Program uses peers to avoid college pitfalls

County to nominate 10 for help from foundation

Anne Arundel

September 20, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Some Anne Arundel students soon may be able to take part in a college scholarship program that offers a buffer against homesickness and other trials they could face on campus.

For 15 years, the New York-based Posse Foundation has given full scholarships to more than 900 public high school seniors so they can attend college along with a group of peers from their community.

Anne Arundel administrators say they will nominate 10 students for the program, hoping that, like other county-based efforts to prepare children for college, it helps them make it to graduation day.

Next month, Posse will begin selecting about 20 students from around the Washington area to join the freshman classes at Iowa's Grinnell College or Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania.

If accepted, the teenagers - strangers at first - are expected to build bonds during eight months of weekly training sessions in leadership, communication and academic skills. They then would attend a sponsoring college together and work with foundation staff as a team to plan events and their future careers.

Anne Arundel's director of pupil services, Rhonda C. Gill, praised the effort. The school system already tries to prepare children for college by offering programs such as AVID, which prepares promising students who would be the first in their families to attend college.

The Posse group would be able to "collectively support each other" and establish a lasting relationship with the college, Gill said.

"If you already have a connection built in, you're more apt to stay at the school and complete your college education," she said.

The foundation, which opened a Washington, D.C., location in May, has regional offices in Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago and works with students in those cities.

About 250 students will be selected this year nationwide to attend the more than 20 colleges and universities - mostly small liberal arts institutions - that have partnered with the program, providing more than $85 million in scholarships, said Deborah Bial, the group's president.

The program was begun after Bial, who was working for a community-based youth organization in New York, met a student who dropped out after just six months in college. The teenager said he would have stayed if he had his "posse" with him.

"It was such a simple idea," Bial said. "If you send a team of kids together to college, they'd be less likely to drop out."

Posse and the colleges work together to choose candidates through a three-month process that includes group activities and interviews to evaluate potential leadership ability and interpersonal skills.

Religious and community organizations also can recommend students for the program, which seeks dynamic students with leadership potential and other skills that may not translate into high scores on standardized tests, Bial said.

Bial said they do not specifically target racial groups underrepresented at most colleges, nor are the scholarships need-based, describing it as a "leadership and diversity program." The Posse teams tend to mirror the racial makeup of the schools from which they draw students, she said.

While on campus, the students continue to work with foundation staff and university mentors. Students organize an annual retreat focusing on a current issue or debate. About 70 percent have started a club or become president of an existing club on campus, Bial said. The foundation provides career and internship support as well.

The system has worked for its members, she added. More than 90 percent of Posse members graduate within five years, Bial said - far more than the national average.

The colleges that work with Posse sponsor teams in different communities - allowing them to recruit students in cities where prospective students might not have considered applying, Bial said.

"We're finding young people at public schools that these schools don't normally recruit from," she said.

These institutions also say they receive a tremendous boost from the team. Grinnell College, for example, agreed to take a team from Washington, D.C., in addition to the Posse students it accepts from Los Angeles. At the end of four years, about 5 percent of its 1,400 undergraduates will be members of Posse.

"We want amazing students, and we get them from Posse," said Mickey Munley, Grinnell's vice president of communication and events.

Having a network also can help Posse students commiserate about things they don't share with the new friends they meet on campus - some of whom may not be so unfamiliar with the cornfields surrounding the Iowa campus.

"When it's cold and snowing and you say, `I can't deal with this,' a kid from L.A. is going to get what that means a lot better than a kid from Des Moines," Munley said.

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