Over the past 16 years, the D.C. College Access Program has helped send nearly 23,000 Washington public and charter high school students to college. It’s also turned a few of them into stars — at least for one night.
On Wednesday, the organization will stage its seventh annual DC-CAPital Stars show. The gala, at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, is the year’s largest fundraiser for the nonprofit group, which has awarded $33 million in scholarships to D.C. high school graduates. It’s also a financial opportunity for the 10 finalists, who will compete for a $10,000 grant. Each will win at least $2,000.
“People love this event,” said Argelia Rodriguez, DC-CAP’s president and chief executive. “It’s a really inspiring evening.”
The organizers modeled the event on “American Idol,” and viewers can vote along with the three professional judges. This year’s panel includes dancer-choreographer Savion Glover, Broadway star Alyson Reed and musician Mark Rivera, a veteran of Billy Joel’s and Ringo Starr’s bands.
DC-CAP isn’t just for students with a flair for performance, Rodriguez said. “We serve every student attending a DCPS or charter high school. So . . . about 17,000 kids in about 40 schools each year.”
Those who go to college remain under the group’s care, she said. “We track every student we help, so we know how many kids we have everywhere, who’s transferring, how many credit hours — pretty much everything you’d need to know to help a kid stay in school.”
The privately funded group’s work supplements the federal D.C. Tuition Assistance Grants, which underwrite Washington residents at colleges outside the city. The two programs have helped boost the number of D.C. high school graduates who continue to college to 62 percent, the national average, from an estimated 25 percent in 1999.
During a mid-March DC-CAPital Stars rehearsal at Trinity University, a troupe of finalists and semifinalists practiced an arrangement of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Individual performers also rehearsed their numbers, and during a break four of them discussed college plans and musical ambitions.
Paris McMillian has made it at least to the semifinals for each of her four years at Woodrow Wilson High School. “I’m classically trained in opera, but my passion is for jazz,” said the 17-year-old senior. She’s been invited to audition for Howard and Yale University music programs but hopes to attend the University of Alaska. She will sing “Home” from “Beauty and the Beast” at the April 1 concert.
“I didn’t know it would be so intense,” the exuberant teenager said of her DC-CAPital Stars experience. “Not that any of it was a bad thing. It was actually one of the best experiences of my entire life. It taught me so much about performing.”
Singer, rapper and ukelele player Carlos Hood, also a senior at Woodrow Wilson, will perform an original song. The 17-year-old performed in previous years, but this time, “I wanted to come back and show what Carlos Hood is,” he said.
Angel Haythe, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy, will sing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from the musical “Dreamgirls.” The 17-year-old hopes to attend Trinity or Howard University.
Robert Alston III, a junior at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, performs with his school’s show choir and at his father’s church. The 16-year-old, who has not decided where he’ll apply to college, will perform Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
All four plan to continue studying music, but two also have other interests. “I cannot see myself not doing music in college,” McMillian said. “At the same time, I have this passion . . . for psychology.”
Haythe plans to minor in music while pursuing a career as a history teacher. “History is kind of, for students, the most boring subject,” she said. “But history is really fun. You can make it fun.”
Both Alston and Hood, however, are intent on entertainment careers. Hood has been accepted to Morehouse College, where he plans to study music production and the music business. “You don’t have to just be a doctor or a lawyer,” he said. “You can make a pretty nice living being a musician, doing what you love.”
“I do have Plan B’s and Plan C’s,” he said, “but you have to go with Plan A before you go to those.”
Asked whether law and medicine were such bad choices, Hood had a ready answer. “Tell me this: What do the doctors do when they’re sad? Do they turn on the radio? And who’s on the radio? Musicians.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.