Over Achievers

A new scholarship with strong Emory ties gives hope to students from Washington’s troubled schools

By Michelle Hiskey

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Julia Highsmith, always “the smallest and smartest” in her high school classes, is the second Brittain CityBridge Scholar.

Kay Hinton

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Katherine Brittain Bradley

The Brittain Legacy

“We have met the emergency at a disruptive and destructive cost which cannot be continued,” the president of Georgia Tech wrote in 1921 when he resigned.

His letter to the Atlanta Constitution described the state legislature’s lack of support for what was then the country’s No. 2 engineering school. In the wake of Reconstruction came the boll weevil, the Ku Klux Klan, and corruption in government projects such as convict leasing. In this fray, Tech needed someone who could raise funds and friends, and they turned to a lifelong educator who knew the state inside and out: Marion Luther Brittain 1886C 28H. Born in Wilkes County and an Emory College graduate at age twenty-one, Brittain entered school administration in Atlanta, attended graduate classes at the University of Chicago, and then became an administrator in the Atlanta city schools. As state school superintendent in 1910, Brittain had helped schools statewide move toward mandated free public education for all children. In his dealings with state legislators, Brittain was known for a fearless integrity and gentle manner.

Brittain became Tech’s fourth president in 1922, and was able to persuade the state to increase Tech’s funding and set up the Georgia Board of Regents to govern state higher education. He pursued novel educational models, such as establishing the first ROTC unit in the South. Brittain’s twenty-two-year tenure spanned the Depression and World War II, and archival photos show him at Tech with FDR and Winston Churchill.

Through his leadership, Tech moved from a trade school to a force in science and technology. Defying critics, Brittain lobbied the Guggenheim Foundation for a transformative grant that created Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering. “He loved everything that pushed the boundaries of what was considered achievable,” says his great-granddaughter, Katherine Brittain Bradley.

In 1942, two years before retiring, Brittain made a gift to his alma mater, endowing Emory’s highest student award for “recognition of unselfish service to the university.” Henry Franklin Gay, a veteran of World War II who founded the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity as a student, won the first Brittain Award in 1948. Meanwhile, the virtue and necessity of public service were being passed down through second son MacDonald Brittain, to grandson Marion Luther Brittain III, and then to his great-granddaughter.

“He clearly has the qualities of bravery, pursuit of justice, and innovation that we need today,” she says. “He fought hard for higher educational standards, and we face the same issues today with standards that do not challenge students and ‘graduation’ requirements that do not actually correspond to college-ready work. We need the same kind of fearless leadership today in telling kids the truth about what it takes to succeed and thrive in today’s competitive world.”—Michelle Hiskey

Julia Highsmith 16C is an outlier—a high-achieving student from one of the country’s most troubled school systems, the District of Columbia, which has become a test site for urban education reform. An aspiring nurse, she won a regional science fair with a microbiology project on lambda DNA, aced seven advanced placement courses, and cooked and served meals to homeless women with mental disabilities.

Yet the person with the least appreciation for her accomplishments was Highsmith herself. Her tunnel focus on the highly competitive academics at her small public magnet school effectively, and perhaps necessarily, sheltered her from the odds against her.

“I was in the top high school and had no idea what was going on at other D.C. schools and how they were failing,” Highsmith says over a bowl of Doc Chey’s noodles at Emory Village early in her second semester. “I didn’t know how troubled they were, that the D.C. schools were near the bottom of every state list.”

In high school, Highsmith commuted daily by bus and train from Anacostia, the southeast neighborhood heavily shaded on the city map of homicides. An independent study released early in her last semester found “14,236 children in the forty-six schools where learning is judged so abysmal that projections show little or no improvement over the next five years,” the Washington Post noted. “At the current rate of improvement, it will be 2045 before 75 percent of D.C. students are at grade level in math and 2075 before they are at grade level in reading.”

Working out of an office in the Watergate, Katherine Brittain Bradley is committed to creating a great system of schools in D.C. One focus of her nonprofit CityBridge Foundation is to demonstrate that all students have unlimited potential to achieve—despite their economic circumstances. To that end, she created the Brittain CityBridge Scholarship during Campaign Emory. One all-expenses scholarship awarded every other year isn’t the answer to the achievement gap, but it helps expose the need. The nation’s capital is a case study in how poverty deflates the promise of higher education: only 8.3 percent of low-income students graduate from college, compared to 82.4 percent of students from families whose income is in the top quartile of Americans.

Bradley’s philanthropic vision attracted Highsmith, who applied for and received the new scholarship. After high school graduation and a cupcake party at the CityBridge Foundation office, Highsmith began a new education when Bradley and her staff hired her as an intern and sent her to a D.C. city council education committee meeting.

Amid the reports and rhetoric and political posturing, Highsmith’s eyes opened to the reality of what Time magazine called “a laboratory that failure made.” She realized that she was one of the rare students who successfully navigated the D.C. public schools, and she saw the support, pluck—and some luck—that helped her beat the odds.

With that understanding, Highsmith could begin to see herself as the role model that Bradley envisioned. Brittain Scholars, Bradley says, are “an example of what can happen if we invest in every young person and give them a full chance to succeed.”

If Bradley’s maiden name sounds familiar, that’s because Emory’s top student recognition—the Brittain Award—was funded by her great-grandfather Marion Luther Brittain 1886C 28H (see sidebar, page 19). At the fiftieth anniversary of the Brittain Award in 2008, Bradley had the idea of honoring her famous forebear with a new prize that epitomized the change he wanted to see in the world. Brittain lived through an era in Georgia that was very troubled as well, and where money and politics played a huge role in who attained an education.

Because education is the key

At eighteen, fresh out of a California high school, Katherine Brittain interned on Capitol Hill before her first year at Princeton, where in 1986 she would graduate with honors from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. National politics drew her back to D.C., where she married David G. Bradley, a native Washingtonian and entrepreneur who by his mid-forties had become a multimillionaire through packaging research, industry forecasts, and advisory resources for corporations.

The Bradleys created CityBridge in 1994 as their philanthropic arm, first to help global health care and pediatric providers determine best practices, and then to provide a corporate volunteer program that managed more than thirty thousand hours of community service. As they raised three sons, the Bradleys saw a yawning local need.

“I started CityBridge to work on international health issues, but I soon realized the problems of urban poverty were all around me, right in front of me,” she says. “When we create an educational system that unlocks that individual potential in every person, we do the most basic, most important kind of social justice work.”

Believing that effective education is the key to combatting multigenerational poverty, the couple began mobilizing CityBridge to help build a system of high-performing schools across D.C. CityBridge finds, incubates, and invests in the most promising practices in public education. The foundation invites local leaders in business, philanthropy, and the community to collaborate in stewarding the local school reform efforts.

Bradley, like her great-grandfather, wasn’t shy about shining the light on what wasn’t working. “Washington has long suffered from one of the worst academic racial disparities in the country,” she wrote in one Washington Post op-ed. “In access to opportunity and civic participation . . . D.C. is in fact two cities, separate and unequal.”

One D.C. school that had achieved success through nontraditional methods was School Without Walls, offering a college preparatory curriculum for self-directed learners on the campus of George Washington University. While only half of D.C. public school students graduate, the rate at School Without Walls is 95 percent, and there is no curve for the quarter of students whose family income qualifies them for a free lunch. Academics are so competitive that it’s not uncommon to find students in tears after discovering their report cards have Bs. The last senior class attracted $8.5 million in scholarship offers. In 2008, the school’s freshman class included a feisty dynamo named Julia Highsmith.

An Emory Connection

“I do feel like an underdog a little,” says Highsmith, who is five feet tall and skipped a grade early in her school career. “I’ve always been the smallest in my class, and the smartest, so I got picked on and bullied. My mother has a big personality and attitude that no one person is going to push her around. We both want to prove people wrong, and we want to speak up so people know who we are.”

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Renee Thompson (from left), Highsmith's mother; Julia Highsmith; and Jessie Thompson, Highsmith's grandmother, at Highsmith's 2012 graduation from School Without Walls in Washington, D.C.

The oldest of three sisters, Highsmith was born on an Army base in Germany to Renee Thompson, an intelligence analyst, and Rayfield Highsmith, a mechanic. After their divorce, Julia attended a different school each year from kindergarten to fifth grade, and her mother was gone on deployments for long stretches. She excelled, but the transience left her shy and withdrawn.

“I couldn’t keep moving her and deploying,” says Thompson. She left the military to give Highsmith more stability and settled in Anacostia, joining the demographic that Bradley was trying to reach with CityBridge’s work.

Highsmith’s road from Anacostia to Emory took hard work and some well-timed guidance. Her maternal grandmother, Jessie Thompson, who lives in Texas and has a PhD in early childhood education, urged her daughter to study the test scores, graduation rates, and charter school requirements to pinpoint the best public education for Highsmith. That research led to Schools Without Walls.

There, Highsmith met counselor Meredith Makar 01B, who had left a career in the financial sector to “set high expectations and help every student go to college.” Like Bradley, Makar wanted to work creatively to move the needle on student performance. Makar, whose husband Tom Lombardi 00C is president of the Emory Alumni chapter in D.C., heard from a friend in the admission office about the Brittain Scholarship. It seemed perfect for Highsmith.

“I knew Julia was interested in premed,” Makar says. “I thought Emory would be a really good fit for her because she would be surrounded by many other motivated and determined individuals. I wanted her to have the opportunity to experience Emory.”

There is no formal application for the Brittain CityBridge Scholarship. Any student from the D.C. public high school system (about 2,100 graduates last year) who is accepted to Emory and whose family income is below $50,000 is eligible. Emory selects three finalists; CityBridge chooses one of them.

Highsmith got the call while watching American Dad, and the comedy was quickly drowned out by family cheering and tears. “I was getting prepared to pay the $10,000 to $12,000 gap between what Dartmouth and Rochester offered Julia and what we would owe if she chose one of those schools,” says Thompson, who works in asset recovery for a credit union. “I am in no way rich. A student loan was our next step, and I was preparing what we would do to adjust our finances. The Brittain Scholarship was so amazing because it immediately opened a lot more avenues to her.”

Daring to be different

At Emory, Highsmith joined the first student to be offered the Brittain CityBridge Scholarship, Isaiah West 14C, and both are pursuing careers in health care—Highsmith likely in nursing, West in psychology and possibly public health.

Scholarships, Bradley says, are “the last piece of the puzzle of local school reform” because they serve as a constant reminder of the financial challenges that D.C. students face when pursuing a college degree. West, who chose to have his tuition covered through the prestigious Gates Millenium Scholarship, solved his educational puzzle while staying in the hazardous neighborhood that Highsmith left behind.

At Ballou High School, a traditional public school that chronically failed to make adequate yearly progress standards set by the federal government, West sought out the teachers and resources that could help him get to college. His initiative and love of learning stood out. School data for the year he graduated show that 98 percent of Ballou students were considered economically disadvantaged; only 22 percent were considered proficient at reading, which dropped to 19 percent for math proficiency. In the chaos, the quiet West remained steady and picked his friends well.

“There was a lot of violence,” he says in the break room at Robert W. Woodruff Library. “It becomes common to see your friends killed, and you can get killed coming to school. You know something could happen. Even though school isn’t the safest environment, I knew it was the safest for me.”

Like Highsmith, West does not see himself as an outlier—only as a person who expects to achieve what he sets out to do, and when that is done, to set a higher goal.

“If you stop and say, ‘I’ve done something great,’ you’re not looking at the next thing,” he says. “CityBridge and now Emory have taught me that if I have achieved success, the question is what can I do to help more people become successful in their education?”

Both students stay in touch with their CityBridge mentors and staff. After meeting four D.C. mayors, West decided he wants to be elected to the city council of his hometown one day.

“We’ve had a lot of politicians that people don’t trust,” he says. “I could be trustworthy.”

That mindset, as Marion Luther Brittain showed at the state capitol a century ago—and as his great-granddaughter advocates for in the nation’s capital today—can change lives.

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