Girl looks through library books.

Accessible Programming is Vital

Programs like United Way’s LAUNCH strive for education equity.

In March 2019, a college admissions scandal brought sudden attention to the issue of education equity. Wealthy parents, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman are accused of paying up to $50,000 to secure admission of their children into elite colleges such as USC and Harvard. 

Like many communities, Kansas City faces challenges with ensuring educational opportunities to all its residents. As a champion for local students, United Way of Greater Kansas City supports more than 40 programs aimed at excellence in education. 

Nailah M’Biti saw the headlines of the recent college admissions scandal and thought of the hundreds of students she has worked with during her career. For the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council Chief Operating Officer, the importance of a system that provides fair opportunity for students—including those in impoverished parts of the city—is critical.

“Without some sense of formal education and a path that says, ‘Yes, you can do this’, trying to get your foot in the door becomes very difficult,” Nailah said. “Most of us, not just children from poor families, don’t have type of resources that families in scandal to gain entrance to some of those institutions. Children can become discouraged.”

Nailah has helped students in Greater Kansas City for 15 years, and stressed the importance of equity in educational opportunities. 

“I view education as the legitimacy that systems look at being able to prove you have higher order thinking skills, dedication and commitment to see projects through and work well with others,” she said. “It’s that first level of legitimacy of you as a person to a potential employer.”

Nailah said she tries to impart to students that it’s not just about the grade. It’s about how they did in the class, how they approached the work and being a good team member. 

“You’re going to have to do that in the workforce,” Nailah said.

Another challenge these communities face, according to Gloria Zàrate, Executive Administrative Assistant at the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation (HEDC), is the financial burden of college and the barrier that creates for many students.

“Unfortunately, poor students have to work harder to get where they want to be,” she said. “That’s the way the road is for them.”

HEDC partners with United Way of Greater Kansas City to attempt to remove that barrier to college, and provide services that students need to enter into the college or university they have chosen. One of the UWGKC-sponsored programs that makes the greatest difference for students is LAUNCH, a cost-sharing college and career program for students from low-income households, many of whom are first-generation college attendees who have a strong work ethic. The program's Education Account, which covers tuition, fees, books and supplies, provides an 8-to-1 match: the participant saves up to $500 and receives up to $4,000 of matching funds.

“With LAUNCH, we’ve been able to help to provide financial education classes and finance programs so they’re much more aware and involved in that part of continuing their education,” Gloria said.

Gloria said the students in the program are willing to do that extra work, but that news like the admissions scandal hits hard. 

“They ignore the systems in place and try not to see the reality of how people like them have to work harder,” she said. “They try to brush it off and continue on, but this makes it hard.”

Gloria finds herself renewed and empowered by the enthusiasm she sees from students and their parents when they learn they have support from the community to achieve their dreams. 

“You see a little bit of relief when they understand this is real,” she said. “A lot of them come with their parents. Having their parents involved gives them a jump of excitement of continuing education. So it’s a time of excitement and relief for parents and students.”

And it’s all possible because the community stands up for programs like LAUNCH, ensuring that another generation is positioned to capitalized on opportunities these young people have earned themselves.

“We’re very lucky to have United Way as a partner," Gloria said. “You can’t go just anywhere to find a program like this that provides money to students. So we’re lucky.”