Clarence "Motts" Thomas's view, one of the best ways to enhance Pomona's
reputation in surrounding communities is to reach out and help improve
the communities themselves. And as the College's director of community
outreach and multicultural programs, Thomas has a significant role in
helping to achieve that goal.
"You always suspect that the perception out there is
that Pomona is a rich, elitist, selfish institution," says Thomas. "As
I look at it, there's nothing wrong with being rich; there's nothing wrong
with being academically elite; but there are a lot of things wrong with
the perception that we're selfish. If that perception is out there, how
can we reshape that? How can we let people know who we really are?"
With the help of Pomona students and colleagues, Thomas
has found several ways. Through a program called Pomona Partners, developed
from a student's idea, the College has mentoring partnerships with Fremont
Middle and Garey High schools in the city of Pomona. The College also
participates with Claremont schools in a federal outreach effort called
America Reads, a tutoring program that seeks to ensure that children can
read independently and well by the third grade. Pomona also is part of
an ambitious educational program called College Bound, which helps to
prepare students to attend four-year colleges and universities.
Thomas credits College President Peter Stanley with
helping to broaden Pomona's interaction with the communities beyond the
Sixth Street gates.
"I think much of this has to go to Peter's vision,"
Thomas says. In the mid-1990s, "Peter had an idea that now was the time,
with Pomona's resources, to become a better partner in the surrounding
communities. It was really very timely, because there was a hue and cry
at the time over Proposition 209," California's anti-affirmative action
measure, and there was concern about ensuring access to higher education
for a diverse population of students. In local communities, Thomas says,
someone needed to step forward.
"If not Pomona, then who?" he asks.
Pomona was the first of The Claremont Colleges to join
America Reads, a 1996 Clinton administration initiative in which tutors
are paid to help teach reading in elementary schools. With the help of
Pat Coye, financial aid director, and Kathleen Hacker, who was then a
volunteer coordinator for Claremont schools and now is assistant to the
dean of the college at Pomona, Thomas found a handful of students willing
to join the program. Training was arranged, but some of the students lacked
transportation to get to the schools where they were to tutor. Local Rotary
and Kiwanis clubs pitched in to provide Dial-a-Ride vouchers, and the
program got under way.
Claremont pupils in America Reads were tested before,
during and after the tutoring, and those receiving help were found to
be reaping substantial benefits. They were not just reading at grade level
by the end of their involvement, but beyond. Soon, the other four undergraduate
colleges in the Claremont Consortium joined the program.
Thomas wanted the children to keep the books they read,
but money for purchases was not provided by the Department of Education,
which paid the tutors. With the help of the Kiwanis Club and a separate
grant, the program has been able to pay for books through the end of this
school year. After that, it may have to fall back on the resources it
started with, which Thomas says amounted to "students and enthusiasm.
When we started these programs, we didn't have any money. It was just
scurry, scurry, work, work, talk, talk."
In Pomona Partners, students from the College serve
as tutors and mentors to youths at Fremont Middle School in South Pomona,
and at times to Garey High School students as well. The program was started
on the initiative of a Pomona student, Lorig Charkoudian '95. On a typical
Friday, Thomas says, about 15 Sagehens will be at Fremont, often coordinating
their efforts with teachers so that they tutor the adolescents on subjects
they are studying in class. A Pomona trustee, Ranney E. Draper '60, has
provided financial aid that has helped expand the program's offerings.
"We take them to museums, we take them to classical
music concerts, we take them to plays, we take them anyplace where we
think we can excite their enthusiasm for higher education," says Thomas.
Corporate and foundation grants also help fund the program, which now
is largely run by student coordinators. "It's a pretty popular program
with students on campus because of the one-to-one relationships that they
develop with a lot of these kids," says Thomas.
Not every Fremont student participates. Standards are
set so that students realize they must work hard to be admitted, and about
80 are in the program now. "There's a bar there," says Thomas. "It says
in the back of their minds that 'Through education, I have access.' I
think that's the time-honored way in the United States that disenfranchised
people have gained access, and that's what we're fostering.
"We don't know if any of the kids in the Pomona Partners
program will ever get to Pomona College," he adds, "but that's not the
point. The point is to show them the possibilities, to have them make
reasonable choices and to have reasonable expectations. We want them to
understand, for instance, that gangs are not their only choice."
College Bound is the most ambitious and longest-ranging
outreach program in which Pomona is involved. It was started in Los Angeles
about 10 years ago by a mother, Johnnie Savoy, and her husband, Andy,
after they had trouble getting their son into college. She established
a partnership with Loyola Marymount University to supplement the education
of young people, many of them from the South Central part of the city,
who may have felt that higher education was beyond their reach, and to
help prepare them for college.
The students in College Bound, in grades 4 through 12,
receive tutoring in subjects such as reading and comprehension, writing
skills and critical thinking, algebra, trigonometry and pre-calculus,
biology, chemistry, physics and languages. They also attend classes on
Saturdays. While the children are in class, their parents attend lectures
and seminars related to the college experience and their roles in it.
The rigorous program's results have been extraordinary.
About 99 percent of students who've gone through College Bound have been
accepted at four-year colleges and universities, most with offers of scholarships,
and nearly 100 have graduated. About 350 College Bound graduates are now
students in higher education. The Vons supermarket chain recently paid
tribute to Johnnie Savoy, who is College Bound's director and CEO, with
a half-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times.
Pomona joined the College Bound program in 1997 and
works with students in the inland region between Pasadena and San Bernardino.
"When we started, Pomona was a place for the program to grow," Thomas
says. "We provided services in kind: buildings, classrooms, anything to
allow this program to come to the campus and help nurture it and make
it thrive. I was visiting churches and schools, talking about the program
that was going to be starting up here."
At the beginning, Thomas says, "We felt that in four
years, if we've got 85 kids, we've done a good job. And if we get some
into Pomona at the end of four or five years, we've done a great job.
Well, we now have 150 kids, and five or six have been accepted at Pomona,
and we have three of those students here now. That was beyond our wildest
dreams when we started talking about this."
A grant pays for Pomona students to tutor College Bound
participants, who are mostly African American or Latino, on Tuesdays,
Wednesdays and Thursdays in math, Spanish and sciences. Some Pomona students
also serve as classroom teachers. Saturday classes in the past had been
taught only by certified Los Angeles and San Bernardino County teachers,
who receive a small stipend, but Thomas sought a way to "get some of our
best and brightest, and put them into the teaching role." He asked faculty
members for recommendations, and a couple of high-achieving Pomona seniors
agreed to serve as teachers. They received training and orientation assistance,
then were given a chance to teach Saturday classes, running the curriculum
themselves. Now, more are interested. "It's working fabulously well,"
says Thomas. "Now, my plan is that the tutors will grow up to become Saturday
Pomona's participation in America Reads, Pomona Partners
and College Bound didn't come about by accident. Thomas says each program
was carefully evaluated beforehand, largely because "we couldn't afford
to fail. We just could not fail." Participating children benefit, but
so does the College.
In the case of College Bound, "Yes, we're being very
altruistic," he says, "but the best form of altruism is when everybody
is helped. And we're helped because we're developing this relationship
with these families of extremely bright kids from the fourth grade onward.
And these families, who probably would never think that their child could
come to Pomona College, come to find that this is in fact a safe, warm,
accepting place for their children. Down the road, if we are fortunate
enough to have some of these kids feel that Pomona is the right place
for them, we can accept them through the front door. These kids are qualified
to go to schools like Pomona when they get through this program."
Thomas recalls the first day students in College Bound
and their parents visited Pomona. Stanley spoke to the group. "It gave
you chills," he says, "because all these parents, who at the time largely
were African American, who had never been to our campus before, just wanted
one thing: to find a way to ensure the education of their kids. It was
almost revivalish in a way. When Peter welcomed them to the campus, some
of those parents got misty."
Involvement in these outreach programs makes a deep
impression on Thomas as well. "There's a really, really good feeling that
comes from knowing that you've helped an individual, a family," he says.
"I collect different kinds of little bears, and there was a kid in third
grade who knew that, and he gave me a little plush bear. Because I went
to volunteer in his classroom, he said 'Thank you,' and he gave me a bear.
He's in fifth grade now, but the bear is still on the console of my car.
The satisfaction I get from him giving me that little bear--it struck
me in a way that is lasting."
For many years, football seemed to be the focal point
of Thomas's life. He was a player at Morgan State University in Baltimore
in the '60s, and went on to coach in high school, college and the National
Football League. He came to Pomona in 1982 as a physical education instructor
and head football coach. But he had done graduate work in guidance and
personnel services, and over time, he shifted into the field of student
services. In 1991, he became Pomona's associate dean of students and dean
of campus life, leaving in 1995 to become dean of students at Lawrence
University in Wisconsin. He returned to Pomona a year later to set up
and coordinate the College's outreach programs.
"Football," Thomas says now, "was what I did, never
what I was."
The problem, he says, is that "So many times, the world
stamps you with some stereotype, like football coach, and if you're not
careful, you can become whatever that stereotype is. Football was never
all-encompassing to me. There was another world out there of literature
and art and people and how they think, and that was exciting to me. I've
been on the sideline in the NFL, with 90,000 people screaming, and that
was great, but I don't need to be the focus of attention. I want our programs
here to appear seamless, and if I'm invisible, that's terrific. The less
visible I am, the better. The important thing is that we reach the goals
we set in how we are going to help people."
For the College, he says, involvement in programs such
as America Reads, Pomona Partners and College Bound "has to do with taking
on the responsibility to lead and to mold. We're saying to a large group
of kids and families not often associated with Pomona College that this
is an accessible place for you. We're also saying that we've established
a bar of excellence. The bar is very high, and there's nothing wrong with
that." --Michael Balchunas; Burf Kay also contributed to this article.