Life on the FasTrac

FasTrac has been educating students on how to prepare for their futures since 2007

May 2, 2018

Eleven years ago, one theme held true for many black students at City High: they felt isolated. FasTrac became their home away from home.  

“[In FasTrac] we could come and talk about those frustrations and have hard conversations about things like race, conversations about different things like what [race] means in the school system, in the community,” Ariana Aaron, one of the group’s six original co-founders and a student at the time, said.

Aaron stated that FasTrac was created because many black students did not feel as though they belonged in clubs and other organizations on campus. According to her, after creating FasTrac, this pattern only continued.

“The climate at City High was a little difficult for the students to navigate on their own,” Aaron said. “We had a lot of problems from students not wanting us to participate in different after-school programs or certain groups. It seemed like…we weren’t welcomed.”

With that, the group of predominantly African-American students decided to create a space for themselves. The students had a vague idea of what they wanted this made-from-scratch coalition to look like, and what the group would ultimately accomplish. Taking matters into their own hands, students approached then City High faculty member, Henri Harper, with their idea. Today, he serves as the group’s director. It has since expanded to include members throughout Eastern Iowa.

The group gets its name, “FasTrac,”  from the ebonic pronunciation of the words “fast” and “track” from the phrase “on the fast track”. FasTrac initially received heavy backlash from within the community. Aaron recalls a time where people were saying that it was a group created exclusively for black students and that its members were racist. Even certain teachers would publicly criticize the group.

“They would say that we were stupid for thinking that we could ever go anywhere further than high school. We would have teachers that would just completely talk about the program in negative ways in front of class and other students during class time. It would challenge us to kind of get us to tell them and explain what FasTrac was,”  Aaron said.

However, Aaron noted that even though the criticisms were plentiful, FasTrac also had many supporters in the community that approved what the program was doing for students.

“What we wanted to do was not necessarily make this group…something for black kids and black kids only. That was never the point. [The negativity] gave us something to kind of keep showing, we are not just the stereotypes that people want to place on us,” Aaron said.

We are not just these loud black kids that aren’t up to anything. We have dreams, we have goals, and we have things that we want to accomplish.”

— Arianna Aaron

As FasTrac grew, it began to develop more structure. A system was developed to recognize students for academic achievement. FasTrac members began wearing color-coded shirts that corresponded with their grade point average. The shirts read: My Future Is Mine to Have.

“It was somewhere that we could come and kind of talk about those frustrations and not feel like we were going to be bashed for doing that and be able to discuss and have hard conversations about things like race and conversations about different things like what that means in the school system, in the community,” Aaron said. 

A version of the system is still in place today. Everyone begins with a black shirt. Anyone with a GPA of 3.0 or higher (qualifying for honor roll) wears a red shirt. A gold shirt means a student has received a 4.0.

“When the very first person got their gold shirt, people were like ‘Oh my god, he is the only one with a gold shirt’,” Aaron said. “His name was James Taylor and everyone wanted a gold shirt. The people who really did achieve that, each time, they really did hold us accountable like ‘You guys can do this like I did! This is what I did and how I got here.’”

This competitive model encouraged students to hold each other accountable. Those with more academic success provided advice and encouragement, and something to work up to. This was able to change a number of students’ perspectives on the decisions that they made inside and outside of school, giving them aspiration, an essential tool that some members lacked at the beginning of the program.

“It was really cool to see that be such a motivator for people, especially for those students who were not necessarily academically motivated prior to [FasTrac],” Aaron said.

Aaron is happy to be able to serve a role in a group that she helped to build from the ground up. It has influenced her positively and exposed her to things she wasn’t aware of having the capacity of doing.

Shaping Futures

Shevonna Norris ‘20 is currently preparing herself for her freshman year at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluffs. Three years ago, she wasn’t even thinking about college.

“If I hadn’t talked to Mr. Harper about [historically black colleges and universities] I would have never applied to [Pine Bluffs] at all. I’ve grown a lot since my freshman year,” Norris said. “My first three years of high school, especially freshman and sophomore year, it was just horrible. Just skipping class or not focusing…so my grades [were] going down.”

After joining FasTrac, Norris started thinking more about her future and what she wanted to do with it. The varsity girls basketball athlete knew that she wanted to see more than Iowa City.

Though Aaron says that she always saw incentive to do well in school, she credits FasTrac with many other positive aspects of her life. With guidance and the higher expectations that came from the group, she began to raise her own personal academic standards.

“To start, I would say it would have probably been my attitude,” Aaron said. “The program gave me something to look forward to: going to school. It also motivated me and showed me that I was capable of doing things that I didn’t think I was. It kind of gave me that push to keep going even when things were hard and just showed me things that I am able to do.”

Today, Aaron is a transitional living advocate at the United Action for Youth where she works with homeless youth and teen parents. Norris, much like Aaron, regards FasTrac as providing both a safe and educational space for students to turn to when they may not feel as though they can go anywhere else.

