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Over Achievers

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

Development Communications | May 19, 2013

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A new scholarship with strong Emory ties gives hope to students from Washington’s troubled schools. Photo by Emory Photo/Video.

Emory College of Arts and Sciences sophomore Julia Highsmith 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.

Full story in Emory Magazine »