ASU awarded $8.7M grant to improve college-going outcomes

The university will partner with Be a Leader to benefit underserved students in Arizona

December 11, 2019

Arizona State University and the Be A Leader Foundation have been awarded a grant to form a Network for School Improvement (NSI) to expand their existing school partnerships to build the K–12 pipeline and increase access to higher education for Arizona students. The $8.7 million grant will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The grant award, announced Dec. 10, will launch the Arizona Network for School Improvement, which will leverage school district partnerships to improve educational outcomes and increase college enrollment among the districts’ most vulnerable students. Women chat at an ASU Hispanic Mother Daughter Program event in 2019 Download Full Image

“For ASU, partnering with schools and communities is not an afterthought, but a fundamental component of our institutional design,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow.

“Through the Arizona NSI, our collaboration will scale our university-school district partnerships to drive innovation that enhances educational access and empowers learners to achieve their full potential,” Crow said. “We appreciate the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

The project will focus on increasing college-going outcomes for the nearly 56,000 students within the Phoenix Union High School District, Tolleson Union High School District and Mesa Public Schools. The partnering districts will network with ASU, Be A Leader Foundation and each other to create, track and implement strategies to increase well-matched postsecondary enrollment.

“Every single child sitting in a seat today has the potential to enroll and thrive in a postsecondary institution," said Phoenix Union Superintendent Chad Gestson. "Potential is not enough, however. Many students today, especially first-generation youth and those from diverse backgrounds, also need expert guidance and sufficient resources to navigate the entire college application and matriculation process. This grant will enable Phoenix Union and our sister districts to dramatically increase support to thousands of deserving college-bound youth.”

In Arizona, 53% of high school graduates enroll in a postsecondary institution in their first semester after high school, but the number is significantly lower for underserved students. The 23 schools that will be networked through the new project represent 16% of all high school seniors in Arizona; in these districts, 75% of students are black or Latino, and 70% qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The project will convene school working groups and will use a continuous improvement model to test and revise ideas that will help increase postsecondary enrollment rates. The NSI will bring together K-12, postsecondary and community partners to support students with FAFSA completion and college advising designed to help more students pursue postsecondary enrollment at a school where students are well prepared academically to earn a degree.

Be A Leader President and CEO Melissa Trujillo said the method and model are important.

“While we know that no two schools are the same, there is a lot that schools can learn together and from each other to solve common challenges. Access ASU and Be A Leader will work together to provide our 23 schools with the tools, research and framework to not only identify and test promising solutions but — most importantly — to learn from each other,” she said.

“Having an infrastructure where schools can regularly share lessons learned and best practices will ensure more students are receiving the support they need to pursue higher education.”

The Network for School Improvement will build on work that Access ASU and Be A Leader have supported in each of these districts for the past 16 years  providing resources to build the K–12 pipeline and support access to higher education in Arizona. The project will leverage the relationships the two groups have built with educators and offer strategy development, professional development, data tracking, virtual and texting strategies for students, identification of students who need specialized advising and more.

Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Pete Lesar said that his school district is excited to continue working on educational access initiatives through the project.

“Mesa Public Schools is proud to partner with Arizona State University and the Be A Leader Foundation through this grant opportunity,” he said. “Working under the Network for School Improvement model will help many more of our students gain the supports they need to be college and career ready. We are grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for this opportunity to better serve our community's postsecondary transition needs.”

Tolleson Union Superintendent Nora Gutierrez said the project will have a huge impact on the students in her district west of Phoenix.

“I am ecstatic and excited for the opportunities that these funds will provide for our high school students. At TUHSD, we pride ourselves on preparing our students for college and careers based on outstanding academic achievement,” she said. “Our students are bright and exceptional, and they attend colleges and universities throughout Arizona and the nation. These dollars will go a long way toward supporting our students, and we are proud to be associated with both ASU and the Be a Leader Foundation.”

