(CAST Team members top row left to right: Rachel Cox, Amber Thomas, Nicholas Barnhart. Bottom row: Jacque Fields, Erin Brinkman, Lauren McCain)

During normal times, The Soulsville Charter School’s (TSCS) College and Alumni Support Team, or CAST staff, works diligently to ensure that every senior enrolled in TSCS is accepted to college or another postsecondary pathway to success as adults. They provide ACT prep, scholarship guidance, guidance with complex college applications, assistance in navigating financial aid, communication with families, and everything else it takes to transition from being a TSCS senior to entering the world of higher education, military, trade school, or other paths as young adults.

With TSCS’ audacious success rate of 100-percent college acceptance since it began having graduating classes in 2012, the CAST has, in more recent years, began placing sharpened emphasis on doing what it takes to keep our alumni in college through graduation or otherwise connected and moving ahead in a positive way. This has involved visiting graduates at their colleges around the country, orchestrating alumni events for social networking, hosting alumni luncheons, helping with job fairs, conducting a wide variety of meetings, hosting workshops for alumni new mothers, arranging internships, collecting alumni data, providing gap funding in some situations, and staying in constant touch through texts, emails, phone calls, web portals, social media, and any other means necessary to stay in touch and provide support.

Now the CAST counselors are working in the age of the COVID-10 coronavirus pandemic and are navigating the unprecedented range of new, added challenges both current students and alumni are experiencing. From transitioning to online courses to helping avoid COVID-related predatory lending scams to helping suddenly unemployed alumni find jobs, the need for more encouragement and providing resources is greater than ever. Not to mention that much of it is brand new for everyone – students, alumni, families, and the support counselors themselves.

“Basically, while we have long been knowledgeable about the postsecondary process for our seniors and alumni, in many ways we are starting from scratch to try to keep up with all of the many changes so that we can coach our alumni and seniors well.”

According to CAST counselor Rachel Cox, “For seniors, the fourth quarter is such an important time to follow up on financial aid, make final postsecondary choices, and hold individual parent/student decision meetings. And then of course there are important celebratory events like Decision Day, graduation, and the prom. The CAST team is now constantly adjusting and innovating to find ways of engaging the seniors electronically.  When not all seniors have access to reliable Internet or other technology at home, this is a real challenge.”

Because the school believes in total equity in education, one of the ways it is moving forward is, of course, through creative distance learning and online assistance with college preparation. The school is also closely monitoring students’ access to Internet and devices. It regularly sends information to families about free Internet options and is trying to supply Chrome Books and other devices to students who need them.

In addition to assisting with schoolwork, college prep, and cancelled school functions, the CAST office is also providing students and alumni with plenty of common-sense information.

Cox continues, “We are constantly scouring for community resources and information about COVID itself, trying to encourage reputable sources of information. We’re encouraging students and their families to follow CDC guidelines, and sharing important information about resources available to our alumni and their families – things like accessibility of food banks, how to make sense of the stimulus package, what kinds of places are hiring.

“We are also scrambling to understand the many schools represented by our alumni and how they are all handling the crisis,” she adds. “Are they moving to online platforms?  Do they have a pass/fail policy? What is their plan for the fall?  How do we coach the TCAT students, who can’t very well do online classes?  What about our students who wanted to go the military? What does that look like now? Basically, while we have long been knowledgeable about the postsecondary process for our seniors and alumni, in many ways we are starting from scratch to try to keep up with all of the many changes so that we can coach our alumni and seniors well.”

One of the ways the CAST office is offering extra assistance to alumni is sending a weekly email to hundreds of them that address issues such as:

  • Health safety and resources including links to the CDC, Shelby County Health Department, and articles from reputable new sources like The New York Times
  • Samples of online predatory lending offers and hacking attempts
  • Tips for transitioning to online learning, including creating a schedule to align with what would have been classroom time, setting up a home office, turning off the television and taking timed breaks from phones and social media, and asking for help from teachers and professors electronically
  • Tips and resources for COVID-19 testing should students or alumni start experiencing symptoms
  • Job resources
  • Military recruitment opportunities
  • Tips for wearing and making facial masks
  • Resources for free childcare assistance for essential workers
  • Resources for free diapers
  • Tips for updating resumes
  • Information about how to navigate the CARES act stimulus package and other financial aid opportunities
  • Links to various virtual education experiences including The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, the Pink Palace, Mt. Vernon, San Diego Zoo, Disney World, and the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, Italy

On a somewhat lighter note, the weekly emails also include reasons for hope and celebration in the way of shout-outs to and photos of alumni who are doing great things in the face of all the new challenges. Cox recently included a note in her weekly email about alumnus Marquis Wilson:

“For this week, I want to shout out one of our Class of 2018 members, Marquis Wilson. The transition to online classes has been difficult for him like it’s been for so many of you, but he’s working hard to adjust. He’s been getting up at 6:30 every morning to make sure he makes his 8:00 class, which is actually at 7:00 for him because of the time change. He’s keeping a schedule, making sure he has plenty of prep time before each Zoom, and staying in regular communication with his professors. He’s having trouble with one of his professors, and he is modeling self-advocacy so well. He is being persistent and firm about his needs, but gracious and humble at the same time and is refusing to use that as an excuse for apathy. Marquis is a hard worker, so it’s no surprise that he’s rising to this challenge as he does so many others in his life. We are SO proud of his scholarship and self-advocacy, and hope that he is a symbol of hope to all of you who are feeling weary. We WILL get through this…we just might have to work smarter and harder for a while. We are so proud and thankful for your example, Marquis!”

CAST counselor Jacque Fields says that the CAST counselors are trying not only to offer as much help as possible to students and alumni during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are also trying to instill in them the thought that they have a chance to make history.

“This is, of course, the first time in generations of history that something like this is happening in the world and hopefully the Class of 2020 will be the only class to go through something of this magnitude. We realize the sadness that comes with not having an in-person graduation or Decision Day and a postponed prom, but we’re trying to make our students and alumni understand that this is also a pivotal moment for mankind. By all of them rising to these challenges and continuing to thrive and do great things, they are making their own mark in history and will be able to one day tell their children what an extraordinary time this was to be alive.”