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How do you help a kid born into poverty make it into the middle class? That's a question we're asking in our series The New Middle. Many experts agree education is the key. But some say preschool, others say it's a college diploma. Gabrielle Emanuel of the NPR Ed Team tells us about a woman who believes the solution lies in the last mile, the leap from education to employment.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: This story starts some 20 years ago in a downtrodden part of New Orleans. Aimee Eubanks Davis was a brand-new sixth grade teacher. She came to love her students. And as the years passed, she kept in touch, helping them pick the right high school and then the right college. Soon they were thinking about jobs, and some wanted to become teachers themselves.
AIMEE EUBANKS DAVIS: All of a sudden you're like, oh my goodness. This is, like, the moment you want, is to see your students, like, living their dreams.
EMANUEL: Too often they were only dreams. Many of her former students didn't get the jobs. Instead, they got rejection notes.
DAVIS: I was horrified.
EMANUEL: Horrified and confused. Eubanks Davis realized that once her former students got their college diploma, they had no idea what to do, no idea how to get a good first job. These were students who were just as hard-working...
DAVIS: Just as talented, just as smart, who were not getting the same looks from the labor market.
EMANUEL: So Eubanks Davis made a plan, raised some money and created a nonprofit to teach college students those skills. There were three principles. First, bring in professionals from the real world. Second, transform the classroom into a work environment.
DAVIS: Can you operate and manage? Can you do a project plan? Do you know how to effectively communicate?
EMANUEL: Third, working with big state schools, Eubanks Davis offered tiny little classes. She called them Braven. Each class has one professional and just a handful of students. For these college students, this is often the very first time they've met someone from the professional world. I visited one of the Braven sites.
YANNICK KPODAR: So how do you all feel?
EMANUEL: Six p.m., San Jose State University, basement classroom. Yannick Kpodar is a consultant by day, but in the evenings he comes here to work with four San Jose State students. Today, they're practicing a presentation.
KPODAR: You have to decide how do you stand when someone else is talking? All that is part of the presentation, so I recorded it so you can see your body language.
EMANUEL: These students are learning the skills of a consultant. They've been given a problem to fix - the student debt load. This group's solution - colleges should get corporate sponsorship, kind of like sports teams. Eduardo Abarca, a senior, says it just makes sense.
EDUARDO ABARCA: Panda Express, Subway, Starbucks are already in here, so, I mean, might as well have them come in and pay for some of the stuff.
EMANUEL: Next door, there's another group. They think everything on campus should be itemized - just pay for the gym or the student union or the library. Keep going down the hall. Here, the solution involves paying tuition gradually over their lifetime. Lots of different solutions, but they seem to agree on one thing.
PAULINE BASSI: Braven is the best course that I've taken here at San Jose State.
FRANK OSORIO GONZALES: It was worth signing up it, worth staying late.
JALIL AHMAD: I think Braven helps even out that power dynamic between, you know, professionals and just trying to gain that professionalism.
EMANUEL: San Jose State agrees with Pauline Bassi, Frank Osorio Gonzales and Jalil Ahmad. Braven students are more likely to stay on track to graduation. And after the class, they seek out internships and other experiences at twice the rate. So the university made it a full-time, four-credit class. They're hoping that will fix the missing link between walking across the stage to get your diploma and walking into the office for your very first job. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.
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