Sylvia Symonds, associate vice president with Educational Outreach and Student Services at ASU and principal investigator of the grant, said focusing on underrepresented populations will be significant in pursuing the Achieve60AZ goal (that by 2030, 60% of adults in the state will hold a degree or high-value credential) and also opening up educational and economic opportunities for Arizona families.

“The future of Arizona depends on students’ access to high-quality education as a pathway to opportunity,” said Symonds. “We know that the resources are out there: research, great ideas and educators who care deeply about student success. The Network for School Improvement takes those resources and leverages them to have a strategic, measurable and lasting impact on Valley communities.”

The Arizona NSI will be one of more than 30 networks across the country being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Karla Robles, chief strategy officer with the Be A Leader Foundation and co-principal investigator of the grant, said being part of a national community of practice will allow the Arizona NSI to learn from other networks as well as shine a light on the great work taking place within our school districts.

The network will utilize evidence-based interventions and continuous, data-driven learning to improve student outcomes that are known predictors of high school graduation and postsecondary success and align with ASU’s commitment to the economic and social health of local communities.

The roadblocks that students face most often on the path to college are a known quantity, based on survey data and Access ASU staff’s observations over their years of work. Students report that not having enough money and not having enough information about the steps needed to go to college are primary obstacles. By providing FAFSA completion assistance, exposure to postsecondary pathways and establishing a college-going mindset, the Arizona NSI will support more students to achieve their higher education goals.

Yamile Martinez, a sophomore at ASU studying nonprofit leadership and management, knows firsthand how much inspiration can come from knowing that higher education is attainable. When she was a senior at Metro Tech High School in Phoenix Union, a friend who was a year ahead of her spoke on a panel about her experience with American Dream Academy and the Early Outreach Scholarship at ASU.

“No one in my family went into secondary education, so it was a big deal,” said Martinez, who went on to earn the EOS scholarship and several others. “Because if it wasn’t for my friend that night who was talking about her story ... I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be at ASU.”

Now Martinez is a SPARKS ambassador and shares her story with other first-generation college students and families all over the state, delivering information in Spanish and English. She wants to pursue higher education access work professionally after she graduates and said it’s important for students to have perspective about their end goal. 

“For me to have a path that I can see the end of makes me so confident in what I’m doing,” she said.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Digital marketing manager, Educational Outreach and Student Services


Giving voice to Rastafari women

Assistant professor of religious studies wins first book prize

December 11, 2019

Assistant Professor of religious studies Shamara Wyllie Alhassan has been named the winner of the National Women’s Studies Association/University of Illinois Press 2019 First Book Prize for her manuscript, “Re-membering the Maternal Goddess: Rastafari Women’s Intellectual History and Activism in the Pan-African World.”

The First Book Prize is an annual competition for the best dissertation or first book by a single author in the field of women and gender studies, with an emphasis on work like Alhassan's that speaks across disciplines. ASU Assistant Professor Shamara Wyllie Alhassan smiling with her book award Assistant Professor of religious studies Shamara Wyllie Alhassan holds her NWSA award. Download Full Image

She conducted preliminary research on her topic as an undergraduate when she studied abroad in Jamaica her junior year and in Ghana the following semester. After receiving her undergraduate degree, Alhassan went back to Ghana as a Fulbright Fellow and completed a documentary film about Rastafari women in the country.  

Rastafari is a Pan-African sociospiritual movement that began with poor and working class black communities in Jamaica during the 1930s, but its roots can be traced back to 19th-century Ethiopianism, Pan-Africanism and ancient Kemetic philosophies. Rastafari has since become a global phenomenon.

“My research, broadly, is about Rastafari women’s livity, which is basically their lived philosophy and the ways that they build communities of social justice transgeographically,” Alhassan said. “Specifically, I work with Rastafari women in Jamaica, Ghana and Ethiopia.”

Alhassan attended graduate school in 2013 at Brown University and conducted the transnational ethnographic work that became the foundation of her dissertation. However, she struggled to come up with her research topic at first. 

