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After working with College Track over the past few years, we invited the organization to participate in this case study because we wanted the field to see an example of what getting to diversity has looked like for a large — and growing! — leading education organization. Today, CEO Elissa Salas is at the helm as College Track navigates the challenges of moving beyond diversity to inclusion and equity while they scale up nationally. Here’s what we heard.
“College Track is a comprehensive college completion program that empowers students from underserved communities to graduate from college.” Starting in 9th grade, College Track’s 10-year commitment to each student in their program is to “remove the academic, financial, and social-emotional barriers that prevent low-income and first-generation students from earning a four-year degree.”
“We are working toward a world where our students reach beyond the limits of what we knew was possible. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of understanding the full potential of what our college graduates can achieve.”
Before Laurene Powell Jobs was a philanthropist, she was a grad student who was invited, with her classmate Carlos Watson, to present at a 12th-grade college prep class at Carlmont High School in East Palo Alto. The pair found that many students they spoke with were hoping to be the first in their families to attend college, but few had met the minimum requirements to be eligible. After that visit, Jobs, Watson, and Carlmont Principal Debbra Lindo joined to imagine what a comprehensive college access program could look like. Their priority was starting earlier in high school to help put students “on track" for a bachelor’s degree.
College Track was born in 1997.
Founded in 1997 in East Palo Alto at Carlmont High School
San Francisco, CA
New Orleans, LA
Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, CA
Watts, Los Angeles, CA
Prince Georges County, MD
DC (Ward 8)
To open in South Los Angeles, at the invitation of Leonard Hill Trust, Crenshaw HS and Dorsey HS for a total of 12 sites
College Track engages a “holistic program model” that “ensures that students have the skills, resources, and mindsets they need to be competitive college applicants, thrive on a four-year campus, and experience professional success post-graduation.”
In over 20 years at College Track, Marshall Lott has served in multiple roles — from being the very first hire to holding operations roles to most recently serving as Senior Regional Partnerships Director. Marshall reflects on his first role — College Track’s founding Executive Director — and tells us about the organization’s diverse roots: “[The founders] hired [me], an African American middle-class person to take the concept from paper and...make it a reality. It started with the Black and Latino community.”
From the beginning, College Track has strived to be a racially diverse organization that implicitly holds representation as a core — though, at times, unspoken — priority. Representation, leaders and staff believe, connects deeply to the team’s long-standing value around authenticity. Marshall emphasizes the organization’s intentions to truly reflect local communities:
“We have tried to make sure that individuals [who] are leading the sites live near or live in the community. Someone [who] looks like them helps to an extent...it’s about how people connect to individuals based on care [and] concern, and it’s about their potential.”
Elissa Salas, College Track’s current CEO, expands:
We found the following central themes in our conversations with College Track, each of which illustrates real-world successes as well as opportunities to build a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable organizational culture:
“I’m thinking about what is the thing we are actually trying to achieve and how do we know that we have actually reached it? And I am not quite sure in this work that there is ever a point at which we are done.”