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Unsung Heroes for Poor Students

By Walt Gardner — May 04, 2011 3 min read
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In the midst of the publicity given to marquee-name organizations like the Harlem Children’s Zone and their leaders like Geoffrey Canada, it’s easy to forget other organizations and their leaders that have achieved equal results in their own quiet way. I call such people unsung heroes because they work in the shadows without ever getting the recognition they deserve.

Before the HCZ came into existence, there was College For Every Student. Founded in 1991 by Rick Dalton, the non-profit CFES has helped more than 100,000 impoverished young people in 540 schools in 22 states and the District of Columbia raise their educational aspirations. Yet to this day, few people have heard of the work it does. Perhaps this is because CFE is headquartered in Cornwall, Vt. rather than in New York City. But I think it’s more the result of Dalton’s self-effacing personality. He feels much more comfortable letting the spotlight shine on the students than on himself. I’ll respect his preference.

CFES was an outgrowth of the National College Counseling Project, which was a three-year study begun in 1983 and supported by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The study identified strategies that lifted aspirations and increased educational opportunities for students who otherwise would never have considered tertiary education. Apparently, NCCP was onto something because within three years it had increased by 50 percent the number of graduates going to college in two high schools in the Florida Panhandle. Within a short time, it posted similar gains in nine low-income high schools in the Southeast.

Realizing that the success of first-generation college students largely depends on forging partnerships between high schools and colleges, CFES works to assure a good match. It exposes students to a world they never imagined they could be a part of by mentoring in 140 rural and urban areas. It arranges visits to college campuses, interaction with college students and faculty, and counseling about financial aid. In short, it immerses students in the entire pre-college experience.

I asked Dalton about the risks of assuming that all students should go to college. He agreed that tertiary education does not necessarily mean a four-year college or university leading to a bachelor’s degree. Many students are far better served going to a community college and earning a certificate. Whichever path they follow, however, represents a major breakthrough for them. As Dalton explained, the idea of further education beyond high school is still a novelty for many poor students. It’s largely a cultural phenomenon that CFES is trying to change.

Unlike many organizations dedicated to encouraging and supporting students from impoverished backgrounds to continue their education, CFES does not limit its efforts to urban areas. It correctly recognizes that rural communities have their share of disadvantaged students. A study of five rural school districts in Florida and New York last year by the University of Michigan found that CFES was effective in all its core practices.

But like all outreach programs, there is still room for improvement. One of the most important is in engaging parents more thoroughly in all aspects of the the pre- and post-college experience. It’s important to remember that without parental encouragement too many students would never consider, let alone act on, applying to college. Doing so requires building relationships with parents to make them feel comfortable and welcome. Once parents are on board, neighborhood peer pressure is less likely to be a negative factor.

I hope that CFES and other organizations are accorded the financial support from philanthropic groups that they deserve. The need for their services is too great to be limited to a select few.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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