New program connects young students to college

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December 11th, 2013

Omaha, NE – No Excuses University began ten years ago as a way to help younger students prepare for college, according to Founder Damen Lopez.

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Lopez founded the organization while a principal at a struggling high school in California.

He wanted to find a better way to help his students prepare for college. He came to the conclusion that the system of preparing kids for college was completely inadequate. Lopez said by the time a student reaches high school they are already past the point of being prepared for college. He wanted to find a way to reach children at a younger age to instill within them the value of having a college degree.

“You ask any elementary student across America, and they know after middle school comes high school,” Lopez said. “Why is it they don’t know that after High School comes college? It’s because we haven’t made that known to them. That is what we are trying to do, we are trying to change that. It’s going to take more than the last couple years of high school to get them ready for job (and) careers.”

The No Excuses University concept now includes more than 185 schools across 22 states. It utilizes partnerships between colleges and elementary schools to help motivate kids to make “no excuses” when it comes to the quality of their schoolwork. Lopez said NEU has created a place where students can excel without limits and be held accountable for their future.

Damen Lopez has been running No Excuses University for ten years. (Photo Courtesy NEU)

Damen Lopez has been running No Excuses University for ten years. (Photo Courtesy NEU)

He said NEU’s greater goal is to create more awareness about the importance of going to college at a very young age. He pointed to the city of Amarillo, Texas as the prime example of where NEU is currently thriving, with programs in 15 elementary schools.

“What started in an elementary school now goes from elementary to middle to high school to college all in that community,” Lopez said. “And we opened our first NEU pre-school in that community as well. We believe in carrying this message throughout in what we call a ‘No Excuses Neighborhood.’”

Lopez said a community like Amarillo with a large NEU network started with one school trying to make a difference.

A first grade class at Field Club Elementary in Omaha has partnered with Iowa State University’s School of Education to use NEU’s program. The Principal at Field Club school, Barbara Wilds, said her job isn’t to change kids, it is to facilitate a setting where students feel comfortable and want to learn.

“Every child wants to be successful at school, so when we can create an environment and create a culture at school that supports their success at school (then) success really breeds success,” Wild said.

Principal Wild said Field Club started the NEU program last year on a voluntary basis for teachers. Five classes at Field Club chose to take part in NEU during its first year. Wild said this year 14 of the 28 classrooms at Field Club school, kindergarten to fifth grade, are using the NEU program. Classrooms adopt the university that sponsors them and the students are rewarded with college memorabilia such as pennants, book bags, shirts and pens when they attain goals associated with their schoolwork.

Wild said with the added motivation she has seen growth in students who took part in the program last year.

“When they are looking at what their options and choices might be after high school,” Wild said. “That they see themselves as ‘I can be a successful student’, ‘I am now a successful student’, ‘I can continue to be a successful student,’ and opportunities are open for me.”

Chuck Achter, instructor at Iowa State University said his goal is to help kids reach their goals. (Photo Courtesy Iowa State University)

Chuck Achter, instructor at Iowa State University said his goal is to help kids reach their goals. (Photo Courtesy Iowa State University)

Wild said several colleges and universities are now partnering with the Field Club schools. Grace University in Omaha has a College of Education class that participates with a class at Field Club. Doane College also has a representative visit once a month with the class they partner with.

Chuck Achter, instructor at the School of Education at Iowa State University, will be in direct contact with the first grade class at Field Club. He said there is no such thing as too soon for priming kids for college.

“Children aren’t too young to be thinking about that,” Achter said. “I see elementary kids wanting to be somebody and how do you get to be somebody? It’s by continuing your education, so it’s setting the bar for them and helping them reach that.”

Achter said the program is also beneficial to Iowa State University because his students who want to become teachers will have first-hand experience working with elementary school children.

Wild said creating a culture of success at Field Club with NEU would help students recognize specific behaviors that are helping them flourish in the classroom. She said through success and acknowledgment students will have a better understanding of cause and effect.

“When we are being explicit about showing students what those behaviors are and then they see success through those behaviors then they also see themselves as they can really do it and it is a reality for them. And there aren’t any excuses because we have the people here to help, we can teach you the behaviors and the skills you need to be successful. So really every child can be successful and that can be a reality for them.”

Principal Wild hopes to see the program continue to spread through her school. Field Club is currently the only school in Nebraska that utilizes NEU’s program. Wild said she would also like to see NEU spread to other elementary schools in the Omaha community.

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