I’ve had help just now, my senior year, but freshman through junior year, I don’t think I really had enough people helping me to stay on track and pushing me to keep going.”

— Shevonna Norris

” Norris said. “[Students of color] may not feel like they have the proper help to figure out the next step of what they want to do. I think if they get in touch with FasTrac, even if we just tell people about it in school, wear the shirts around, and just talk to people, that it would really benefit them.”

At the end of the day, Norris thinks that the issue of a student’s success has much more to do with trust than it does with ability.

“I think it’s kind of hard [to ask for help],” Norris said. “[For example], if I don’t know you or have a relationship with you really, that might be stopping me from asking you for help. It kind of depends on the person. If you don’t have a relationship with somebody and you don’t talk to them…you might be afraid to go up to them and start asking for help. You might be scared that they’ll turn you down.”

Ladarion Jones ‘18 of City High first heard about FasTrac when he was ten years old from older friends. He resonates with Norris’ memories of feeling unsupported by school staff throughout high school.

“My family has always been my biggest supporter,” Jones said.

The City High senior, like Norris, plans to attend college in the fall. He is set to complete a two-in, two-out program through the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) and would ultimately like to transfer to the acclaimed Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C.

Although he now has plans in place for his future, Jones feels as though he could’ve solidified a stronger plan sooner had he received the adequate support. However, he also believes that students should take the appropriate steps to prepare for their own futures.

For now, FasTrac director Henri Harper can boast having had 17 college graduates come out of FasTrac in the last 10 years.

“[FasTrac’s] mission is to allow students to create their own futures…and participate in the goals that they choose. Create your own dreams. Create your own goals. Be motivated on your own terms.” Harper said.

Demystifying Civil Rights

Every year, FasTrac students are offered the opportunity to travel through the South, visiting historic civil rights landmarks and touring historically black colleges and universities. The Civil Rights/HBCU Tour is an annual nine-day expedition.

“We have taken 56 students 10 times,” Harper, who has been instrumental in orchestrating each tour, said.

In June, FasTrac-ers who meet the requirement of having a grade point average of 3.0 GPA or higher can opt to attend the tour at no cost to themselves. This year will mark the tenth year of the much celebrated trip. The events of this year’s trip will also be recorded in the form of a documentary. Mayor Jim Throgmorton of Iowa City will also be in attendance.

Students will get to experience college through visiting HBCUs in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Among those this year are Spelman and Morehouse Colleges in Atlanta, Georgia. The University of Pine Bluffs, the school that Norris will be attending in the fall, marks the first stop on the tour.

“When I think about civil rights, I don’t think we really learn or hear about everything in high school,” said Norris, who will be attending this year’s trip. “Going on these trips…learning where it really started and going to the places where Civil Rights actually happened, just to be in that area, I think that would really help a lot of us just to experience this.”

This summer, the trip will begin on Saturday, June 16 and continue through June 24. Program director Henri Harper and family/parent volunteers, as well as other FasTrac affiliates (including previous FasTrac members), will be chaperoning the trip.This year, a total of  35 students and 26 adults  are slated to attend.

“I think [the FasTrac/Civil Rights Tour] is important because the information that people get and the history that you learn while on the trip you don’t get anywhere else,” Aaron said.

The 2018 Civil Rights Tour will be the second that City High employee, Fred Newell, has attended. The first was in 2011. He looks forward to revisiting several historic landmarks.

“I’m hoping that my two oldest sons will attend as well. It’s such a powerful experience,” Newell said.

I think that trip exposes you to why you as a person of color owe it to yourself and your community to strive for excellence.”

— Fred Newell

A few stops on the tour this year will include the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum, the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and several other historic landmarks and sites including a former slave plantation.

“This trip will…make people ask more questions and wonder why they didn’t know about certain things they are going to be learning, why it is not taught in the schools. Hopefully that will promote conversations when we get back,” Aaron, who will be attending the tour for her first time this summer, said.

Expenses for the trip culminate to around $36,000 all together. Expenses include lodging (which comes out to around $22,000) for the duration of the tour, entrance fees at select locations ($3,600) and transportation fees, as well as other accumulated costs. Students will be expected to pay for their own food, except for a few sponsored restaurant stops.

Every year, members of the group fundraise in a variety of ways in order to ensure that the trip remains accessible to everyone. One way to achieve this is with the annual FasTrac Fundraising Banquet, which took place on April 19th of this year.

“All the students on this tour always have gone for free,” Harper said on March 17 at an informational meeting regarding the tour. “Adults have to pay their part to offset the cost.”

The group also works with their umbrella sponsor TeamCan, a labor union based in Iowa, to help cover many, but not all, of the expenses. This year, students have been tasked with selling as many banquet tickets as they can at a rate of $25 per ticket or collecting other donations. All proceeds from the banquet and all collected donations will go towards funding the tour.

Donations to support the FasTrac Civil Rights Tour can also be given online. Anyone that is interested in contributing to the FasTrac tour can contact Henri Harper at his email, [email protected] or find one of the students sporting their FasTrac gear on Thursday of every week.

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