Lieutenant governor wants to expand program, encourage more teens to attend college

jwarren@herald-leader.comDecember 24, 2012 

Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson

In October, Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson staged a program called Close the Deal at Lawrence County High School, designed to encourage more seniors at the school to consider going to college.

Abramson talked up the importance of college, as did Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday. Officials from about a dozen colleges and universities described how to apply for admission and explained scholarship and aid opportunities. There were inspiring stories about how college changed the lives of some recent Lawrence County High School graduates.

Lawrence County School Superintendent Mike Armstrong said those were powerful messages for many teenagers who couldn't envision themselves as college-bound.

"After the program we got numerous written comments from kids saying things like, 'I never thought I could go to college, but now I believe I can,"' Armstrong said.

Those are the kind of comments Abramson wants to hear.

Abramson launched the Close the Deal program four years ago at Louisville's Valley High School when he was Louisville mayor. Now, as lieutenant governor, he wants to expand Close the Deal to schools across Kentucky.

"We held programs in three school districts this year: Lawrence County, Bullitt County and Campbell County," Abramson said. "I'm hopeful that we can go to somewhere between five and 10 districts next year."

Close the Deal is aimed at Kentucky students who have the ability to do college work or pursue career technical training, but for various reasons aren't planning to do either.

Some might think they can't afford to further their educations, while others might doubt their ability to do the work, educators say. Finally, many others could be fearful of college or never consider going because no one in their family has ever attended college.

Abramson, a first-generation college graduate himself, says that's something he can relate to.

"So many students don't aspire to go on to college because no one at home is telling them to go on to college, no one in the neighborhood is talking to them about going on to college," he said. "It's a matter of changing aspirations and getting kids to think beyond high school."

Close the Deal seeks to do that by creating a "college-going culture" in participating schools. It puts on a one-day program at each participating school with pep talks from education, business and community leaders, basic information about college applications and financial aid, and some success stories from students who have gone on to college.

Abramson attends each program to help close the deal with the idea that college can open the door a brighter future and that any kid who wants to go to college can.

Armstrong said that's a message many Lawrence County students might not have heard before.

"Many of our kids' parents haven't gone to college, so the kids don't understand the college experience and don't understand the benefits," he said. "For so many of our boys and girls it's a huge thing to step out and embrace the value that education can add to their lives."

Much the same situation prevailed at Louisville's Valley High School before the first Close the Deal program there in 2008, according to principal Gary Hurt. Many low-income students at Valley never thought they could attend college, he said.

"Some of them thought college was just for middle-class and rich people," Hurt said. "Some didn't have a family member who had ever attended college, so no one was promoting the expectation of a post-secondary education for them.

"There was no logic to it. It was just a cultural mind-set. But we've changed that now."

Hurt said that before Close the Deal, only about 25 percent of Valley students were being accepted to college. During the past two years, more than 90 percent of Valley seniors received college acceptance letters, he said.

"Two years ago, we had our first million-dollars class in terms of college scholarship money, and last year we had $1.8 million in scholarships," Hurt said. "College is part of the culture now."

Armstrong is hoping Close the Deal will bring similar results at Lawrence County. He said the school district plans to be more active in promoting the value of college, including staging its own Close the Deal program next year.

Campbell County and Bullitt County, the two other districts that had programs last year, also plan to hold programs next year. Bullitt County Public Schools plan to have Close the Deal programs in all three of their high schools.

Armstrong said he even wants to involve juniors and sophomores in Lawrence County's program next year.

"We can't assume that kids believe in themselves and understand that college can work for them," he said. "We have to plant seeds and cultivate an interest in school after high school."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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