Kyle Westbrook grew up in Springfield expecting to be an astronaut, not an education activist.
But his experiences led Westbrook, 44, to a career in education — as a history teacher at Lincoln Park High School, to an education policy leader in the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and now as the founding executive director of the Partnership for College Completion. Unlike myriad organizations that prepare students to be "college ready," the nonprofit works to prepare colleges so they can help low-income, first-generation African-American and Latino students graduate.
What was the genesis of the Partnership for College Completion?
A group of foundations realized they had made a tremendous amount of investment in supporting students in their K-12 education, but hadn't done enough to support students through their college experience.
What drove you to do this work in the nonprofit sector?
Seeing students with so much potential and intelligence and not seeing them realize that potential, whether it was because they couldn't finish high school because of circumstances, or in many cases they'd finish high school but were never going to complete college for a variety of reasons. It was never because of intellect or ability. It's what motivated me in this role. They never had access to the middle class in the way I did.
What is the biggest challenge facing low-income and students of color today?
A high school diploma is just not going to be sufficient because of the complexity of our economy. I read a recent study that found around 98 percent of the new jobs created require some sort of post-secondary education. So the challenge is how do we decrease the number of low-income students who are going to college but don't graduate? This impacts the life outcomes for those students. Not only do they end up without a degree, but oftentimes they end up with student loans and student debts. In many ways, they are often worse off for having gone to college if they haven't completed it.
You worked for Mayor Rahm Emanuel before launching the partnership. What role does politics play in education policy?
In the best case scenario you have multiple groups that align to come together for a shared agenda. Where politics tends to derail education is when we have politicians who act in ways that aren't clearly aligned with what our students need.
How do you start your morning?
Waking up and checking emails to make sure there's no emergency. Assuming there's not, I get up and exercise. No matter how hard or light, it makes me feel better about the day.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
An astronaut. I had a fascination with space. I'm still interested in astronomy.