Ashley Westbrook’s journey was similar to mine except that it took a detour. After leaving Jefferson, her parents enrolled her in Central Catholic St. Nicholas School and Academy at 1106 North Jefferson Avenue. The school was not far from Ashley’s home, and though the racial makeup was much like Jefferson’s, Ashley’s dad believed it was a cut above Webster Middle, the school where she otherwise would have ended up. Ashley didn’t find St. Nick all that wonderful, but was looking forward to moving on from there with the friends she had made to Cardinal Ritter Prep, a parochial school with an outstanding reputation.
But just a few weeks before the start of high school, Ashley’s parents told her that she would not be going to Cardinal Ritter. They could not afford the tuition. Instead, Ashley would attend Vashon High School, just like me.
“I cried when my mama told me that I had to go to Vashon… I mean, I was bawling,” Ashley recalled.
I was secretly a little excited to have my best friend back at school with me. Just as she had grown accustomed to private school life and with high hopes of continuing through high school, it just seemed unfair. Her family wasn’t poor enough to get a substantial scholarship, but they certainly were not rich enough to pay much out-of-pocket. We also knew (or assumed) that she would lose the prestige and networking opportunities that come from attending a private school. You could almost hear doors slamming shut.
Though she didn’t anticipate it at the time, an opportunity beckoned at Vashon. Maybe here is where we can see a direct result when civic leaders extend a helping hand -- but not in a way that you might expect.
In 2004, members of the Vashon Compact got in touch with College Summit, a national program designed to help underserved students prepare for a college education. The program got underway at Vashon and other city high schools in 2005. In 2006 Ashley was in the second group of students to receive counseling and mentoring that would help them prepare for college.
Truth be told, Ashley was headed for a university anyway. Nothing was going to stop her. And she didn’t much care for the mentors; they didn’t seem as engaged or interested as she would have liked. She also thought that the program wasn’t ambitious enough, working with students like her who were college bound under any circumstance.
But instead of shrugging her shoulders and moving on with her life, Ashley decided she would personally address the situation.
After completing her freshman year in college, Ashley volunteered to become a Summit mentor. Ashley served three years in that capacity and worked hard to be a role model for her high school seniors and to give them a sense of possibility. She also grew increasingly comfortable with the program overall. She could see that the organization was beginning to reach students who would not otherwise go to college. If you visit the College Summit website, you’ll find that the program is now in 14 area high schools and has reached 12,500 students.
In this small way, one of the Vashon Compact “guinea pigs” was showing her handlers how to get it done.
Today, Ashley works at the St. Louis County Highway and Transportation Department as an office service representative. At the same time, she is working toward a master’s degree in human resources at Webster University. She plans to graduate in 2017.
By Evita Caldwell
Photos By J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Ashley Westbrook (left) shows off the grade school trophies she has kept through the years. Ashley and Evita Caldwell (right) are best friends.