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‘Backrs’ builds support network for first-generation college students

Andy Bobowski, co-founder of Backrs, leades new protégées at the Purpose Workshop, an orientation for the support app. (courtesy Backrs)
Andy Bobowski, co-founder of Backrs, leades new protégées at the Purpose Workshop, an orientation for the support app. (courtesy Backrs)

Hope in Memphis is a recurring series about people who are working every day in Memphis to defy and defeat crime and violence, poverty and homelessness, child abuse and neglect, inequity, intolerance and ignorance.

Mr. Bobowski tried everything he could think of to turn the two KIPP charter schools in North Memphis he led into launching pads for his students.

He hired the best teachers he could find to light the fire of learning in Zytiera and Carmen and Tyler and other young minds.

He organized career days and college fairs and one-on-one mentoring programs to fan those flames and propel Dedrick and Erika and Umeria and other students into adult lives that would take them wherever they wanted to go.

He hired extra social workers and counselors and tried to connect his students and their families to services that could keep those flames from being extinguished by hardship or circumstance.

Many students benefited, but it wasn’t enough. He saw it happen too many times. A student worked hard, got good grades, overcame great odds, only to have his or her aspirations for college and career dashed by hardship or circumstance.

“So many students just don’t have the social or financial capital they need to get into college or stay once they get there,” said Andy Bobowski, who was founding principal of KIPP Memphis Academy Middle in 2012 and principal of KIPP Memphis Collegiate High from 2019-2021. “I kept thinking, there have to be more effective ways to continue to support students on their journeys, especially after they leave school.”

Bobowski believes he’s found one. He calls it  opens in a new windowBackrs. It’s a social, financial and professional support network for high school and first-generation college students.

“That’s a crucial time in a young person’s life. It’s vital they stay connected,” Bobowski said, who co-founded backrs in 2021 after 13 years as a teacher and principal.

Only 1% of young people who’ve been disconnected from school or work will earn an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 36% of the general population.

Those disconnected youth ages 16-24 — also called “ opens in a new windowopportunity youth” — are less likely to be employed and more likely to suffer long-term physical, financial and social consequences.

Among the 95 largest metropolitan areas in the country, Memphis has the  opens in a new windowthird highest rate of disconnected youth — 16.6%, or about 31,400 people.

“If Backrs gets this right, the return on investment is hard to fathom,” said Justin Miller, a former educator, financial adviser and founding CEO of Slingshot Memphis.

Team Zytiera

Backrs.

The truncated name reflects the preferred modes of communication for the texting, tweeting, Tik Tok generation.

Marni Pastor
Marni Pastor

“We’re trying to meet this generation where they are, which is on digital platforms,” said Marni Pastor, backrs CEO and co-founder, a Harvard Business School graduate who worked in administration for Pittsburgh Public Schools. “It’s how young people form relationships. It’s how they communicate and connect with the world.”

There are a lot of apps for that, but backrs developed its own. That’s how students, who are called protégés, connect and communicate with their “backrs” — the team of half a dozen or so adults who support each protégé.

“I usually hear from one of my backrs every day,” said Zytiera Richardson, a sophomore nursing major at Middle Tennessee State University. “Every time I post something, I get great feedback and support. They are like my second family.”

Protégés choose their own backrs.

Richardson, who graduated from KIPP High in 2021, was one of the program’s first protégés. She was given a list of more than a dozen heavily vetted adults who expressed an interest in becoming a backr, and whose academic or professional lives matched her interests and aspirations.

She chose six people who live in six different cities.

Sarah Suma, a nurse practitioner and former registered nurse in Chicago. 

“Zytiera is such a positive light and kind soul,” Suma said. “Not only am I encouraging her, but Zytiera and team Zytiera have been a source of encouragement for me.”

Paris Price, an emergency department physician in Nashville. 

Kalli Harrell, a former sixth-grade science teacher who now works for Memphis Teacher Residency. 

Selfie of Zytiera Richardson, with her backr, Kalli Harrell when they met for ice cream last summer. (courtesy Zytiera Richardson)
Selfie of Zytiera Richardson, with her backr, Kalli Harrell when they met for ice cream last summer. (courtesy Zytiera Richardson)

“You feel special to be chosen by your protégé,” said Harrell, who has three children ages six and younger. “And it feels good to be able to use my experience to help someone special like Zytiera.”

Theo Ossei-Anto, Zytiera’s first- and third-grade teacher at Promise Academy Hollywood, now a teacher in Los Angeles. 

Danny Swersky, who founded a charter middle school in New York City.

“I offer whatever advice I can, mistakes I’ve made, challenges I’ve faced,” Swersky said. “I’m invested in her success.”

Grant Gardner, a wildlife consultant in North Carolina. 

“Even if Zytiera isn’t able to use these pieces of advice immediately,” Gardner said, “I would hope that having folks available on demand to ask questions, bounce ideas off of, or passively work behind the scenes to tap a renewable resource they have in high supply, such as personal acquaintances, is helpful for her and demonstrates a community of support.”

Richardson’s team has shared advice on how to study and manage her time, which classes she should take, and how to find an internship.

Richardson’s team has shared advice about how to save and invest money, how to budget and buy a car, and what to do about credit cards. (courtesy Backrs)
Richardson’s team has shared advice about how to save and invest money, how to budget and buy a car, and what to do about credit cards. (courtesy Backrs)

She’s asked for their advice about how to save and invest money, how to budget and buy a car, and what to do about credit cards.

