Baton Rouge nonprofit Career Compass has expanded across Louisiana in the decade since it was founded and now helps thousands of students get a higher education
Former Tara High School teachers Kacy Edwards, left, and Julie Scott founded Career Compass 10 years ago to help students navigate the process of applying for secondary education. Since then, the nonprofit has assisted more than 53,000 students in Louisiana with going to college. Photography by Don Kadair
While Hurricane Katrina forcefully blew many lives off course, it also softened the already tender hearts of two educators and subtly steered them to their life’s work.
While teaching at Tara High School, friends Kacy Edwards and Julie Scott saw the disconnect between the information students were given about furthering their education after high school and their actual ability to take the necessary steps to get there.
Students would come to them after school for help, and the obstacles they faced varied widely. Some simply couldn’t register to take the ACT because their parents didn’t have a credit card to pay the fee online, so they would bring cash and Scott would use her card to schedule the test for them. A few were already parents themselves and didn’t know where they could go to school that had a daycare.
Still, others would get a 31 on the ACT but not know that they were supposed to send the score to a university. That’s when Scott would get on the phone and call university admissions to let them know about the student and find out about scholarship opportunities. Then she’d go online and help the student pay the $20 fee to submit the score.
Time and again, she and Edwards assisted with roadblocks. Then Katrina hit. Tara experienced an influx of around 135 students from New Orleans, displaced by the horrific aftermath of the storm.
“God love them; they had so many problems,” says Scott. “We really became advocates for them.”
It didn’t take long for Scott and Edwards to realize that although their students’ obstacles may be different, they all faced them. So the friends cashed out their retirement accounts and started Career Compass, a nonprofit that provides resources and assistance to high school students to help them get a secondary education.
They filled out the 501(c)(3) application at night and on weekends while still teaching, and got approval on March 17, 2006. They quit teaching in May and, with their retirements and a grant from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, secured enough money to go into two East Baton Rouge Parish schools as volunteers to provide college and career coaching to high school seniors.
Scott and Edwards never thought Career Compass would be more than just the two of them helping the kids in East Baton Rouge Parish. But as the nonprofit celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it is now operating in nearly half of Louisiana’s 64 parishes. Last year alone, Career Compass’ 61 career coaches assisted students in 31 parishes across the state, serving 27,056 students in grades six through 12 at 143 public schools.
In its first year of operations, Career Compass helped 98 seniors apply to college. Last year, 11,612 of the seniors it assisted—or 98%—applied to post-secondary schools. Statewide, only 59% of Louisiana high school graduates enter a post-secondary school. Scott and Edwards’ ultimate goal is to have a presence in all Louisiana school districts.
At Career Compass, they use the word “college” to mean something different than what many people think. To them, it means any post-secondary training, whether it’s at a four-year university, beauty college, or a community or technical college.
“We feel like they all want to go to college, so why would we not reinforce that their post-secondary path takes them to college,” Scott explains. “We knew they were not all four-year-university bound. But by knowing them and having taught them and loving them, we also knew that there was some place for every single one of them to go. The where is not as important.”
THE COACH’S PLAYBOOK
At least half of all new jobs in Louisiana require one to two years of specialized training and education. Career Compass coaches believe that post-secondary education is a necessity for everyone, and their mission is to remove obstacles to it. They assist with admissions, enrollment, financial aid, career exploration, Jump Start pathways, exam registration—and jittery nerves. They can be the support that may be lacking at home.
Coaches are highly trained and highly educated. They are required to have a bachelor’s degree in a field that works with students, and more than half have earned a master’s degree or higher. Many are retired principals and supervisors from the district level, former teachers or counselors, and social workers. They attend 60 hours of intensive training every year to keep up with current trends and funding options, and to know which high-demand, high-wage jobs are available in Louisiana in order to guide their students.