“Academia is an exclusive club in terms of who it deems intellectual,” Alhassan said. “Choosing to work with a group of women who have been largely excluded from scholarly engagement was a powerful learning experience. I learned that the academy is interested in studying the human experience from the epistemological perspectives and orientations of white supremacist patriarchy. When the geographic center of reason is shifted and the white supremacist patriarchal orientation unsettled, this poses a set of challenges to the very basis of being an intellectual and the foundation of the academy. The philosophies Rastafari women create help us to question the structures of power and dominance and ultimately move us closer to a more humane world where the humanity of all people are recognized.”

Her first obstacle was trying to prove that the academic construction of who was deemed intellectual and worthy of critical engagement were falsehoods that excluded Rastafari women and other marginalized groups.

“When we look at the broader typography of black women’s intellectual history as well as the black radical tradition or Pan-African movements, we realize that Rastafari women’s contributions to those movements are erased,” Alhassan said. “Rastafari as a movement is barely mentioned but then Rastafari women as a subset of that community are definitely left out of that broader trajectory. So it was my fight to make sure that people really understood that as a scholarly community we can no longer omit entire communities of people because of our own bias or ignorance.”

She chose to write her manuscript in an eclectic, unorthodox way, using nontraditional academic language, which posed another obstacle. But she was determined to write in this way to contribute to a larger body of scholarly work that is trying to trouble the way we think about the way knowledge is produced. 

“It doesn’t have to be one particular way or one particular framework,” Alhassan said. “The way we write must reflect the communities producing the knowledge. This is why the style of my book needed to match the diverse and creative modalities of expression Rastafari women use to produce their philosophies. I tried to allow the craft of writing to reflect the ways Rastafari reason or engage in extended philosophical debate.”

All the hard work ended up paying off. Her dissertation at Brown University, which has now become the manuscript for her book, received the Marie J. Langlois Dissertation Prize for an outstanding dissertation in the area of feminist studies from the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women. 

“The bulk of the book focuses on Jamaica, Ghana and the inaugural All Africa Rastafari Gathering in Shashemene, Ethiopia, and the ways Rastafari women develop tools of healing and communal affirmation through their livity and how this helps them navigate the social sphere in these countries in terms of religious discrimination, anti-black gendered racism and different ways patriarchy operates within the Rastafari movement as well as in the broader social context in these spaces,” Alhassan said.

Along with the book, Alhassan is also editing a full-length documentary film to go along with the research. The documentary will feature some of the same women in Alhassan’s book.

“The documentary provides another medium for people to access the embodied and articulated knowledge of Rastafari women,” Alhassan said. “It also serves as a tool for community accountability in that it provides a more immediate materialization of the research than the book. Most people, when they think of Rastafari, they only think about Bob Marley. So the movement is predominantly represented through a masculine image. It was really important to me to produce images that would feature Rastafari women so that we change the way we perceive the movement.”

Overall the book will hold about 60 women’s voices as well as Alhassan’s voice. Even though it sounds like a lot of narratives to juggle, Alhassan doesn’t mind. The project comes from personal investment and it is well worth the challenge.

“The project was really birthed in honor of my mother, who is also Rastafari,” Alhassan said. “Both my parents are Rastafari, but I started the project to try and figure out more about who my mother is, and then through asking questions about her, I found this whole group of women. Then it sort of morphed into this bigger trajectory.”

She feels honored and amazed to have won this first book prize. Even more so, she is grateful to have her work be recognized and hopes it will help pave the way for other scholars who are researching uncommon topics and who have not had the chance to be represented in academia.

“I’m very appreciative because I know there are numerous scholars who are producing amazing work all the time and don’t get recognized,” Alhassan said. “I’m eternally grateful to the communities of sistren and brethren who gave of their time and opened their homes to me, to my intellectual mentors who helped shape my scholarly practice, and to my family who have loved me through this process. This research was born of love and has survived because of love. I hope this award signals the need for increased intellectual engagement with the literature and art of Rastafari communities and sustained engagement with Africana and Rastafari women’s epistemologies.”

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies