About 60 fourth- and fifth-graders and parents from Lexington's William Wells Brown Elementary School will spend Saturday getting a small taste of what college is like.
They will visit Kentucky State University in Frankfort, where they'll hear speakers, attend seminars, tour the campus and attend the KSU-Morehouse football game
For the students, and for many of their parents, it will their first close-up look at a college campus. And that's a key idea behind the William Wells Brown School's "Colts Are College Bound" program, which is sponsoring the trip.
School officials, who are now expanding the program in partnership with KSU, hope elementary school students will be more likely to attend college after high school if they start thinking about the importance of a college education now. Reaching out to parents is equally important because their support will be crucial to the children's success.
In addition to periodic student trips to college campuses, leaders from KSU and other area colleges and universities will be visiting William Wells Brown regularly to encourage students and promote the importance of a college education in today's high-tech world.
To keep the idea fresh in students' minds, hallways at William Wells Brown sport banners proclaiming "The Road To College Starts Here!" A huge sign outside fifth-grade classrooms highlights the date "2023," the year William Wells Brown fifth-graders would graduate from college.
To sweeten the deal, KSU has pledged to offer scholarships to kids at the elementary school who stick with the program, finish high school and enroll in college.
Officials say that getting kids interested in college is particularly important at William Wells Brown, where minorities make up about 67 percent of the student population, and about 83 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Many parents in surrounding East End neighborhoods never attended college and relatively few children include college in their life plans.
"For these kids, just being able to be on a college campus for a while on Saturday, seeing what it's like at this young age, hopefully will stick in their minds," said William Wells Brown Principal Yvonne Peace.
"Many of our students don't even think about college. You hear them say, 'I'm not going to college, I don't know what I'm going to do.' Or you find that they start thinking about college when they get to high school, but they've waited too late and don't have enough credits."
If those types of conversations start sooner, Peace said, students will at least "give it some forethought so they could be on track to start taking the right classes when they reach high school."
The effort at William Wells Brown began about two years ago when Leslie Calk, director of the school's Family Resource Center, visited an elementary school in Jefferson County that had a similar program in partnership with the University of Louisville.
Impressed, Calk came back and told Peace, who quickly decided that the concept of getting kids excited about college was perfect for William Wells Brown.
To start, Peace and Calk recruited people to donate about 500 T-shirts from different colleges and universities. Then, they invited William Wells Brown students to write essays about what they wanted to do in life, each receiving a college T-shirt as a prize. Students now are encouraged to wear those shirts to school on specially designated "College Fridays."
Soon after that, William "Butch" Emerson, a retired LexMark executive and paraeducator at William Wells Brown, approached KSU about joining in as a program partner.
KSU President Mary Evans Sias liked the idea so much that she visited William Wells Brown last month to formally sign a "Colts to Thorobred Achievers" agreement with the school. Members of the KSU Marching Band and the university cheer leading squad also attended to add music and excitement.
Periodically over the rest of the school year, officials from KSU, Berea College, Eastern Kentucky University and Blue Grass Community and Technical College will visit William Wells Brown to reinforce the message that a college education will be required for success in today's increasingly competitive world.
"If not us, then who is going to start sending that message? And if not now, when?" Emerson said. "Somebody has to get the kids to start thinking about college, and believing that an opportunity exists for them."
Calk says the school also is planning efforts to encourage parents in the neighborhood to complete their GED certificates, or take college courses.
"We need to encourage the parents because they're the role models," she said. "If the children see their parents taking steps to further their education, that's going to encourage them."
Finally, Peace says, a major task will be simply convincing students that they actually can succeed in college.
"A lot of what we are up against is that they often think they can't do things," she said. "They say college is too hard, or they see as just unattainable.
"So a lot of our job is going to be motivation: 'Yes, you can do this. It doesn't matter where you come from. You are capable. You can go to college if you want to.'"