Beth Couvillion has worked for the nonprofit as a coach for four years and individually meets with each of the 500 seniors at the four schools she’s active in across two parishes. She, like most of the coaches, is a former teacher and got involved with Career Compass because she was looking to return to working with students while balancing home life.
“We listen, encourage and provide information so they can make their own decision. We succeed working with both valedictorians and the kids that don’t plan to go to college at all,” says Couvillion. “Everyone who works there wants to be there. It is the best job ever.”
And it’s no wonder. When some nonprofits receive a grant, they hire contract workers for a one- or two-year stint to fill the needs of that grant. But Scott and Edwards consider their employees the most important asset of the organization and elevate them to family status.
One of Career Compass’ success stories is Tyre’ Jenkins, who always wanted to go to college but didn’t have the financial resources to do so. He had little help academically until he met his Career Compass coach at Glen Oaks High, who worked closely with him to put together a plan as well as apply for scholarships and grants. Jenkins ended up going to college debt free and also was able to purchase a vehicle to help get him to and from school.
He graduated college in 2014 and is now in the process of getting his teaching certificate. He’s finishing his master’s degree in education this month and is preparing to start a job teaching fifth grade in his native Washington Parish—after teaching and working as a Career Compass coach himself.
“They have become family—my mommas. I just absolutely love their genuineness. I can depend on those ladies for anything. I keep in touch with them to this day,” Jenkins says of his Career Compass coach, Scott and Edwards. “The day that I met my coach was the best day concerning what I wanted to do with my life. She walked with me hand in hand through the whole process. To this day I’m so grateful to her for that. It’s really literally because of Career Compass that I’m where I am.”
The Career Compass model is cost effective, at $100 to provide coaching for a senior, and it is quickly becoming known as a best practice in Louisiana. Services include one-on-one coaching for 11th and 12th grade students, small-group coaching for those in the ninth and 10th grades, and college and career readiness seminars for sixth through 11th graders.
Edwards works with individual schools or districts to write grants, secure partnerships and find funding to help offset the cost of the program that the institution’s college and career readiness budget might not cover. And the services help post-secondary partners—which include all of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System and all of the University of Louisiana System—with their accountability goals.
There is absolutely no cost to the students, and the organization will pay for application and exam fees for those students who can’t afford them. Scott says a student’s background doesn’t matter when it comes to receiving assistance from Career Compass. She and Edwards firmly believe all students have the same right to the same education and the same opportunities.
“Kacy and I truly feel like as long as we’re leading this nonprofit in the direction that God wants it to go in that it will continue to thrive,” she says, “and that’s really been what has helped us through the first 10 years.”
A look at the expansion of Career Compass since it was founded 10 years ago:
• 2006: Founders Kacy Edwards and Julie Scott help 98 high school seniors apply to college.
• 2007: The Pennington Family Foundation invests in the nonprofit to expand its reach in East Baton Rouge Parish. The coaching staff doubles to four, and the number of students applying to college with its help increases sixfold.
• 2008: The number of students applying to college with the help of Career Compass jumps to nearly 3,000. The nonprofit begins offering college and career awareness seminars to high school sophomores and juniors.
• 2009: Career Compass provides a head start for middle school students with college and career awareness seminars.
• 2010: The Boo Grigsby Foundation provides college scholarships for the first class of its scholars program. Bossier Parish Community College brings college and career coaching to north Louisiana.
• 2012: The largest expansion in the nonprofit’s history sees student applications to college top 10,000 for the first time. The Orchard Foundation brings Career Compass to central Louisiana, while the Community Foundation of North Louisiana expands the nonprofit to Caddo and Bossier parishes. The Huey and Angelina Wilson Foundation begins investing in Career Compass in the greater Baton Rouge area.
• 2014: Career Compass provides small group coaching for the first time to 1,300 students in 12 districts through the Louisiana Jump Start program.
• 2015: The nonprofit reaches a record 27,056 students across 31 parishes in Louisiana, with 98% of the seniors it assists applying for a post-secondary education.