Program gives students real deal

Business community encourages teens to challenge themselves


A one-bedroom apartment in Maryland will run about $700 a month, the students were told - plus, there are car payments, entertainment expenses, and insurance and utility bills.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am telling you the truth. I am not lying, embellishing or exaggerating," said Magellan Westbrook, 35, ticking off living expenses to a classroom of ninth-graders at Milford Mill Academy this week. "These are true numbers, and I'm not done yet ... because we still have to eat."

That's $400 more on the chalkboard list. Adding the numbers, Westbrook gave the students the sobering situation: All told, it will cost you more than $40,000 a year to live once you're on your own.

The examples in Westbrook's speech were meant to inspire participation in the Maryland Scholars program - a statewide program, backed by the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, aimed at preparing students for life after graduation through a more rigorous curriculum.

To sell the program, more than 2,000 speakers from the business community are fanning out across the state between October and December, peddling real-world advice straight from the 9-to-5 trenches to about 75,000 ninth-graders in more than 200 high schools.

Westbrook, a Verizon manager, is one of the speakers committed to encouraging students to challenge themselves. As a Baltimore native, he reflects on his experiences when he pitches the program.

"I just want them to see me because I grew up there and I didn't do drugs, commit murder, and I made it," Westbrook said. "I want to give them a jump on things, have them push harder than they would have."

Maryland Scholars - which was expanded statewide this year - sets curriculum that goes beyond the standard high school graduation requirements. Students must earn at least a 2.5 grade-point average with courses in algebra II, two extra lab sciences and two years of the same foreign language to be recognized as a Maryland Scholar.

The program is unique because it pitches the importance of high-level courses to all students, not just college-bound ones, said Kathleen Seay, deputy director of the Maryland Business Roundtable.

"We're not just trying to increase the number of kids who go to college," she said. "We think this course of study will help kids who are going straight into the work force. If you're not going to get a college education, you need to get the best foundation in high school that you can."

Maryland Scholars was piloted in Harford and Frederick counties last year and spurred jumps in higher-level course completion, especially among minority and low-income students. For example, completion rates for a fourth-year lab science among Hispanic students in Frederick spiked by 79 percent, from 19 to 34 students. In Harford, low-income students taking a foreign language increased by 183 students, or 93 percent.

Although the program appears to be accomplishing its enrollment goals, a March report released by the Maryland Higher Education Commission raised some questions about the effectiveness of a more intense curriculum for college-bound students.

The report tracked, among other things, first-year grade-point averages of students attending a Maryland college or university and found students who took a college-preparatory curriculum, or "core" curriculum, had an edge of just three-tenths of a point. Core students had a 2.7 GPA, while those in the non-core category scored a 2.4.

Those figures are misleading, said Michael Keller, director of policy analysis and research for the Maryland Higher Education Committee, referring to the stringent requirements that qualify students as "core." For instance, if a student only took one foreign language class during high school, not two, he or she would automatically be removed from the core category, thus improving the average for non-core students.

"No matter how you slice and dice it, there is a difference," he said. "Students who have taken a [college preparatory] curriculum are going to do better in the short run and the long run. It's a no-brainer."

When Westbrook is in the classroom, he eschews the traditional, everyone-should-go-to-college speech and instead gets down to the nitty-gritty with the 14- and 15-year-olds, explaining why transcripts with advanced classes would look good to a potential employer and describing appropriate interview attire.

"I don't care if you're going for a McDonald's job or rocket science," he said. "You could be the smartest person in the world, but if you come in tattered clothes it doesn't matter to me."

Kayla Eaddy, 15, said she plans to work toward Maryland Scholar status after hearing Westbrook's appeal - which included handing out copies of the suggested curriculum.

"I feel more confident because now I know what I need to do," Kayla said. "Now I understand it's not a time to play. In three years I'm going to be out of here."

Katie Wilmeth writes for Capital News Service.

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