updated 02/20/2014 AT 11:00 AM ET
•originally published 02/20/2014 AT 2:35 PM ET
J.B. Schramm remembers the beat-up couches and broken TV in the teen center he started in 1990 in the basement of Washington, D.C.’s low-income Jubilee Housing project.
And he remembers LaToya, a high school senior in 1992 – a bright student who he thought had college potential. So the Yale and Harvard Divinity School grad, who had expected to be a teacher or minister, spent Saturdays helping LaToya complete an application and write a personal essay.
“When I saw her a few weeks later, I brightened up and asked, So, did you get a bid?’ ” Schramm tells PEOPLE. “She said no. I said, ‘Why not?’ She said, ‘I didn’t have a stamp.’ I thought she was joking.”
From that one girl missing one stamp – what Schramm, now 50, kiddingly dubs “The Stamp Act” – a life-changing idea was born.
Today, Schramm’s College Summit boot camps annually train 2,000 students who, in turn, work with 50,000 classmates in 175 high schools across 15 states. Those schools involved with College Summit see an average 20-percent increase in kids attending college, says Schramm.
“I realized that, for a lot of kids with talent but not a lot of resources, there was a systemic crater on the pathway to finding and getting enrolled in a college,” he says.
He cites studies that find 95 percent of low-income eighth-graders say they want to go to college, but only nine percent will get a college degree.
“It’s an outrageous loss of potential,” he says.
Putting ‘Cool Kids’ to Work
Within three years of “The Stamp Act,” Schramm had put together a four-day boot camp where 32 “cool kids” from six different states worked with writing coaches and college counselors on skills they would not only pour into their own college applications, but impart to their peers.
“It dawned on me one day when I put a tutoring sign-up sheet on the door of the teen center,” he says. “After the coolest kid we had put his name on the list, we had 30 kids sign up, too. And I thought, ‘What if we got the coolest kid to go to college?’ If we could get young people taking charge and helping themselves, helping their friends, we could change the culture and make a lot of progress fast.”
And College Summit is there for the rest of the kids, too, through its free apps – at CollegeAppMap.org – which, starting in 9th grade, take students through the 30 steps they need to take to get into college.
“For the first time, a lot of my low-income students are saying to themselves, college could be a possibility for me,” says Doris Dabney, 49, a 16-year teaching veteran at D.C.’s Dunbar High. “College Summit empowers them to make choices.”
From Little Haiti to Stanford
One of those empowered students was Emmanuel Fortune, who credits Schramm and College Summit with helping him carve a path out of Miami’s Little Haiti.
“My mom was a single parent with a 3rd-grade education who worked 12-hour days and had 11 of us to care for,” says Fortune, now 28. “So I didn’t have someone looking over my shoulder and saying, ‘How’s that college application going?’ ”
That changed at College Summit.
“These guys would be like, ‘Dad says I should apply to Brown.’ And I was like, ‘What is this color you’re talking about?’ ” recalls Fortune.
Nudged along by College Summit, he enrolled at the University of Florida, earned a degree in English and later continued on to Stanford University and a Master’s in education policy.
Today, he is a married father of one and a consultant at Deloitte in McLean, Va.
And LaToya, the girl without the stamp, eventually made it too – to the University of the District of Columbia and a career in early childhood education, says Schramm.
“For me back then, it was, ‘How do I get out of this and do more for myself?’ College Summit connected me to this wider world,” says Fortune. “J.B. built that bridge. He’s truly a rock star.”