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East High Foundation Gains Admin Friend

ANDY MEEK | The Daily News
Monday, April 21, 2008

SPREADING THE MESSAGE: The Greater East High Foundation is continuing to promote the program as far away as the White House. Pictured on the front row, from left, are teacher Meah King, foundation founder Charles McVean, tutor Cortney Richardson and foundation director emeritus Margaret Taylor. On the back row, from left, are foundation members Yuri Branch and Jon Housholder. -- Photo By Andy Meek
President George W. Bush did not forget about his impromptu encounter late last year with a Memphis businessman and a University of Memphis student.

The two Memphians had crossed paths with the president in December at a political fundraiser in Omaha, Neb. Local commodities trader Charles McVean and U of M student Cortney Richardson flew to the event and approached Bush with the goal of selling him on the strengths of an emerging academic foundation at East High School.

McVean, an East alum, started the foundation in 2004 with the basic idea that upperclassmen at the school would be paid $10 an hour to tutor their fellow students. Richardson is involved with the program as a tutor.

During their encounter with Bush in Omaha, where the president had traveled to support the U.S. Senate candidacy of former Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, the president told his personal assistant to give the pair from Memphis a business card. A packet of material describing the East High program was then forwarded to the White House.

Bush eventually asked John Bailey, a domestic counsel affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education, to get back in touch with the backers of the local program known as the Greater East High Foundation. That's what led to a 45-minute conference call last week involving McVean, foundation director Bill Sehnert and Bailey as the representative of the education department.

Taking the next step
Bailey, impressed with the pitch he was given, at one point asked the East High officials, "What can we do to help?"

"Charlie said, 'Well, what you can do to help is we believe that a proliferation of these types of private foundations that are privately funded around the country could receive grants from the government or from other private foundations that would pay for performance,'" Sehnert recalled. "And (Bailey) thought that was a good idea.

"They liked the idea of each foundation basically working with one or two schools, because that way the money goes more to the tutors and to the students in incentives rather than to a large organization."

Bailey already had read up on the program before last week's phone call. But he also requested more written information on things such as the program's intent to hire additional tutors and the impact of those additions.

That supportive nod from the nation's capital, meanwhile, joins encouragement from the public and private sectors around the country for the local academic program. After a recent visit to Bolivar County, Miss., for example, one of McVean's friends in the area decided to help launch a version of the academic tutoring program there.

At the program's three-year anniversary celebration last year, a panoply of notable guest speakers was brought in to praise the effort. Among those people was Clear Channel Communications co-founder and Texas billionaire Red McCombs.

Creating masters
And the East High program, which started out as a way McVean figured he could give back to his alma mater and have his money put to productive use, is growing. New college-age tutors will be added to the program's lineup for the next school year.

"We're going to hire 25 college tutors for next year," Sehnert said. "And we're going to try to use those tutors during the day. They will be math, science and engineering students, so they will have the subject content knowledge.

"One of the problems in our schools is that we give kids many, many different choices, so they become masters of nothing. And then when they graduate, if they do graduate from high school, they're not really very well-versed in math or very well-versed in science or very well-versed in English."

Interest in the program is blossoming in other corners. Backers of the foundation have met with officials at Douglass High School in Memphis with the hope of starting a version of the program there. At the moment, East High foundation supporters closer to home are especially eager to bolster the program's lineup of tutors.

"That," Sehnert said, "will be a walking demonstration to kids that they can succeed."