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Local youth program Fas Trac expands

BY HOLLY HINES - SPECIAL TO THE DAILY IOWAN | JULY 27, 2011 7:20 AM

Rachel Jessen/The Daily Iowan
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Some needed help focusing. Others, aid finding a new social group. Many wanted assistance planning for the future.

And Fas Trac brought them together.

Fas Trac is a student group started at City High in 2007 that aims to help students achieve in academics and in life.

In 2010, the program was incorporated into the Youth Leadership Program, part of the nonprofit Mayor's Youth Empowerment Program. Last year, students from Northwest Junior High, Regina Catholic Education Center, and other local schools joined. Approximately 130 students participated in the program during the last school year.

In the past, the majority of Fas Trac students identified as African American, though the group is becoming more diverse. Membership now includes people who identify as Latino, Native American, and white.

While the group members focus, in part, on identifying what motivates them and creating plans to achieve their goals, they now have a new focus.

Program director Henri Harper initiated the new program to help students understand and form their cultural identities.

"They don't know who they are," said Harper, the former juvenile court liaison for the Iowa City School District.

He said knowing more about their culture and history can help the students plan for a meaningful future.

This summer, Fas Trac has collaborated with local businesses to provide part-time jobs for students.
The money they earn will help them save for group field trips when school starts again. In the past, Fas Trac students traveled to Alabama and Memphis, Tenn., where they explored the history of the civil-rights movement. This year, the students plan trips to Texas or New York to explore Latino, Muslim, and Native American cultures.

The students will also read about and discuss a variety of cultures, Harper said. These types of activities can give them a greater understanding of their heritages, he said.

"I think that's something missing for a lot of people," he said.

But regardless of a changing focus, the program still aims to help students form goals. And three college students — who started with Fas Trac in high school — have started achieving those goals.

Deidra Williams

Deidra Williams noticed school was different when she moved to Iowa City from Chicago's South Side as an eighth-grader.

In Iowa City, she saw that students changed classrooms during the day rather than remaining in one room, and teachers seemed to care more about her education, said Williams, now 18.

When Iowa City and City High were still new to her, she joined the Fas Trac program. There, she took classes to study for the ACTs and got help with the process of graduating high school early in 2010 at age 17.

Williams, who attends the University of Northern Iowa, said her memories of Chicago and its limited educational opportunities motivate her to become a community organizer.

"I'm just taking the proper steps to do what I've got to do for the future," she said.
Williams, who sees herself as a leader, often keeps to herself to focus on her goals. Through Fas Trac, though, she served as a mentor to younger members. And she also found a mentor in Harper.

"When I was about to change my major, I called Mr. Harper first," said Williams, who started college studying business.

Now majoring in Leisure Youth and Human Services, she plans to start a group similar to Fas Trac in Chicago.

If she "is a success story," she said, she can likely help others from similar backgrounds succeed.

She's working with Harper to start a Fas Trac branch in Waterloo, close to the UNI campus.

This summer, she's been working at City Park in Iowa City, selling concessions near the carnival rides — a job opportunity arranged through Fas Trac.

"I honestly just want to succeed in life," she said.

James Taylor

James Taylor has business savvy.

During his freshman year at St. Ambrose University, in Davenport, he realized students want ways to easily sell their used textbooks to make some extra money.

So the marketing management major and football player started a resale business — JT's Warehouse Wholesale and Resale — in which students could sell their books and electronics.

Though a shoulder injury forced him to quit football, lose his scholarship, and return to Iowa City, the 19-year-old said he was happy to return in many ways.

"My heart is here in Iowa City," said Taylor, who plans to continue school at Kirkwood Community College.

Now back at home, he has yet another business idea — a storage-facility business, centering on students who need to store their stuff while moving between cities.

In the meantime, he's saving money for the business by working part-time at the Robert A. Lee Recreation Center — a job he found through Fas Trac.

Taylor first turned to Fas Trac in high school to focus on his goals. Even though he was already a good student, lessons from Fas Trac remained helpful even in college, where he earned a 3.7 cumulative GPA his first year.

Another lesson he learned through Fas Trac stuck with him in college: Adversity and injuries can't take his education from him.

His home life reflects this lesson, as well. His mother worked to earn an associate's degree while coping with her own mother's death. This achievement made her an important role model for Taylor.

He valued the company of people in Fas Trac with similiar experiences — particularly Harper, the group's leader, as a black male.

"There's a difference between being a white man and a black man in Iowa City," Taylor said.

African Americans are often "in the public eye," he said, in part because whites have a "stronghold" as the majority population. However, he said, he thinks Iowa City provides good opportunities.

After studying marketing at Kirkwood, he said, he hopes to become a real-estate developer.

Ultimately, he said, he wants to help people buy environmentally friendly homes.

Tajeria Beacham, 18

Tajeria Beacham once worried about being an outcast.

When she started school in Iowa City at the end of her junior year after moving from a small school in Chicago, she didn't know if she could adjust to a large school.

In Chicago, she was in a graduating class of only 20 other students at a performing-arts school. But at City High, she walked hallways flooded with hundreds of other students.

"It was pretty awkward," she said.

Beacham, now 18, noticed the student population was less diverse, but despite that, she said, she prefers Iowa City schools to her school in Chicago.

She quickly found Fas Trac at City High and said she felt welcome there.

Beacham said she was a good student before joining Fas Trac, but the group reinforced what she already knew — that it's important to keep up with schoolwork.

College visits through Fas Trac also helped her plan for the future, she said, and seeing the UNI campus was a crucial part of her decision to attend school there.

But her first semester of college was rough, she said. College schoolwork was much harder than high school, she said, and she struggled most with public speaking and biology.

"It's definitely a wake-up call," she said.

When her first-semester grades came back lower than she'd hoped, she called Harper. He told her to see a tutor, and she followed his advice.

She also studied more and learned memorization techniques, which helped her improve her grades.

This spring she declared a major in gerontology. Beacham's especially interested in studying how society views the elderly and the ways they may be mistreated or viewed as outcasts.

Her goals, she said, are motivated by her sense of self, a lesson reinforced by her participation in Fas Trac.

But her family members — with whom she enjoys playing the Nintendo Wii — are also motivators.
"Letting them down would hurt me more than letting myself down," Beacham said.

This story was produced by CrossingBorders.us in parthership with The Daily Iowan.


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