A Little Hope 

Will Memphis students take advantage of the proceeds from the Tennessee lottery?

On January 21st, just a day after Tennesseans broke a record for first-day lottery sales, Jacqueline Tate and her daughter are in the Hillcrest High School lunchroom. A hundred parents, high school students, and smaller children sit in brightly colored plastic chairs, waiting to hear about federal financial aid applications and the new Tennessee lottery scholarships.

Tate does not know much about the lottery, only that she has to be trained to sell tickets at her convenience store cashier's job. She hasn't budgeted money for college for her daughter, Hillcrest senior Charlene Newsom. "I haven't been able to," Tate says. "Hopefully, she can get a scholarship."

Newsom, who wants to be a lawyer, also works about 15 to 20 hours a week as a cook at Dodge's Chicken. She's always wanted to go to college, so she saves money from her salary to help pay for it.

At the University of Memphis, which Newsom plans to attend, the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship's $3,000 a year would be a big help. If she could get additional money because of need or by qualifying for a merit award, that would be even better.

"The people who were at the meeting were excited about it," Newsom says later. "Most of us want to go to school, but I think half of us don't have the money to go, so hopefully ... " [an almost audible shrug comes through the phone] " ... we'll get scholarships."

But first they have to qualify.

Lottery proceeds are used to provide a $3,000 annual HOPE award to graduating Tennessee seniors who score at least 19 on the ACT or have a 3.0 grade-point average (GPA). They can receive an additional $1,000 if their parents make a gross income of $36,000 or less or if they have a 3.75 GPA and a 29 or higher on the ACT.

Newsom just qualifies for a HOPE award with her 3.2 GPA. She won't say what she got on the ACT, only that it wasn't a 19. She plans on taking it again in the spring and hopes to do better then.

She's not the only one. Students, school administrators, city officials, business leaders, and others are hoping the lottery is a good bet for Memphis. They believe that if enough students win scholarships, it will mean a better-educated population, lower poverty rates, and a more-qualified work force.

In another word: hope.

According to the 2003 state report and based on three years of testing, the Memphis City Schools composite ACT score was a 17. The state average for the same period was a 20.1, and the national average was a 20.8. Hillcrest High Shool's was a 15.1.

College officials worry that many students who are awarded HOPE scholarships won't be able to keep them because they won't be able to maintain a 3.0 GPA after their freshman year of college. (Once students lose eligibility, they can never get it back.)

Some of the lottery's critics call it a "tax on stupidity," which, in the guise of funding for higher education, helps the middle class at the expense of the poor. These same critics say the economically disadvantaged will buy tickets with money they could be using for food or clothing and then middle-class kids will use the money to go to school.

To some extent, this may be true. For high schools with higher test scores, the lottery proceeds may guarantee that virtually all in-state college-bound students will receive financial aid from the state. For Memphis, a city with high poverty rates and some of the worst average test scores in the state, what the lottery scholarships will mean is still undetermined.

A LITTLE HOPE

Attending the University of Memphis this year will cost about $5,000, not including room and board. The University of Tennessee estimates its students will spend about $9,560 in tuition and room and board. At Vanderbilt University, tuition and expenses average about $40,000.

Hillcrest High School principal Carolyn Shaw jokes that it now costs two arms and a leg to send a student to college. It doesn't matter on what side of town a college-bound student lives, she says, most parents need help.

Shaw tells her seniors they're "sitting on their money" if they don't apply for scholarships. She hates hearing students tell her they didn't know about a particular scholarship or a program that could help them. That's why, when Hillcrest administrators found out that people from the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) were speaking to public groups, they invited them to the school.

"We just jumped right on that," says Shaw. "I don't know how [the lottery] will turn out, but some students who might have thought 'college is not the ticket for me' now think 'maybe this can work for me.'"

Shaw likes that the scholarships are not just for four-year institutions but two-year schools and technical programs as well. She likes the fact, also, that it's free to apply for a Tennessee lottery scholarship.

"We have kids [whose] parents sign loans for nursing school and they'll be paying those off forever," Shaw says. "Most of those loans, as soon as you get out of school, they want their money. If we can save them some money, great."

Shaw says about 10 percent of Hillcrest seniors immediately head to college. The rest may go into the armed services or join the job market.

"A lot of kids don't go to college because they don't have a 3.0," she says. Others simply procrastinate. "Ultimately, what happens in the fall is that the others come in and say, 'Can you write me a letter and send my transcript somewhere?' It's January and they've noticed that working is not for them. They think 18 is the magic number. They have a diploma and now they can get a job."

