Features: June/July 2010 ~ Henri Harper filled a difficult position at Iowa City’s City High School for the last 11 years as the juvenile court liaison, helping students transition back into the classroom after personal and legal problems instead of letting them become part of a drop-out statistic. But in December 2007, after a series of fights at City High, Harper realized that his official post at the school wasn’t enough. Along with students, their parents and community support, Harper started the Fas Trac College Bound Program–originally consisting of six black students but eventually growing to more than 40 students from all backgrounds.
This year, all 18 seniors in Fas Trac are graduating and attending college, and all five graduates from last year have continued their studies. Little more than a month away from graduation, however, Harper was told that his position as the juvenile court liaison was being cut at City High and replaced by a student advisory center coordinator. This new position emphasizes dropout prevention and encapsulates Harper’s old job, though Harper said he’s not interested in applying.
Despite the fact that Fas Trac is self-funded, with no monetary school district or grant support, Harper’s departure from City High has raised questions about Fas Trac’s future. Little Village talked to Harper about the educational goals of Fas Trac, where it goes from here, and how Fas Trac aims to interact with and benefit Iowa City as a whole. You can find more information about the program at www.fastracprogram.org.
Little Village: How is Fas Trac different from other educational programs?
Henri Harper: Our model is focused on the individual. Each kid has an individual motivation. I don’t know what that is at first, so you have to sit down with them and ask them what that is. We hear all the time about not knowing what we should do with “these kids, these families”–that people don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions, that they don’t want to be included. This group of kids in Fas Trac see that and think, “We can’t control what people think, but we can do things about what we control, which is what we do for ourselves.” All I did is help support them and give them a little direction–and the program blew up.
This was what we were missing: You have to listen to kids about what they say, let them feel more involved in the process, have them take some responsibility, include them, and give them the opportunity to make mistakes. Let them be kids, and not be judged all the time–then they understand they can relax and be who they are, and understand that they have a responsibility to do better.
LV: What have been some of Fas Trac’s results?
HH: Last year we had five people go to college–and they’re all still there. This year, we have 18. Thirteen people graduating are going to Kirkwood, and after two years there, they’ll be better to move forward. We have one going to Long Island, New York. One to Missouri. Two to UNI, one to St. Ambrose for football, another to Central to play football.
Not many programs can say 100 percent of kids go to college, but that’s what we’re doing. They’re continuing their education, at community college or wherever, I don’t care. A lot of them weren’t sure they’d finish high school. We’re telling them: We notice you. We appreciate that you’ve gotten involved in your education. We give you the help, but you gotta do the work. It’s hard for me to understand how, as a community, we don’t notice that these kids are trying.
Isn’t that what we ask them to do? Take responsibility for their own actions? Not blaming white people or nobody else? Say, “yeah, I screwed up, but I want to do better, so help me do better.” They get in fights every now and then, so we deal with that and move on. They’re kids. Every kid who was on probation isn’t any more. If it was stealing, we help them get a job so you don’t steal no more. If it’s fight we give them skills so they don’t.
I always want to see these kids move on, to prove to this community that these kids are as smart as any other kid in this school district but we hadn’t been able to provide the support. We found a way to help. In Fas Trac, our motto is, “We all go.” We got 100 percent, so you don’t want to be that one person who didn’t go. “Well they went, so we have to. I don’t want to be that one student who doesn’t.” That’s built in. I like that. That they feel that strong about not being that one person. We have serious conversations, knock-down drag-outs all the time, but we can do that because we know we care and we hold each other accountable.
LV: How do you run the program? What do you teach?
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HH: The kids dictate to us how we should teach–you can’t say anymore that “if we build it, they will come.” Kids today don’t respond to that. Their motivation is different now and they don’t respond that way. You can’t open or present a program and expect kids to come when they have no interest, no control over what the program should look like. When just asking the kids, we hit on something here–they’ve responded, they’re included. I’m always saying to them that no one can take away your academics, but students also have to take their academics for themselves. They have to do that piece. You can’t take away what you’ve learned.
The issue with most kids, or anybody, is that once you see the success you’ve made, once you put in the work and see what happens–when they get C’s and then do more and get better–now you know you can do the work, that you’re capable. So there’s nowhere to go but up. Can’t go back down. “It’s not as hard as I thought I was.” Then when the next kid comes and works with another kid, and they say, “look, this is what I did, this is how I made it work, this is how you can do it,” they feed and support one another. We hold ourselves accountable, we’re a family–if you screw up we screw up–and you don’t want to disappoint someone you care about and who cares about you.
This is old school. This ain’t anything new. People make these programs like physics, but these are kids. Take away your definition of what this kid should look like, and they’re like any other kids. And you need to treat kids like kids: You need to support them, make them feel good about themselves, feel included. Then they want to please you, then they want to do the right thing. They know they can do the right thing and then they’re on the own and now they can fly–you build them up and teach them how to fly and now they can fly.
LV: How does Fas Trac work within the school system?
HH: Every student has a teacher advisor. They need to establish other relationships in the school, not just with me, so they check in once a week with the advisor and start a relationship. They talk about school, about their day–we have very supportive teachers at City High. I can’t do it by myself without them. I help get [the kids] in class, then these teachers will teach them.
LV: Is Fas Trac curriculum-based? Do you follow a national template?
HH: There’s nothing top-heavy, no curriculum-based stuff. It’s hard to get them in a classroom to begin with; I can’t sit them in a classroom for a program. My program is a relationship-based program: Every student needs those supports first. We don’t want to let each other down. They can do the work academically. We just need to find the avenue to make that student successful.
