Award-winning actress Viola Davis credits Upward Bound with saving her life. She is not alone in paying homage to the college preparatory program that since 1965 has helped over 2 million low-income high school and first generation students attend and graduate college. Now part of the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO program, Upward Bound traces its beginnings to a 1960s program run by EDC on the campuses of six colleges, of which five were Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
In 1963, alarm over the state of education at Black colleges—particularly their high drop-out rates—led to the creation of the report Program for Negro Colleges, prepared by Samuel Nabrit, president of Texas Southern University, and Stephen White and Jerrold Zacharias of Educational Services Incorporated (ESI), the forerunner to EDC. The report identified a number of issues facing these institutions of higher learning, including poorly trained faculty and badly designed curricula. Students entering these schools were ill prepared for the rigors of higher education due to the often segregated and poorly financed secondary schools they were coming from.
To address these challenges, the report detailed a plan that sought to improve educator training and student learning. Educators from these and other higher education institutions would spend their summers developing and being trained in the use of new curriculum materials. These materials would in turn be used in a college preparatory program for high school students.
Following a two-day planning conference held with representatives from several HBCUs in the spring of 1964, ESI secured funding from the Carnegie Corporation to enact the plan detailed in the report. Pre-College Centers were established at Morehouse College, Fisk University, Texas Southern University, Howard University, and Dillard University (all HBCUs), as well as Webster College, and a series of Summer Writing Conferences to develop curriculum was also launched.
The first eight-week long Summer Writing Conference for math and English curriculum took place in 1964. The following year, the Pre-College Centers began offering Saturday classes, with a total of 1,200 high school seniors attending the Saturday English and math classes at these centers.
Meanwhile, the Johnson Administration passed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 as part of its “War on Poverty.” The law led to the establishment of several federal programs targeting inequality, including Head Start and Upward Bound.
Upward Bound was pilot tested in the summer of 1965 across 17 sites, including ESI’s six Pre-College Centers. Operating as Upward Bound demonstration projects funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Pre-College Centers shifted their focus from addressing the college drop-out rate of Black students to increasing opportunities for college success for low-income students. As a result, eligibility to attend the centers was expanded to include all students within a certain income range, and the summer session became a residential on-campus program, offering morning classes and afternoon sessions devoted to cultural and educational activities.
The material taught in the centers was different from what students typically experienced in their regular classrooms. For example, the math classes had no prescribed curriculum. Rather, students engaged in activities that helped them learn mathematical concepts through exploration and invention. The English materials sought to provoke “an urgency for expression” in students so that they could see the power of the written and spoken word in expressing ideas.
As Lettie Austin, an associate professor of English at Howard University and attendee of the 1964 Summer Writing Conference, wrote about the course materials in the 1965 ESI Quarterly Report: “Broadly speaking, we envisioned a program in which students would become involved and excited about ideas. We wished to free them from their inhibitions and emotional blocks toward English. Through open-end discussions on many topics we hoped they would gain respect for their own ideas, and also broaden their vision of what the field of English is.”
The collaboration between the Pre-College Centers and the Summer Writing Conferences allowed for real-time testing and refinement of curriculum materials. Educators involved in material development spent time at the centers observing classrooms and talking to teachers, and at the end of summer, center teachers joined the conference to evaluate the existing materials and develop new materials for the coming year.
In its first year, ESI’s six Pre-College Centers enrolled over 900 students for its eight-week summer program. Of these, 80 percent went on to attend college. The following year, the centers expanded, averaging 100–200 high school juniors per center, who remained in the program for one year. Additionally, other Upward Bound sites from around the country began using the curriculum materials developed during the Summer Writing Conferences. Among the 2,061 participants across the original 17 Upward Bound sites, 69 percent went on to college and graduated.
Project director Herman Branson of Howard University reflected on why he thought the program was so successful in To Gladly Learn: “In the Pre-College Program I believe that we are demonstrating not only that effective learning is the natural product of engrossing, relevant, and enjoyable study, but also that young people can seize upon the most abstruse themes with relish and understanding; if the materials are presented with taste and in an atmosphere of concern.”
ESI ran the Pre-College Centers until November 1966 when the Institute for Services to Education took over their operation. Following the success of the 17 pilot sites, Upward Bound became a national program with the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Today, it operates in every state and territory and includes such notable alumni as NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, actress Angela Bassett, and Senator Raphael Warnock. All five HBCUs involved in EDC’s original program continue to host pre-college programs on their campuses.
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