Anthony Brown extended his arm and stared into his phone’s camera on a recent Saturday morning. 

It was showtime. 

“Hey, good morning, everybody,” he exclaimed, standing in the middle of a fast food restaurant in Mansfield. “It’s the CMSD family guy, on location! Right now, we are in McDonald’s. We had a couple students and parents who were a little hungry.” 

The program manager of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Family and Community Engagement Department then suddenly paused his early morning riff at about 8:30 a.m. He realized his live audience on Instagram needed more details.   

“Let’s go back and rewind,” he said. “We are on our CMSD Parent University College bus tour. And today, we are headed to Wilberforce University.” 

Brown’s department oversees Parent University. It’s one of the district’s initiatives to get more parents involved in their kids’ schooling, and, eventually, post-high school opportunities. One of the ways they do this is through hosting college tours that both parents and students attend. 

Still, even with these efforts, less than a third of CMSD’s 2020 graduates were enrolled in college two years after their high school graduation, according to the latest statistics available from the data provided to the Ohio Department of Education. Just 10% of the district’s class of 2016 graduated college after six years. 

One of the biggest obstacles stopping the district’s students from going to college, Brown said, might be fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of leaving Cleveland, fear of getting out of their comfort zone. 

“I’m always trying to share with students and parents that sometimes if you can change your environment, you might be able to change your life,” said Brown. 

Experiences “you’re going to get something out of”

Brown wore the black-and-old-gold color scheme of his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity from head to toe. He didn’t go to Wilberforce, but he said he feels at home on any HBCU campus because he’s a graduate of one – Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University, class of ‘92.  

His positive energy was contagious. As he streamed another video live on his Facebook page, a woman ran over and hugged him, smiling wide the entire time.   

“It’s alumni weekend, and you don’t know who you might see,” he said into the screen, laughing. “I run into former students, alumni, friends. This isn’t even my school!” 

In addition to attending the day’s activities – which include campus tours, lunch and sessions about financial aid for parents – Brown spends a chunk of the day filming videos he shares on social media. 

It’s important. Brown said he works to create experiences for families “you’re going to get something out of,” he said. He estimated it takes two to three months to do all of the planning and communicating needed to make these trips work. 

He’s hoping these trips, playing out on his social media, inspire parents to join them.  

“I want people to see it [the videos] and be like, ‘Oh my God, I should have been there,” he said. 

Challenges, strengths of HBCUs

Carole Corrothers made the trip with her son, Trent, a senior at Rhodes High School in Old Brooklyn. She enjoyed the bus ride and the opportunity to visit a college campus, taking notes along the way. But the day wasn’t without some disappointment for her. 

“We didn’t get to see a dorm and that’s a big thing for me, because that will tell me how you keep your facilities,” she said. 

Wilberforce, located outside of Dayton, is one of the oldest HBCUs in the country and one of only two in Ohio. 

The university is building a new dormitory. It’s an investment after Wilberforce’s last few years of navigating a financial roller coaster. Plus, an agency that accredits colleges put it on notice last fall, noting concerns such as the school’s long-term financial projections and how administration retains students. HBCUs have long been underfunded compared to predominantly white institutions. 

Brown, though, maintains he is not nervous about the institution’s future and recommending it to CMSD students. He’s long worked on HBCU outreach at both local and national levels. It’s a big part of his identity. Wilberforce and all HBCUs, he said, are “always under the microscope” since there are only 102 of the institutions. 

“There are probably some other PWIs (predominantly white institutions) that are in the same kind of boat, but there are so many more non-HBCUs that the microscope is not on them,” he said. 

Brown is a “perfect fit” 

Parent University was started in Cleveland by Brown’s now-boss, Tracy Hill, more than a decade ago. The district’s kids, Hill said, “will not get to college without their parents.”

Brown’s been working in the district for about ten years, he said, but only began working in Hill’s department last November. 

Hill called his hiring a “perfect fit” for the role’s duties of organizing and conducting these outings, especially as in-person tours ramp back up after mainly being virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic years. 

“He does have a fantastic personality,” she said. “He has a lot of experience. … He is very familiar with working with high schools and working with high school students.”  

Anthony Brown, right, connects CMSD students with Wilberforce University employees.

Instant acceptance 

Brown promoted this visit weeks in advance. Making sure word gets out about these trips is a big part of his job. He highlighted the trips in a weekly newsletter, pestered guidance counselors, and connected with district partners such as the college access group College Now Greater Cleveland. 

The day before the trip, Brown’s phone rang. A guidance counselor wanted to know if it was too late to get a senior who is interested in attending Wilberforce on the bus with him.

“It’s never too late,” he said. 

The last-minute addition was interested in pursuing music, so Brown made a point to introduce the student to someone involved with the university’s music programs.  Wilberforce was offering on-the-spot preliminary application decisions that day. The student applied and was accepted that day.  

That, he said, was one of the biggest moments of the trip.  

Defining success 

Brown knows, though, that these wins need to compound over time if the district wants to make progress.

Over the next few years, he said he hopes to see parents more involved in their children’s academic lives by doing things such as attending parent-teacher conferences or volunteering in classrooms. 

The day ended the way it started, back in a CMSD school parking lot. 

He planned to be back on the bus in less than a week, taking students and parents to Ohio State University’s Mansfield campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.