The problem, as Shaw sees it, is that kids don't get serious about their education. They don't take the ACT seriously until the morning of the test. They haven't studied, they don't know the format, and they're basically flying blind. She offers sessions and workshops on test-taking strategies such as calculator skills "but they may not come," she says. "Once again, they're sitting on their money."

Shaw hopes the lottery scholarship and its requirements will give students a sense of urgency and make them take the ACT more seriously. "I tell them: There is going to be life after Hillcrest High, whether you're ready to leave or not. There's a time when you have to go."

The school district's office of research and evaluation says that only 56 percent of last year's seniors took the ACT. Of those, 30 percent earned a score of 19 or higher.

Overton High School senior counselor Amy Ragland believes that any student who goes through Memphis City Schools can score a 19. "Nineteen is not expecting them to be a genius," says Ragland. "They can do 19 based on the content they've covered [in school]."

At Overton, the composite ACT score is a little less than 18. "We have students who get as high as a 31 and as low as 16 and 17. And 18 for us is average, so a 19 is a little above that," she says. "A 19 at a school like White Station" -- where Ragland worked for years -- "has scores that are typically in the upper 20s, probably 23 and above, so 19 is not difficult."

Because the ACT is based on content, Ragland and other counselors push students to take four years of each subject. However, because the district doesn't require a fourth year of math, social studies, or science, many students opt out of those classes their senior year. But when they get to the ACT, they're still tested on that fourth-year course material.

While in the past, some students have opted not to take the ACT, Ragland says she is seeing more students take it now and more of them working to get a 19. What effect this will have on city schools' composite ACT scores next year remains to be seen.

However, Ragland has seen her share of heartbreaking cases. Recently, she was helping a student who tested once and got a 17. "She tested several more times," Ragland says, "and kept making a 17. The last time she tested in December, she got an 18. She's so frustrated that she's just one point away."

The consolation is that with an 18 score the student could qualify for the Tennessee HOPE Access grant. The $2,000 award is a one-time offer made to help students who don't meet the initial HOPE requirements. If they get an 18, have a 2.75 GPA, and their parents' gross annual income is less than $36,000, they can receive the money and try to win the full HOPE scholarship amount the following year. Or if their freshman GPA is high enough, they can qualify for the HOPE that way.

"We're all excited about getting this money," Ragland says. "If they're applying to public schools in the state, they're happy to get $3,000. The public universities aren't so out-of-reach. If they're applying to private schools like Vanderbilt or Rhodes, $3,000 is not going to make a big difference, but anything will help."

Senator Steve Cohen, who sponsored and spearheaded the passage of the lottery bill in Tennessee, says it is the most important action the general legislature has taken since passing women's suffrage.

Cohen contends that the qualifications are very liberal. When asked if it bothers him that the median ACT score in Memphis City Schools is two points below the score required to win a scholarship, he says yes and no. Students always have the GPA option. "It's either/or," he says. "I would prefer it to be a 19 on the ACT and a 3.0 GPA because it's a scholarship."

Cohen also cites the HOPE Access grants which, he says, give students a chance to prove themselves. "If they can prove themselves, they will continue on," he says.

The lottery bill also sets aside funds for early childhood and K through 12 education. In the state budget presented by Governor Phil Bredesen two weeks ago, $8 million from lottery monies was earmarked for early childhood education and $2 million was set aside for after-school programs.

"Pre-kindergarten programs are the most important thing in the long run for getting kids educated," says Cohen. He expects the bulk of money will go to at-risk children.

Deni Hirsh, an MCS board of education commissioner, welcomes any extra funds. "We get so many children who are not prepared for school. If they have good home lives, enough to eat in the mornings, they can catch up. If they don't, it's hopeless," she says. "We're getting children who are two or three years behind when they start school."

A Bit of a Gamble

Danny Yi, a senior at Overton, plans to study finance at UT-Knoxville next year. He's been working as a grocery cashier or bagger since he was in ninth grade. "The lottery is kind of tricky," he says. "I work in a store and people are always coming in to buy lottery tickets. They'll buy them and start scratching and then if they win a free ticket they'll come back up and get another one. They stand in there like it's a casino."

Yi hasn't bought any lottery tickets. When asked about it, he replies that he is only 17. He has friends who have bought tickets. They wanted to hit $7,000 with Lucky Sevens, but only won a free ticket. Yi knows it's the free tickets that entice people to come back again.

