successful community programs and in 2020 alone awarded $680,000 in scholarships to more than 300 high school, college and graduate students in the Kansas City metro. Additionally, HDF partners with Kansas City’s largest Hispanic-serving high schools through its Family College Prep Program to remove barriers to post-secondary education and empower families in the college admissions and financial aid processes.

On the most recent episode of the Grow Your Giving podcast, HDF’s Director of Programs and Development, John Kearney, talked with recent East High School graduate and HDF scholarship recipient Jade Valdez and East High School Vice Principal Ben Richardson. John, Jade and Ben discuss a wide range of topics including current challenges that students and administrators face in pursuing post-secondary education, the importance of qualified mentors, creating individualized post-graduation plans for all students, and much more.

A transcription of the episode can be found below. All episodes of the Grow Your Giving podcast are available at growyourgiving.org/podcast.

Authored by: Ashley Hawkins, Content Specialist


Episode Transcription

Introduction:
Welcome to the Grow Your Giving podcast powered by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and our national entity, Greater Horizons. We aim to make giving convenient and efficient for our donors through donor-advised funds and other charitable giving tools. The Grow Your Giving podcast discusses philanthropic topics to help you enjoy giving more. Find us online at growyourgiving.org.

John Kearney:
Good morning. My name is John Kearney and I serve as the Director of Programs and Development for the Greater Kansas City Hispanic Development Fund. Affectionately known as HDF. And today I’m joined by two very special guests. Recent East High graduate Jade Valdez and Vice Principal at East High School, Benjamin Richardson. So Jade, if you wouldn’t mind sharing with us a little bit about your personal and educational journey to get us started, that’d be terrific.

Jade Valdez:
Okay. So hi, my name is Jade Valdez and I was born in California and I moved to KC here when I was 15. As you said, I graduated, but I’m going to be the first generation in my family to go to college and I will start college in the fall at Avila University.

John Kearney:
Terrific. And Jade, if you could tell us a little bit about the transition from California to Kansas City. What brought your family to Kansas city?

Jade Valdez:
So we always had financial problems over there and one day we were just like, you know what, since we have family over here in Missouri, in KC, we were just like, why don’t we just move? And we could be together, all together and not struggle as much. And that’s what we decided to do.

John Kearney:
Terrific. Well, we are certainly glad that you made the move so that Mr. Richardson and I had the opportunity to get to know you. Ben, if you wouldn’t mind sharing a little bit about your personal journey as well as your professional career.

Ben Richardson:
Yeah, absolutely. And thank you, John, for having me on this morning. This is great. So I’m a Baltimore native and I moved to Kansas City back in 2012, right out of college. I was an education undergrad degree at a small school in Tennessee. So I kept making my way west and landed here. I landed at East High School in 2012 as a first-year teacher. I taught social studies, American government, and a wide range of classes beyond that. I coached the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams here at East High School. During that time, it was an incredible five-year journey for me. I thought it was going to be a much longer time in the classroom. I had seen myself as someone who might be in a classroom for 10, 15, 20, 25 years. Truly, I loved it so much.

Ben Richardson:
But I was also, in my fourth and fifth years in the classroom, I was working on a master’s degree in school administration. And I had had a lot of encouragement from my administrators at the school during that time, from some other folks in my life, some mentors in the field that felt like they saw that in me. And so I decided that I believed them and I pursued that thinking I’d keep it in a back pocket. And pretty surprisingly for me, an opportunity opened itself after my fifth year of teaching to jump into school administration here at the same school I taught at. And that’s exactly what I did. I decided to make that transition. And so for the last four years, I’ve been a vice principal at East High School.

Ben Richardson:
My first year as a vice principal was Jade’s freshman year. And so I had the pleasure of working with Jade’s graduating class for all or four years of their time at East High School. Following them through their careers and seeing them grow and develop was just an amazing experience for me. Very different from a classroom, but an incredible journey. And so that’s what I’ve been doing. So next year will be my 10th year at East. And I’ll be a vice principal continuing to support the next group of students that I’ll be hanging around with for a few years.

