A new nonprofit is taking University of Virginia undergraduates far off-Grounds to help Albemarle County students prepare for college.
Rise Together, led by UVa third-year student Bryan Christ and his mother, Gina, has brought dozens of UVa students to AVID classes at Western Albemarle High School and Walton Middle School for its mentoring program.
“We are teaching the UVa students as much as the AVID students,” said Gina Christ, a former school counselor. “They are learning how to promote experiential learning — not telling students what to do, but helping them find their own path.”
AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a college-readiness curriculum used at thousands of American schools. The program is designed to support students who are underrepresented on college campuses, particularly those who will be the first in their families to attend college.
Rise Together will expand to Monticello High School next semester, with 30-plus UVa student volunteers expected to participate across three locations. The Christs hope the program eventually will have a national reach.
In 2011, while living near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Bryan and Gina Christ founded a program that brought high school student mentors to local elementary schools — a response to the sudden closure of the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter.
As chairman of the North Carolina Youth Council for 2014-15, Bryan Christ coordinated online training sessions to support new mentoring programs at other elementary schools across the state.
The family moved to Crozet the following year, as Bryan Christ started school at UVa and his father, George, accepted a professorship at the university. Bryan and Gina Christ soon reached out to administrators at Western Albemarle High with a proposal for a mentoring program with UVa volunteers.
Bryan Christ, now majoring in youth and social innovation through UVa’s Curry School of Education, last year enlisted friends to join him on visits to Western Albemarle’s AVID program every other week. Rise Together’s mentors — or “facilitators” — help students learn how to effectively manage their time and deal with stress. They also lead frequent “backwards planning” exercises, outlining the steps that are necessary to reach a goal.
The mentoring sessions also include time for games and open-ended discussions. “That unstructured time for bonding is important,” said Bryan Christ. “It helps our facilitators earn the students’ trust.”
On weeks when they don’t visit schools, Gina Christ coaches the UVa facilitators on ways to help the AVID students learn from experience.
“We never just sit [the AVID students] down and lecture them, but it doesn’t mean we are throwing them to the wolves,” she said. “It’s about leading from the back seat instead of the driver’s seat.”
Phil Gahring, an AVID instructor at Western Albemarle, said his students learn quickly from mentors who are close to their age.
“They can tell my students what they need to do to be successful — in their studying, their grades and their relationships — in ways they easily understand,” Gahring said.
With guidance from the Rise Together facilitators, the Western Albemarle AVID students have organized fundraisers and volunteer days for local nonprofits, including the Charlottesville Ronald McDonald House and the Piedmont Family YMCA Intergenerational Learning Center.
Gahring said students’ interest in Rise Together was one reason Western Albemarle’s AVID program doubled in size this year.
Rise Together facilitators often volunteer for just one semester, due to scheduling conflicts with courses and other commitments. But some have returned for multiple semesters. Bryan Christ said he hopes future grants and donations will allow him to make Rise Together his full-time job after he graduates in 2019.
This summer, the Christs participated in the program at UVa’s i.Lab Incubator. They identified actions to improve Rise Together’s business operations, and began making plans to franchise the program in other communities.
Neeraj Bhagat, CEO of Tysons Corner-based consulting firm based Inspired Strategies, was one of Rise Together’s mentors at the i.Lab. He said the organization has the potential to help many more students beyond Albemarle County.
“The American education system ... is not designed to serve the individual,” Bhagat said. “There’s a number of people who don’t fit traditional methods, and they often fall through the cracks. Rise Together is saying that you just need different methods to reach these people.”
This year, Rise Together began working with AVID students at Walton Middle School, which serves the southern portion of Albemarle.
“Walton and other rural schools often struggle to find tutors,” said Josh Walton, school principal. “A group of UVa students that is willing to come out to us is very appealing.”
This year, Rise Together was certified by the Curry School as an option for fulfilling the field experience requirements of its courses.
For Osiris Crutchfield, a second-year student at UVa and a Western Albemarle graduate, joining Rise Together at Walton satisfied the requirement of a course on community engagement.
“Rise Together is a good example of immersing yourself in a community, and not imposing yourself upon it,” Crutchfield said. “You have to listen to the students and make sure you understand what they need.”
Keano McKeithson, a seventh-grader at Walton, said he has enjoyed “communicating and bonding” with Rise Together facilitators this fall. He said the UVa students have given him a glimpse of what his own future might look like. “I’ve learned that college is not that scary,” he said. “You just have to work hard.”