Richardson and her team also meet on Zoom about once a month. She texts some of them. Several weeks ago, she met Kalli Harrell for ice cream.

“I really love my team,” Richardson said. “Even when I’m just feeling down or discouraged, I’ll put up a quick post and I get all this support and encouragement. It really helps.”

Supporting protégés

Protégés receive more than moral support. The backrs organization also backs them financially.

New protégés are guaranteed an initial “seed investment” of $450 from the program. They also can receive up to $150 a month from their backrs, who are encouraged — though not required — to “invest” in their protégé’s future. Contributions from individual backrs average $37 a month.

The program’s first 50 students have received over $37,000 since January.

Protégés use the funds for everything from high school band fees and college books to gas and groceries.

A third of all first-generation students leave college within three years of starting. More than half of all low-income first-generation students leave college without a degree.

The top three reasons are financial burdens, lack of support, and inequitable access to resources, according to the Education Advisory Board.

“Studies show that students with as little as $500 in savings are four times more likely to go to college, and three times more likely to graduate,” Bobowski said. “Getting into college is far easier than paying for college, especially for first-generation students.”

Protégés are not permitted to ask for additional investments, share Amazon wish lists, or get money from backrs for one-time expenses such as tuition.

High school protégés must attend (or have graduated from) a Title 1 school and qualify for federal subsidized lunch through their local school districts. College protégés must be eligible for federal Pell Grants.

“We partner with schools to verify this information for all protégés,” Pastor said.

Backrs started with 20 students a year ago, then expanded to 50 students last January.

There are 132 protégés this year — 42 in college and 90 in high school.

Protégés apply for the program, and are chosen by school leaders. “We’re not the gatekeepers,” Bobowski said. “We don’t know the students as well as their schools do.”

Carmen Abark (center) is a former student of Bobowski’s. She participated in the Purpose Workshop lead by her former principal. (courtesy Backrs)
Carmen Abark (center) is a former student of Bobowski’s. She participated in the Purpose Workshop lead by her former principal. (courtesy Backrs)

Backrs partners with Soulsville Charter, Crosstown High, Memphis Rise Academy, Memphis Inner City Rugby, and Valor College Prep in Nashville. There also are protégés from Freedom Prep, KIPP High, and Douglass and Central High schools.

Backrs helps protégés find college scholarships, internships, and business connections.

Jada, a junior at Howard University, secured an Ignite Fellowship with Teach For America. Darin, a junior at Tennessee Tech, has an internship at City Leadership. Keyaunna, a senior at Howard, was connected to a patent attorney for some legal guidance as she works to develop her business.

“The potential connections and benefits are unlimited,” Pastor said.

Recruiting backrs

Like protégés, backrs apply for the program.

The organization conducts extensive background checks on prospective backrs. A parent is required to join the support team for any protégé under age 18.

“Safety is our first priority,” Pastor said.

The program monitors all posts on the app. Protégés are told to report any contact that makes them feel uncomfortable.

“That hasn’t happened yet,” Pastor said.

Protégés can ask to add or drop a particular backr for any reason.

“Sometimes it just isn’t a good fit,” Bobowski said.

Richardson asked to replace one of her original backrs.

“He was very helpful, but his life got very busy,” she said. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

The Backrs app wants to enhance, not replace, existing one-on-one mentoring and alumni support programs. (courtesy Backrs)
The Backrs app wants to enhance, not replace, existing one-on-one mentoring and alumni support programs. (courtesy Backrs)

Bobowski said backrs wants to enhance, not replace, existing one-on-one mentoring and alumni support programs.

Bobowski’s wife, Ashley Shores, is managing director for Soulsville Charter School, which employs two full-time staff members to support alumni.

“Students can feel pretty lost. We try to help them navigate life after high school,” Shores said. “That’s not a small task with 800 alumni. A program like backrs can enhance our efforts, but most schools don’t have any alumni support programs.”

Shores is a backr for a protege named Dedrick, a psychology major at Rhodes College.

Bobowski was Dedrick’s principal at KIPP Middle. He was Richardson’s principal at KIPP Middle and High.

Several protégés had Mr. Bobowski as their principal.

Carmen, who attends LeMoyne Owen College, is transferring to the University of Memphis in the spring to major in culinary arts.

Erika, who is studying computer science and brain science at Washington University.

Umeria, who is a forensic anthropology major at UT-Knoxville.

Tyler, who is a business management major at UT-Martin.

Bobowski started a one-on-one mentoring program for these and other students when he opened KIPP Memphis Academy Middle in 2012. It was frustrating.

“I’d be in the library with our fifth- and sixth-graders, waiting for mentors to show up. Some would. Many wouldn’t,” Bobowski said. “People are busy. They have lives and careers. They get sick. They have car problems. Whatever. When they don’t show up, that look on a sixth-grader’s face really makes it hard to want to continue the program.”

Now Bobowski’s former students have more than 300 backrs. The goal is to have 600 by the end of the year.

“That’s part of the power of having a support team,” he said. “If one backr doesn’t show up, there are others on the team who can and do. There’s always someone available to offer support. And they don’t even have to live here.”

To learn more about Backrs, visit  opens in a new windowBackrs.com.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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