Eleven rising high school seniors from across the metro area sat together at the St. John Regis Chapel on August 11th. Notes in hand, each would soon speak. They graduated that evening from a powerful and unique program: the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy (PBLA).
Program leaders described students’ growth over the years. And the students, smiling and holding back tears, recognized themselves. They pointed and giggled at younger versions of themselves in a slideshow. And then, one by one, each took the podium.
Nova Salazar-Scott of Denver Montessori High School shared that the pandemic meant more time to reflect. She spoke about growth—her own and her cohort’s—through the metaphor of a perennial. “We are bouncing back after a spring thaw,” she said. “Time spent in that little hole, it fueled growth.”
Earlier this summer—and for every summer since 3rd grade—Salazar-Scott and the other graduates spent three weeks on campus at Regis University.
PBLA brings over 200 students, rising 4th through 12th graders, to Regis’ North Denver campus annually in June. Students arrive promptly in the morning, some quickly dashing off to the grassy commons to kick a soccer ball around. Others find friends to catch up with. Before long they’re clustering off by grade and heading off with teachers toward various points on campus. Activities vary by age group and are excitingly outside the scope of typical schoolwork.
This summer, for example, rising 10th grade students had the chance to take apart and reassemble laptop computers through an IT certification program called CompTIA A+. Regis doctoral students of physical therapy ran each PBLA class through hands-on activities connected to their profession. Students had a chance to learn about leadership through studying Jackie Robinson’s life. And Young Americans Center for Financial Education pitched in as part of a business skills class that resulted in the annual YouthBiz marketplace.
Lonnie Porter, longtime men’s head basketball coach at Regis University, created the program in 1996. NBA star Chauncey Billups, recently named head coach for the Portland Trail Blazers, joined Coach Porter in 2006. PBLA, now named in their honor, provides academic and leadership training to at-risk students from across Denver. The program is cost-free, with students and families making a long-term commitment to attend every day, every summer.
Since its inception 25 years ago, 202 students have graduated from PBLA; and the program boasts a 99.5% on-time high school graduation rate. Of graduates, 158 have attended or are currently attending college, 61 at Regis. And Regis commits to helping every student who graduates from PBLA with scholarships to attend college.
As Salazar-Scott and fellow PBLA students arrived on campus those early mornings back in June, Coach Porter stood ready to greet them. He’s greeted PBLA students this way, with eye contact and a firm handshake, since 1996. He’s kept in touch with many over the years. Some return to teach in the program or visit classrooms to share about their careers. It seems Coach Porter and the many PBLA teachers, mentors, and students over the years have arrived at a powerful array of answers to that core Jesuit question, “How ought we to live?”