At the beginning of Francisco Saravia’s sophomore year at Wakefield High School, attending college seemed an unlikely prospect.
Though Saravia excelled in math classes, he struggled with English, his second language. He was more interested in success on the soccer field than in the classroom and coasted through the lowest level courses.
“I was just going to school because I had to,” said Saravia, who was born in El Salvador. “I didn’t think of going beyond high school.”
Then Savaria met Ralph Johnson. Savaria was one of five Wakefield students who joined Johnson’s son’s independent soccer team in 1997. Johnson paid for their uniforms and team fees and became involved in their academic careers by reviewing their grades and urging them to enroll in more rigorous courses.
“He told me to push myself and take AP classes,” said Saravia, who graduated from Wakefield in 2000. “He motivated me to go to college.”
Two days each week Saravia would come to Johnson’s real estate office for help on his English papers and college essays. He was accepted to George Mason University and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, thanks in part to a scholarship provided by Johnson.
“Francisco and some others on the team were such talented kids,” said Johnson, who runs Johnson Associates, a real estate investment and property management company. “But they didn’t come from backgrounds that encouraged higher education. They just needed positive reinforcement and someone to make sure they met every deadline.”
Earlier this month, Johnson received the Arlington Community Foundation’s 2005 Spirit of Community Award for his mentoring work with Saravia and other Wakefield students. He has funded and been actively involved in the school’s “Co-hort Program,” which is a support group where black and Hispanic males receive academic assistance and college guidance, and has endowed the Wakefield Goals Scholarship Program, which enables immigrant students to attend George Mason University.
The Spirit of Community Award, established in 1993, honors those who have “demonstrated tireless and unselfish commitment to improving the quality of life in Arlington.” At the award ceremony, held on Nov. 15, the Arlington Community Foundation also presented more than $200,000 in grants to 52 county nonprofit organizations.
ALTHOUGH JOHNSON was able to have a major impact on Savaria’s life, he was disappointed he was unable to steer the other Wakefield students on the soccer team toward higher education. That experience made Johnson realize it was imperative to begin mentoring students at a younger age.
“There are a lot of bright kids who do extremely well in middle school but whose grades drop off when they reach high school,” Johnson. “They just stop developing and that’s a disaster.”
Johnson was looking for a way to reach out to a greater number of high school students when Savaria told him about Wakefield’s newly founded Co-hort program. Its aim is to narrow the minority achievement gap in the school and to encourage Hispanic and black males to take advanced courses and apply to college. Each year approximately 25 students are accepted into the program after the first quarter of ninth grade, which stipulates each student must have no grades below a C.
The group meets by grade level every week to discuss the challenges they are facing inside and outside the classroom. The students receive advice from their peers and advisers on how to handle the faster pace of high school, the increased work load of advanced courses and how to balance academic priorities with sports and social activities.
“The kids can offer a lot of support to each other because they are going through similar experiences,” said Dolores Bushong, who runs the program with two other Wakefield teachers.
Johnson covers much of the costs of the Co-hort program, including providing school supplies, SAT prep classes and funding for field trips. Each year sophomores in the program participate in an outdoor challenge course and juniors and seniors travel to several colleges in Virginia.
“From the beginning Ralph has been a great supporter financially and has always said he really believes in what we do,” Bushong said.
Johnson deflects any credit for the program and said all the students’ success is the result of the hard work and dedication of Bushong and the other staff members who challenge the students on a daily basis.
“The goal is for the students to be successful and have options in their life,” Johnson said. “We have to provide them with the opportunity to succeed with whatever talents they have.”
JOHNSON ALSO sponsors the Wakefield Goals Scholarship Fund, which awards two scholarships a year to students who immigrated to the United States. The money helps defray the cost of tuition and pay for books and a college meal plan.
But Johnson’s contributions do not end with the signing of a check. He believes he has an obligation to continue working with the students who win his scholarship and regularly assists them with school work and the adjustment to college life.
“I bug them and force them to listen to me,” he said. “Once I get my hook in them I don’t let them go.”
“He’s been a great person, a mentor and a friend to get advice from,” said Saravia, who worked for IBM after he graduated from George Mason University and now helps run a small-start up firm. “He’s been a great influence on my life and others.”