Kansas City, Kan. She must have been only 5 or 6 at the time, but Xochitl Saldivar still remembers her schoolmates’ questions.
Why do you wear the same clothes every day?
“I don’t want to get my other clothes dirty,” she told them. She doesn’t remember feeling poor — that she had nothing else to wear but her sweater and sweatpants.
Now, this summer, she is one of 125 high school graduates from Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., preparing to leap to college as members of the first class in Kauffman Scholars Inc.’s 19-year experiment.
That’s 125 stories of low-income teenagers and their families, many of them tasting college for the first time in their family history.
The Kauffman Scholars program provides college prep training to qualifying seventh-graders with a plan to shepherd them all the way through college. The scholars are given help seeking scholarships, but the program pledges to make up any difference with funds from Kauffman.
Xochitl (SO-she) Saldivar came to Kansas City, Kan., as a child, her family fleeing the gangs of Los Angeles and the memory of the 1994 earthquake.
Her two little sisters were still in diapers. Her father needed a job. Their rented house had no refrigerator. Her mother had to go next door to cook meals. And everyone was sick.
The 18-year-old Harmon High School graduate remembers herself as an elementary student, awakening to how hard her parents were working.
“Did you graduate in Mexico?” she asked her mom once as her mom studied her English lessons.
No, came the answer. There they had to pay for high school.
There wasn’t any money.
The 125 college-bound students represent 95 percent of the original 131 in the first class — most of whom came under the Kauffman Scholars program’s extra guidance beginning in the seventh grade in 2003.
Eighty percent of them — more than 100 — are headed for four-year universities.
To meet them now, so confident, it’s hard to imagine that most of them wouldn’t have found their way to college somehow.
But that’s not what statistics show.
Only about one quarter of the students attending college come from low-income families, and only 6 percent of those students earn an undergraduate degree.
Of course, Luqman Ford wanted his son, LeRoy, to go to college. Here was a bright student who since childhood talked of being a veterinarian, and still does.
But how could he guide his son to college when he didn’t know the way himself?
And — because Luqman Ford messed up his own life, he said, and was arrested for trading in drugs — how could he help his son while in prison?
LeRoy was in good hands with relatives, Luqman Ford said, but living in the same Kansas City neighborhood where his father had failed.
LeRoy Ford is on his way. He’s going to the University of Nebraska to study animal science and veterinary medicine.
His friend at the University Academy charter school is going to the same school. Kenneth Herron, also a Kauffman scholar, will study computer engineering and culinary arts.
Before the Kauffman Scholars program, there was Project Choice — one of the grandest acts of charity of Ewing Kauffman, founder of Kansas City’s Marion Laboratories and a major philanthropist.
Beginning in 1988, Kauffman guaranteed every Westport High School freshman class that his foundation would pay the college tuition for every one of them who met attendance marks, did not get suspended and maintained good grades.
While hundreds of students excelled, too many washed out in college, unable to make the transition. Out of 1,400 students who signed up, 308 completed college or vocational training.
Steve Green, who’s been president of Kauffman Scholars since 2005, looks over the diaspora of Kauffman scholars with a parent’s separation anxiety.
He’s aware that this first class they have watched mature will no longer be within the easy reach of another group session or team meeting.
“We’re sending them off the same as their parents are,” he said.