John Kearney:
What a terrific class to start to start with Ben at East. Jade and her classmates were just so impressive to work with this year. So that’s pretty cool to hear.

Ben Richardson:
They absolutely blew me away, John. It was incredible.

John Kearney:
And I love the fact that you have the social studies background, Ben. That’s something that you and I have in common. We’re kindred spirits in that regard.

Ben Richardson:
Primary sources and DBQs. That’s where it’s at.

John Kearney:
Well today, we’re talking about fostering success in post-secondary journeys. Some of the challenges that students have shared with us include talking about being the first in their family to go to college and everything that entails. Family obligations. FAFSA eligibility, academic readiness. Expenses, and the complex nature of the financial aid process. Today, we’ll be exploring some of these challenges. How students and support systems overcome them and how our community at large can help students pursuing their educational dreams. So, Jade, I want to start with you and let’s rewind to September of 2020. Can you tell us a little bit about where you were at that point in your life and about your college-going identity at that time and how it evolved over the past year?

Jade Valdez:
Okay. So, September of 2020. So at that time, it was the beginning of my senior year and all my classes were mostly majority online. And since I was struggling with most of the classes, I didn’t even consider college. I always thought the classes were hard online. And so I was like, imagine college classes online. And not only that, but my family was struggling with money around that time. So I didn’t want to put something else on their plate. I just knew that not a lot of people where I’m from or where I lived get the chance to go to college. So I thought I was going to have the same.

John Kearney:
So what I’m hearing is a couple challenges or barriers for you were COVID in itself and online learning. The financial component of college. And then a little bit about the identity component. Could you tell me a little bit more about that? You said that maybe where you’re from there’s some folks who maybe aren’t going to college or don’t see themselves going to college. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

Jade Valdez:
So it wasn’t really the people that I hung out with at school, but it’s just the people that are like low-income families, they just don’t even think of the idea of college or I’m just stuck and in the same boat. And just the idea of college is just like, no, that’s too expensive. Why would you even think that? And even for community college, I would just think that I wouldn’t have the money for that, or I’m not smart enough for that. And I always had that mentality.

John Kearney:
So Ben, from an administrative perspective, what are you seeing in students’ college-going identities at East High School?

Ben Richardson:
Yeah, well, I think that Jade really did a nice job of kind of leading me into that question, John, because what I see in the students, first of all, before I can speak about their identities, what I see as an educator who also knows what it takes to be at the college level to succeed in college, what I see in Jade and in the majority of her classmates at East High School is the ability to be successful in college. And I think that all of the teachers at East would agree with that about Jade and about many of her classmates. And so what Jade was describing though is that that fear of is that really for me? And I think that what I see in students is a similar trepidation, fear about is this something that is really for me? Do I have what it takes? And I think that that’s just something that is consistent with what many students, especially first-generation college students, are going to feel.

Ben Richardson:
But coupled with that question, that inner question being asked by many of our students of is this for me, coupled with that is also an eagerness to want to go. So when I ask students at East High School and parents at East High School, do you want to go to college? Do you want your child to go to college? The answer is yes. The huge majority of the time. Yes. And then so from there we have to help get them from, okay, I want to go to believing I can go and be successful. And so that’s the journey. We have to take that desire and turn it into an orientation towards action to get there and to stick with it. And so I think that’s the journey of the school, but the eagerness is there. The earnestness is there. There’s also validation needed by the adults to say, “Hey, no, you’ve got this Jade. You are a college student.” You need to look in the mirror and say that. And I think that’s where we come into play.

John Kearney:
So Jade from the student perspective, is that what you’re seeing at East? Was that your experience at East is that the majority of classmates wanted to go to college, but we were just missing whatever that factor was? About that confidence or I guess the belief or the know-how to go to college and be successful.

Jade Valdez:
Yeah. Like Mr. Richardson explained, from I want to go to college, then the staff pushes us to keep going to start us off and meet … Like Ms. Schaaf and Mr. Richardson, they push us to we have to do the best. Or where do you want to go? And stuff like that. It’s one thing wanting to go to college and another thing to actually believing that you’re going to college. And not college, but also trade school or whatever. Just to be successful in where you want to be.

John Kearney:
Do you both identify that as the number one challenge or barrier in this topic at East High School? In terms of barriers to post-secondary education?

Jade Valdez:
No, that would be the second most. Because I feel like the first one would be expenses. So you would automatically have that mentality of I can’t do it because I don’t have the money, neither does my mom or my parents. And the second one would be this because not a lot of people have the inspiration that you should go to college. You should go to college. Most of the communities out here just work, work. You need to work. You need to have money. It’s not really about the whole college thing. And I think we need to change that. Maybe in some families it is. But most of what I’ve seen is just work and work and work.

John Kearney:
How about you, Ben?

Ben Richardson:
Yeah. I definitely agree with everything Jade said. I think that it’s a little bit difficult to hone in on one big challenge for post-secondary for all, because for example, in one school, you’re going to have some students that are first-generation college students. And so there’s going to be their own challenges that those students are facing in terms of do I know others that have gone before me? Can I do this? And then you’ve got others that are going to be in a different situation. And I think that what that highlights for me is that the biggest challenge I think, is being able to have the time and the resources as a school, to be able to create an individualized plan with every student that can then also be actionable from the school to say, okay, whatever your post-secondary plan is, here’s who we are going to connect you with. Here’s how we’re going to help you get there. Here are the things that you’re going to do.

Ben Richardson:
And so that’s where East High School has spent a lot of time and energy over the last, I would even say four to five years is building up how to create that individualized plan for every student to have their post-secondary plans in order. I think that, to me feels like the largest challenge, because if we can sit down with every student individually and do that time and time and time and time again, we are going to be able to hone in and craft their plan so that the student feels confident in whatever they’re going to next.

Ben Richardson:
But that is a large … A school is designed for teaching and learning. It’s designed for you to come into this classroom and you get this content knowledge. And so us, we’re having to build scaffolds that maybe this system wasn’t even initially set up to support. And so that’s difficult and we need partners. We need people to come and invest. And so that is where you all come into play. And I don’t want to jump the gun there, but that’s the challenge I think, is building these individualized plans for Jade and for every one of her almost 300 classmates that walk the stage every year at East.

John Kearney:
So you both hit on some topics I want to explore further. So Jade, I appreciated your comments on, you know, the financial component and fear of college. Belief. But then you mentioned a bit of the cultural, I guess, aspect of work and how some students and even coming from parents, there’s maybe a pressure or a feeling that students need to work immediately. And to a certain degree, I think that makes a lot of sense considering the number of first-generation immigrants specifically at East High School. Where we have families that are brand new to the United States and there’s that financial need and immediacy to earn money. So I think that’s a challenge in itself, and it’s an important one to acknowledge.

John Kearney:
And then Ben, I really appreciate your comments about having the time and resources to create individual plans in supporting students. And how as a system, I think from my vantage point, and it’s been a frustration in my education career, and it was also the reason I almost left education entirely is it felt like we were working to get students across the graduation stage. And we were focused on our content classes and them earning the credits to get the diploma. But then that was it. And to me that I think misses the mark of the purpose of education entirely. And so that’s where I think the challenge that you bring is the individual plan for each student so that we can support a Jade or support classmates who want to go to the military or want to go to trade school or enter the workforce full time.

John Kearney:
How do we, as a school, as a system, as partners help to meet that challenge. And so we’ll explore more into that topic as we talk about the partnership and the work that we’ve done this past year. And so Jade, I want to actually rewind with you then, going back to September, 2020, you had an outstanding GPA. And I think on paper, anybody would say, Jade’s going to college and has been working towards college. And it’s interesting to hear that that wasn’t your mindset or belief at the time. So what changed? And then how did you overcome those barriers to now where you’re going to be going to Avila University in the fall?

Jade Valdez:
So I met … It was about and I met up with Ms. Schaaf online, and she was just like, “Well, you have to fill out your FAFSA.” So I’m just like, “Well, why do I need to fill out my FAFSA, I’m not even going to go to college.” And she looked me straight in the eye and she just like you’re not going to college and just like, no. And that’s where it hit me. I’m just like, then what am I working for? And she was just telling me about my grades, not only of this year, but the past years before. Like, “You’ve always had good grades and a good GPA. Why aren’t you going to college?” And I’m just like, well. I don’t know.

Jade Valdez:
I had all these … To me, I felt like there were big things, but after I met Ms. Schaaf, and then I met you and Mr. Rangel, I just met a community of people that were not only inspiring me, but strived me to do better, to keep going. And I just felt like if these people weren’t here, then what would I do? That’s why I just want to keep achieving. It doesn’t matter where I’m going, where I’m headed, because people like you guys will always support me in any way possible. Yeah.

John Kearney:
Well, thank you, Jade. And so it sounds like in talking about this program that we partnered in, the HDF Family College Prep Program, you’ve identified some key adults, some key people that stepped into your life in one way or another, starting with Ms. Schaaf, who is one of the wonderful counselors at East High School this past year and Mr. Rangel, who served as a mentor in the HDF Family College Prep Program. Can you tell us a little bit more about that relationship and mentorship and how did that work and what did Mr. Rangel help you with this past year?

Jade Valdez:
Well, originally the plan was for him to help me with my HDF essay, be a mentor, and read over my essay and see how it sounds. But I think we built a more relationship that was more than a mentor, part of a family member. And I just felt like it was a relationship-building and we went out and I met his wife and he met my mom. So I just feel like that relationship is going to keep growing as I go throughout college and graduate college. And as I grow as an individual,

John Kearney:
That’s amazing. So Jade, credit to you because it’s sometimes not easy to raise your hand and to volunteer or to ask for help. And I would say this past year maybe there was some trepidation or doubt or disbelief at first, but once you decided to raise your hand and say, yes, I want to participate. You really took advantage of every opportunity from the Family College Prep Program. From the college rep visits that Mr. Richardson would host for East High School seniors. The FAFSA support, the mentorship, which eventually you earned the HDF scholarship. So congratulations to you on that. But truly, I feel like you took advantage of all the different aspects of the program. And so I guess, where’d you get that confidence or what made you want to do that? What made you say yes, I want help or I need support in this area.

Jade Valdez:
So I wasn’t really confident on the whole college thing. I’m just like, yeah, I’m going, but I’m going to need help. And I need a mentor or something. That’s where I stepped in to raise my hand for the mentorship program where I could get help from someone not only for my essay, but just to talk about things that are going on in my life and things that are going on in my mentor’s life. And I think I grew more confidence in learning about my mentor as he was learning about me. And not only Mr. Rangel but you Mr. Kearney, that helped me. And Ms. Schaaf also where she would sometimes just hear me talk and she would just hear me talk about my day and how is it going, stuff like that. I think that really gave me more confidence. People are here, they’re going to listen to you. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Or what’s your background.

John Kearney:
Ben, to piggyback off that. Can you tell us how you see success in your students through our partnership between East High School and HDF?

Ben Richardson:
Yeah, well, I think it goes back to a little bit of what I was saying about what our greatest challenges in ensuring that we have the time and resources and staff needed to not just create an individualized plan, but follow up on it regularly and frequently. And I think that that is the need. That is the space that HDF came into this past school year because with these students like Jade, HDF was able to fill in and pour in to students through the HDF network. And that was so valuable for us. Jade has teachers that do that and a counselor that does that in an administrator that does that. But we’re all also doing that for 300. And so the check-ins are happening, but not as frequently as probably would be desirable.

Ben Richardson:
So yeah, so HDF was able to come in and give Jade a mentor and connect Jade in with colleges and time to work on scholarships and help to work on scholarships. And all of that resulted in a much more confident student. A student who felt okay, yes, I’ve got this because I’ve got so many people from the school from HDF who are here with me, walking me through it. And so it’s really, I think what all the resources that HDF poured into East High School students meant was an increased belief for students and increased exposure of our students to college and to scholarships. And then that resulted in greater scholarship numbers. Jade’s class finished with over $5 million in combined scholarships, which was two and a half million more than any previous graduating class. And that was a COVID class. It’s crazy, it’s wild.

Ben Richardson:
And a big piece of that puzzle was HDF. And we saw college, the diversification of the amount of colleges that kids applied to and got accepted to went up, increased with Jade’s graduating class. So yeah, just a lot of things that we are really building this culture at East High School of post-secondary success. It has taken a hugely forward this past year and Jade and her classmates, they’re the reason for that. They took these risks and they took advantage of these opportunities. And the future groups at East see that and like, okay, I can do it too. I’ve got this.

John Kearney:
Well, I appreciate the sentiments, Ben, and I think you hit the nail on the head. First and foremost, it started with Jade in this class, in this group of students who overcame so much and for them to be as engaged and to continue on with the fight to achieve their post-secondary goals and dreams was just remarkable. And then for the partnerships that took place and, Ben, you and your staff were absolutely tremendous. And the amount of time and the reliability. I think as an educator, one of the nicest compliments that an an educator can can receive is if a student says, Mr. Richardson, you were always there for me. You were somebody I could rely on if I reached out to you would respond in a timely manner. And I saw that on a daily, weekly basis from you and your staff. So yeah, it took a village, but no very proud of everybody’s role in the success we saw this year. So, Ben, what would be your message to the listeners as a larger community? What can the larger community do to support schools and students?

Ben Richardson:
Well, maybe I’ll lead in to that answer with a really short story. Couple years ago, we had a group of community folks in the building who were looking for ways to plug in with us. And so they met with myself, our school principal, Mr. Hinojosa, And some others. And we were speaking to them and they were talking about, they were actually in the medical field. And so they were really excited about what we were doing. And they were like, “Okay, we want to invest. We want to be here for your students. And we actually, the room that we were meeting in, we actually had a former student in that room at that time. She was actually volunteering some time at our school to help out with some community programming.

Ben Richardson:
She just happened to be there and she stepped over into our conversation and just said, “Hey, I just want to say, first of all, thank you to you all for being here. And secondly, I graduated and East did a lot for me, but I wanted to go into the medical field and I wish that you all would’ve been here when I was a student, because honestly I needed you as a medical professional here with me to tell me I could do this, because I don’t personally know a doctor. I don’t know someone in my own circle that is a practicing doctor. And so knowing if I would’ve had that, that would’ve been so helpful” … and she is pursuing a medical degree, and so she’s still doing it right.

Ben Richardson:
But that was this huge moment for me. And a huge moment for our principal, Mr. Hinojosa and so we’ve taken that and we’ve tried to build out a lot of things at East to basically to get people connected with our students across many different industries and career fields, because what we need, and so here’s the answer, what we need from the larger community in our schools is we need people who are willing to invest, not just financially, but invest personally into individual students. Just like Jade mentioned, one of the biggest parts of HDF for her was her mentor who has been huge for her. And so I think that’s a massive thing that I would ask is that folks would be willing to give their time through HDF or directly to schools to be there for students. At East, we have a very organized process for career pathways and all these are different ways that we can get people to plugin.

Ben Richardson:
And you all have the same thing, John, over at HDF. And that’s what we need. We need adults who are willing to pour some time and energy into kids to help give them the confidence that they need to know they can do it. And that they’ve got people in their corner. And if they fall to get picked back up again, but of course, we also do need the financial side too. And certainly, your organization is doing so much and I hope you all can continue to grow and bring more people on staff to do what you’re doing because your mission is, it’s on point. But yeah, I think that would be the biggest thing. Invest time with our students. You will not be disappointed in the quality of people that you get to meet in students, in our community. They’re phenomenal people and just need more face time with more folks who have been there and done that.

John Kearney:
So it sounds to me like from your vantage point, students have to see to believe so they have to see students like them and Jade, is that something that resonates with you? Yeah. And along with that, Ben, I think you touched on the importance of a professional network that we talk about first-generation immigrants, first-generation college students may not have a doctor in their immediate network. Or an engineer or some of these professional careers that students aspire to. So I think that’s so important. If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for to change your education system in regard to this conversation?

Ben Richardson:
Oh man, first of all, I want to say as a lead into that, I love the direction that we are going in education specifically in KCPS. I love the direction we’re going. We are putting more and more resources every year into student support services, into being able to offer a wider variety of classes that meet student interests. Training teachers in things like project-based learning, authentic learning. So I love where we’re going as a system in KCPS. I think that the wishlist item in terms of post-secondary, it goes back to the theme I’ve been saying this whole time about, we need more time, face time … Kids need more face time outside of the structured school day. Because what they also need is they also need to get prepared for college, ACT all of that. They need to learn, they need that 7:20 to 2:20 time every day to be focused in on their content.

Ben Richardson:
But what we need help with is the before and after school time with more people that can be hands-on with our students to mentor them through and to. And so we need more college advisors. We need more folks in roles for the school to plugin that capacity to help the kid, help the student get to college. And so just the more people we can get to be able to be willing to invest with our schools, you’re going to see better and better outcomes for students across the city. We have kids that are doing phenomenal things across so many industries. And if we want to see this city as a whole city rise and become a place where everyone can be successful in their own futures, we need more people willing to give their time and energy to our children, to our youth. That’d be my wish. We got room, we got room at East High School, man. We got plenty of rooms for after-school activities. So bring them on.

John Kearney:
So that sounds to me like a call for action there for anyone listening today. If you could share a little bit about what you plan to study at Avila University and the why behind it.

Jade Valdez:
So I want study business. I want to own my own business one day. So in entrepreneurship, whether it’s for me to sell clothes or be in fashion or baking or .. Those are my top two. And I want to be able to give back to my community and that way I’ll be owning my own business, somewhere where they could shop and stuff. So, yeah.

John Kearney:
That’s amazing. Is there anything else that either of you would like to add to this conversation before we close out?

Ben Richardson:
I would just love to say thank you. Thank you to you, John, for hosting this and for helping get Jade’s story out. This is an amazing success story and she’s representing today so many students at East, in KCPS, that are making it happen for themselves and that have utilized the resources available to them. And I’m just really proud of her and just really happy that this story is able to be broadcasted out because people need to know the amazing things that are happening right on their back door. Or maybe their front door.

Ben Richardson:
They just need to open their eyes and their hearts to what is happening in this city for students like Jade, because there are just incredible things happening and you won’t know all of that unless you actually take the time to invest. And so thank you, John, for investing into Jade and into our students. And I hope that this podcast can be, as you said, a call to action for more people to say, “Hey, yeah, I’ve got something I can give to our community to make it a little bit better. And I’m hopeful for the future of our city, if that’s the kind of people that are out there ready to go.

John Kearney:
Well, I’d want to echo that. And thank both of you. Jade, thank you for engaging this year in the program and for getting your story out and serving as an inspiration to your peers, to your younger siblings, to younger classmates at East High School, as well as to Mr. Richardson and I, and the educators who have gotten to work with you. Thank you so much, Jade. Ben, thank for your energy and passion as an educator and vice principal. I think you’re the most passionate educator in Kansas City. You and Mr. Hinojosa and the leadership and the things that you have going on at East are absolutely tremendous.

John Kearney:
So if listeners are interested in learning more about how to support students like Jade or administrators like Ben, I highly encourage you to get involved. East High School in Kansas City has a tremendous number of programs, as do many schools across the country. You can also give directly to programs like HDF, whether it be financially or time and talent, like we talked about in the mentorship program. So please contact us to learn or more if you would like to get involved. Jade, Ben, thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciate the conversation.

Ben Richardson:
Yeah. Thank you so much. Appreciate it, John.

Jade Valdez:
Thank you for letting you be a part of this.

Conclusion:
To hear more from the Grow Your Giving podcast. Visit us online at growyourgiving.org/podcast. Thank you for listening.