When she was in seventh grade, Cassandra Thrower-Smith had a heart transplant, saving her life but hindering her academic progress.
Between missing months of school and the mental toll of living a different life than the rest of her peers, Thrower-Smith’s grades began to slip.
But with the help and support of of the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy, the recent high school grad will be attending Regis University in the fall with a considerable scholarship.
The program, started in 1995 by longtime Regis basketball coach Lonnie Porter, attempts to give at-risk and low income youth educational opportunities that will prepare them for the real world. The academy started with 20 students and now has 178 enrolled. Former NBA star and Denver native Chauncey Billups teamed with Porter to expand the program in 2006. Academy leaders hope to have 225 students in the program by 2020.
Billups, a longtime advocate for children, said he wanted to be a part of the academy to give kids opportunities that would lead to more success stories. The academy fills gaps left by large public schools that may not give some students the attention they need, often focusing on preparing kids for real-life situations, Billups said.
“We have a financial literacy class. They don’t do that in other schools,” Billups said. “We focus on a lot of things they don’t teach in the school systems. There are a lot of things we do that they just don’t do that are tangible when you go out into the world.”
The academy, a three-week-long summer program at Regis, enrolls students as they are entering the fourth and fifth grade, keeping them in the program each summer through their junior year in high school. Students who finish the academy and are admitted to Regis are given a full-tuition scholarship to the university.
“The biggest thing is that we’re giving them hope, opportunity, education and the skill set to be able to have a chance to be successful when they get out in the world,” Billups said. “For me it’s about giving these kids a real chance to succeed in life.”
Lonnie Porter started Porter-Billups when he was still coaching. Porter noticed many of his players just weren’t academically prepared for college and lacked the skills to get a job.
He wanted to change that.
“These were 18-year-old and 20-year-old kids who weren’t equipped to come to college,” Porter said. “They didn’t know how to interview for jobs. They were missing a lot of these skills. They might get book knowledge, but do they get common sense? Life skills? Life lessons? Basic things you need to live in our society, those weren’t taught.”
Instead of focusing on more tangible recruitment factors like grades or test scores as the academy picks participants, students are evaluated for their leadership qualities.
“You just see a kid and you can just tell,” said program director Staci Porter-Bentley. “You see that they take charge in the classroom, they advocate for their classmates, they’re the ones who volunteer to do things.”
The program is focused on kids, but when a student is admitted to the academy, it’s a commitment for their entire family, Porter-Bentley said. Parents are expected to encourage their child’s education and keep them on the right path. Some students leave after the first few years if they’re not meeting expectations.
“For our rising fourth and fifth graders, we talk to them about why they’re here, what their purpose is and teach them to be leaders,” Porter-Bentley said. “If after those couple of years, if they don’t fit the mold, we let them know this might not be the program for them.”
Once in the program, the academy’s students take a variety of classes ranging from traditional math and science classes to more specialized courses, like financial literacy and social justice. Each class is taught to encourage dialogue and specifies student participation.
Megan Coffey Parker, a graduate of the program who now teaches at an elementary school in Jefferson County, said the in-depth classes she took while at Porter-Billups left a lasting impact on how she looks at classes.
“When I’d be at Porter-Billups, I remember that we’d go so much deeper with topics,” Parker said. “I grew to love classes like that. My love for that came from Porter-Billups.”
Parker also said that Porter-Billups left her with a desire to let students know how vital an education can be.
“Growing up without taught me to appreciate the opportunities that are there,” Parker said. “I want to give back and help kids like that. I know what it’s like to feel like there isn’t a lot out there. Porter Billups lets kids know that education can take them far.”
Beyond an education or a scholarship, for some Porter-Billups alumni, the academy was much more. Thrower-Smith said that as she was going through surgeries and health uncertainty, the academy gave her a support system.
“During some of the years I was going to classes, I wasn’t into it mentally because of the situation I was in,” she said. “It’s hard when you aren’t living a normal life. I learned that everybody has a story. People can change your life. I had a lot of people who looked out for me there. Ms. Porter-Bentley, Mr. Porter, my teachers — they made sure I was OK. Because I had them, I had people who were invested in me.”