It’s all about relationships. The kids believing and trusting in what you want to do, in the people who are running the program. If someone can see you legitimately care about that other person and share parts of yourself, your time, your family–if you’re out sitting on the corner with them when you could be at home with your family–that means something. That’s the job. In an office they might not feel comfortable, so when they’re asking you for some support you have to give them that support where they are.
This year, going into next year, there’s a whole different crop of kids. So we have to adjust as we go. We can’t get stuck in “this is the program and you have to stick to it.” We get different kids so we got to do things differently. I want that kid to understand that they can change, and we can help that kid grow, become a better person. Can’t do this by just getting them to be busy. That’s not smart. We don’t want this kid at 15 to do the same thing at 17. That’s not helping. We want people to go to college, understand what that means, we want kids to grow, we want kids to change. Not just to get them something to do. I don’t want to spend money to give them something to do–they’re not getting something from it. I’m not comfortable with that.
LV: Why did you personally want to get involved with at-risk kids in Iowa City?
HH: I was born in East St. Louis and was raised with a negative perception of myself and the world. I thought that everybody else was responsible for me not being successful. I thought, “I can never be successful because I’m black in a white world.” Then I had people come into my world who were white but they really cared about me, they had nothing to gain but the fact that they care about me, so I realized there are good people in the world–and I am responsible for my choices.
When I work with kids that I know here, in a lot of ways I see myself in them. They don’t think nobody cares about them, that they can’t do anything. People ask why I care so much about them; it’s because I can see myself in them. Because I understand them. I can’t say people aren’t racist but you can’t let that control your life. I can’t let them say, “Okay, I’m here because white people did this.” People really cared about me, so I have to care about myself so I don’t let them down. You start thinking that you’re responsible for your own actions and I want to give that practice to the kids.
LV: Do you think what you teach can carry on after they graduate?
HH: They are what they are but eventually they become grown adults. If I can help that transition in any way at any time, help them become something positive, then I got something to do with my life, then I left something in this world that grows. It’s what they say about giving back. You help a kid and they get old enough and say, “oh you know, when I was in high school, this teacher sure took my crap, I was piece of work, but you know what: I need to help someone ‘cause he helped me.” When these kids grow up and become who they become and they give back and others give back–you have this place in the world where people feel comfortable with their own existence. You’ve done something with your life. And I want to have done something with my life.
I believe in these kids. I had a very difficult difficult difficult childhood. I understand that mentality of having no hope, of nothing to look forward to. So I can go inside and say: Where do we need to go? I feel that, I understand that, but what are we going to do?
LV: With your place at City High in question, will Fas Trac continue to exist? In what form?
HH: The goal is to still have Fas Trac as is, just expand it. It’s student-driven. If students want to keep it going, we will. And expand it in ways where the kids continue to grow.
This year we’re looking into elementary school. I think elementary is the foundation and the future of the program–if you start in elementary, if they build the confidence there, and follow them for the next eight years, follow them through, then they’re pretty confident about their education. They know where they need to go. We can have elementary, junior high, high school–have all of them feeding and supporting one another and being involved with the community as a whole. Say: You can’t stereotype us, you can’t tell us who we are, we know who we are, and we want to be involved in the community.
LV: So will Fas Trac still have its home base at City High?
HH: Education is the foundation of the program, so we hope the school will let us continue in the school, but the program will be a community-based program. Whatever school that kid attends, we want the school to let us work with the kid at that school. I hoping they allow us in. We have 30 kids in Fas Trac still at City High. If we expand into elementary schools and West High–after we establish the program, I hope they still allow me to come in. I’ll hopefully be working with the Mayor’s Youth Empowerment Program, but right now I’m looking for money and ways to get that done. I doing this on faith. It’s a calling for me to do this program and to help kids’ lives in Iowa City. I believe that God’s going to make a way for this to continue on, to grow and expand in areas of the community. It’s not just a Southeast side thing–we have kids all over the community.
LV: Speaking of the Southeast side of Iowa City, do you think Fas Trac can help with community perception of that area?
HH: There’s a lot of great stuff in this community, we have a great culture here, so I don’t want kids and families thinking they just have to stick in this box of the Southeast side. We need to get people away from pointing at this side of town. We have to change the perception of these kids and how they think and feel about living here and about the community as a whole, so the community can start thinking differently about them, to see them in a positive light, to see them included.
We’re starting community service all over town, working with elderly people and helping out. We’re geting more stuff for kids to do so they can build more relationships with more people in town–this is one of the only places you can talk to football coaches, or talk to the mayor. You can walk into the Java House, or into the grocery store and know who people are. People have titles but are approachable here, and you can sit there and chat. They’re no different than anyone else. I want them to see athletes to college people, say “how you doing,” so they feel comfortable in their own environment so they can say, “this is my town, this is where I live and people really want me here.” That’s what I want to change. For them and Iowa City.
LV: What can the community do to support students who are in Fas Trac and other programs?
HH: I want the community to understand they need to think along with lines of what do they want from these kids. If kids can do this on their own with little support, how much can they do with support? That’s what I want, support. Don’t be quiet any more, step up, let these kids know that there are enough people in this community that really want to support them. I don’t know where these people are, where you’re hiding, but these kids need you. They need some people to step up and say, “we understand what you guys are trying to do and we appreciate you guys working to try to do that. Through all the other negativity and finger pointing, we appreciate you guys taking responsibility for your own actions.” They need to hear that more from that community as a whole: “Good job. Keep doing good work.”