"I have to keep going to the machine and getting more tickets [for customers]," he says. "It's kind of a headache, but it's helping my future education, so I don't mind."

Right now, his headaches are worth $2,000. Yi got an 18 on the ACT and thus qualifies for the HOPE Access. He says he plans to take the test again.

However, he's seeing firsthand one of the concerns of lottery opponents -- that players will become addicted. In Memphis, where legal gambling outlets such as casinos and a dog track are nearby, the concern might seem misplaced. But Memphis also has a large minority population, a high poverty rate, and an undereducated population, elements that some say will lead to an increase in gambling-addiction problems.

James Whelan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Memphis, says that gambling problems are more often seen in men, the economically disadvantaged, and minority populations. How much education a person has had also comes into play.

"Having a low rate of education is a risk factor for getting into trouble with gambling," says Whelan. "Also, people of modest means can more easily get into problems. We need to make sure that people understand what they're getting into."

Legally, no one can play the lottery until they are 18, but Whelan says young people are also at special risk.

"[Gambling] parallels other risk-taking behaviors and a larger proportion of [young people] engage in risk-taking behavior," says Whelan. "They're three to four times more likely to get into serious financial problems. Some live in a world that can protect them from that. They have families that can pick them up and dust them off. A lot of kids don't."

In part because legislators didn't want the state to have to pick up the tab for other types of gambling-addiction problems -- namely, casinos and sports betting -- they turned down an amendment to fund a "responsible-gambling center." There is another initiative on the table that includes adding a problem-gambling help-line number on lottery tickets.

Cohen dismisses that idea, proposed by a group of high schoolers in Franklin, Tennessee, as not well-researched. "No other state with a lottery puts 'the lottery is addictive' on tickets,'" he says. "The people at the gambling [help-line] numbers don't want [their number] on the ticket because people will think it's the number to the lottery and call and ask about winning numbers or how to play."

The tickets already say to "play responsibly," but Whelan says he can only guess at the effect that will have on gamblers. Similar warning labels grace tobacco and alcohol products, but Whelan says that the warnings only work if there is public awareness about the problem.

"People feel they have the right to say 'I don't like smoking' now, as opposed to 20 years ago when most of the messages were 'smoking is good,'" says Whelan. "Now people stop and think when they see those warning labels. It gets people to think: Do I really want to do this?"

Though it is opposed by certain groups, the lottery doesn't carry quite the cultural stigma that smoking or drinking do. In interviews with reporters, Whelan heard the same question over and over: Is playing the lottery really gambling?

"Twenty-five years ago, people said, 'I can't have an alcohol problem. I only drink beer.' Or, 'All I have is wine with dinner. I don't have a problem,'" says Whelan. "The truth is alcohol in the form of beer or wine is alcohol. It's the same thing with the lottery and gambling. Culturally, we don't see the lottery as gambling."

In the first week of lottery sales in Tennessee, more than $41 million worth of tickets were sold. Less than $300,000 was paid back in winnings.

There's one thing that Cohen and Whelan agree upon: The lottery will bring some positive effects. Cohen sees the lottery buying advertising at Grizzlies' and Redbirds' games and gaming money finally coming from Mississippi into Tennessee. And if people have delinquent taxes or child-support payments due and win more than $600, the state puts a lien on their winnings.

Cohen says it's all been very rewarding, just not financially very rewarding for him.

"I've spent about $40 and won $2 and two free tickets," Cohen says. "Fifty percent of the money goes back into the winnings, so I've had some very bad luck."

Cohen hopes the lottery will stop some of Tennessee's brain drain. "We're on a border. Three thousand dollars can make a difference in where students decide to go to school. [We need] those industrious students with desire and ability to stay here. ... If they go to Jonesboro or Oxford, they may never come back."

For Whelan, it's about helping the city. "If more Memphians graduate from college, it will increase the average income and make it a better place to live. The research is crystal clear on that. The higher your education level, the higher your income will be."

At Overton High, there are days when counselor Ragland can barely get into her office. There is a filing cabinet right inside the door that she keeps filled with college applications. Sometimes there are so many students standing there, they block the entrance.

"A lot more kids who have not looked at going to school are looking at it, so I think that speaks well," she says.

Some of the students were worried at first that there would not be enough money for everybody, but that fear was allayed after they heard the amount of money the lottery took in just the first day.

"We had a lot of kids who thought college wasn't possible," says Ragland. "When I go around to English classes and tell them about the programs, you can see that little sparkle in their eye and they start to giggle to themselves. You can see them start to think, I'm going to college."

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