Small Towns, Big Success

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A school district in Iowa has built a scholarship fund that promises money to every student who wants it.

Brooklyn, Iowa

The town of Brooklyn, nestled in rolling hills amid corn and soybean fields, is in many ways typical of America's rural heartland. From the cluster of storefronts that make up its main street, to the farms that dot the landscape, to the affable neighborliness of people who occasionally leave doors unlocked, this central Iowa community embodies a quiet and unassuming simplicity.

But this is also a community that has done something out of the ordinary: Through private local contributions, the residents have amassed a scholarship foundation with a big-city-sized endowment of more than $600,000. In the process, the local school district has nearly doubled its college-going rate in seven years.

What conditions have fostered such a successful effort to help send youngsters to college? Not local wealth, to be sure. Although there have been several generous contributions, the scholarship foundation has not relied solely on any one large donation or moneyed citizen.

The success of the scholarship drive has instead built on several other factors, including a strong communitywide commitment to education, a persistent publicity effort aided by the local newspaper, and the egalitarian nature of the scholarships. Organizers have pledged that every student who applies for a scholarship and is going on to some form of postsecondary education will receive money.

The Citizens' Scholarship Foundation of Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom, its official name referring to the three towns in the 655-student school district, is a chapter of the Dollars for Scholars program coordinated by the St. Peter, Minn.-based Citizens' Scholarship Foundation of America, a national, nonprofit educational support organization.

The CSFA provides community volunteers with organizational assistance for the 775 Dollars for Scholars chapters across the country. Recent estimates by the CSFA show that its Dollars for Scholars groups raised more than $21 million for scholarships in 1996.

Although the Dollars for Scholars chapter here is just one of many successful CSFA-affiliated scholarship groups, it nevertheless remains a standout. It leads the Iowa chapters in size of endowment, and last year it handed out 47 new scholarships and grants, some as large as $1,500, and 23 renewals for a total of nearly $35,000. And because the chapter distributes only the interest from the fund each year, the endowment is untouchable.

A grant of even a few hundred dollars can help any student pay for an expense such as a year's worth of books.

But to its organizers, the improvement in the college-going rate is the group's most remarkable achievement so far. "We're changing our kids' attitudes about higher education," says J.C. Miller, the president and tireless promoter of the local affiliate. "If we can get our kids thinking college from the beginning, and our parents are thinking college, that's two-thirds of the battle."

Money and Mud

On an overcast March morning here, the once-green hills are a mottled gray. There is mud everywhere, in the fields, on the roads, and now, all over Mr. Miller's car.

Unfazed by this particular distraction, Mr. Miller slams the car door shut and bounds up to the doors of the building that houses the junior and senior high school and the district's administrative offices.

Inside, the office workers greet Mr. Miller, who holds a regular full-time job as the controller for a highway contractor, but is well-known here for his enthusiasm in championing the scholarship drive. This morning, he's at the school to hand out scholarship applications to seniors.

Twenty-three of the school's 45 seniors attend a special early-morning session to receive the applications, which, once filled out, amount to guaranteed cash. Other seniors have arranged to pick up the forms from their counselor throughout the day.

Mr. Miller distributes the forms with a stern reminder: "If you don't apply, you get nothing," he says, noting that the applications are due in three weeks. "If you're late, don't even bother coming to us."

The seniors understand this ritual as part of what has become local tradition: Roughly half of the students in the room have brothers or sisters who have received scholarships from the foundation, and they've been hearing about the scholarships for most of their high school years.

Many of the students here this morning say they plan to attend in-state colleges, and most of the schools they mention don't have the sky-high price tags that have come to be associated with higher education.

Still, a grant of even a few hundred dollars can help any student pay for an expense such as a year's worth of books. Several students say these scholarships are particularly helpful because the money is paid directly to them rather than to the college.

Another incentive, senior Angie Ochs points out, is that filling out this paperwork is a much better deal than spending lots of time on scholarship applications with no guarantee of any money at all.

Her observation is true for many of the district's students, acknowledges high school counselor Steve Stumpff. The low probability of getting a national scholarship has deterred many of the students from applying for such big prizes. "It's like playing the lottery," Mr. Stumpff says. "In a way you can't blame them because their chances are slim to none."

The percentage of the district's seniors seeking higher education has grown from 40 percent in 1990 to about 80 percent in 1996.

But community members say there's been a definite change in attitude since the foundation has been operating here: The school's annual "class night," when scholarship awards are announced, has turned into a well-attended success. Instead of one or two students walking away with awards, now practically everyone, including those who have never won anything in their lives, goes home with a scholarship.

The high level of participation made an impression on William C. Nelsen, the president of the CSFA, who remembers the time he came to Iowa to attend the district's class night in 1995. On one side of the gym were the students, he says, and on the other side were volunteers on hand to give out the scholarships. "And they just kept giving them and giving them," he says.

Mr. Miller, meanwhile, doesn't stay at the school for long this morning once he hands out the applications--he heads back down the muddy road to work. But, like an anxious father, he clearly takes pride in the number of students who seek out a scholarship.

When he returns to the school later in the day, he gets an update from Mr. Stumpff on how many stragglers have come to pick up the forms.

Publicity, Perseverance

The foundation was organized in the spring of 1989 by a group of parents, teachers, and others interested in the school district. They expressed concern that the Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom district historically had sent a lower percentage of its students on to higher education than Iowa's state average.

The group began raising money, building an endowment, and handing out scholarships. And the results have been overwhelming: Over the past seven years, the foundation has awarded $114,580 in grants and scholarships to its students. The percentage of the district's seniors seeking higher education has grown from 40 percent in 1990 to about 80 percent in 1996. The awards now include scholarships for second-year college students, loans for older residents who want to return to school, and mini-grants for teachers to undertake special projects.

So how did the foundation's organizers manage to accumulate such sums and maintain community interest? After all, from a fund-raising perspective, the foundation relies primarily on a once-a-year letter sent to about 4,000 addresses.

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