Come August, 11-year-old Brianna Mayo will be entering the sixth grade at Winburn Middle School, but she's already got her first college scholarship offer. Brianna won an academic scholarship to Eastern Kentucky University this spring that could wind up paying her full tuition.
She's not the only elementary school student from Fayette County who has pulled down college offers. Thirty-six students won scholarships this last school year by participating in Fayette County's school-sponsored academic competition that culminated in the district's Superintendent's Cup this spring.
Debate is brewing about whether to offer college scholarships to middle school athletes, but there's no debate on the wisdom of offering high-achieving Fayette elementary school students college scholarships: It's a main goal of the One Community One Voice program, a Lexington-born initiative which works to narrow the achievement gap in the Fayette County public schools.
Says Christie Nicewarmer, whose 11-year-old daughter Rebecca will be on her way to Edythe J. Hayes Middle in August: ”I've told her, just because you got one to EKU doesn't mean that's the only one you'll ever get, the only one you'll consider.“
Rebecca is already jumping feet first into middle school: She plans to plow through the reading list for, not only the 6th grade, but also the 7th and 8th grade, by the time school opens.
The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent group that works to improve education in the commonwealth, thinks it's a great idea to get students of all backgrounds thinking about college as soon as possible, even if it's in elementary schools. And Kentucky universities say that if the state is to dramatically increase the number of degree-holding Kentuckians, dramatic action is needed.
Last year, the state Council on Postsecondary Education estimated that Kentucky could fall hugely short of its goal of adding 389,000 new bachelor's degree holders by 2020. The state wants 800,000 bachelor's degree holders by then; now it has about 400,000.
And that's how students who were on winning teams and individual competitions in the Superintendent's Cup academic challenge got scholarships to schools including Murray State, Morehead State, the University of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, Kentucky State University and Georgetown College.
This is Morehead's first year giving scholarships in the program, which is in its fourth year.
Says Jeffrey Liles, assistant vice president of enrollment services at Morehead State: ”The purpose is to get them thinking about college sooner, and hopefully increase the high school graduation rate and the college-going rate,“ he said. ”There's no way to achieve the state's goal of adults with bachelor's degrees with the college-going rate we have. These programs are ways to help support efforts to do that.“
In fact, Arnold Gaither, chairman of the One Community One Voice program, wants more colleges to sign on to sponsor scholarships for the program.
The program has two components: getting parents involved in their children's education early on and to send a message to students that it's never too early to start thinking about college, Gaither said.
”At this early age, parents think more about the scholarships,“ Gaither said. ”Students think more about the activity itself and the medals that are won through the competition.“
The idea, he says, is for the whole family to get interested in the college application and scholarship process.
Cindy Heine, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee, says the awarding of scholarships is based on excelling at questions and core content that children are supposed to be studying anyway. While potential sports scholarships will work ”for a very few kids,“ the early offering of academic-based scholarships is ”sort of a counterprogramming to the sports,“ she said.
”For many children whose parents never went to college, this could be the stimulus to say, "Well, I could do this,'“ Heine said.
It's not a no-conditions scholarship, though, which is probably wise when you're awarding scholarships to students who may not yet be able to spell the word ”scholarship.“
Students have to make themselves academically eligible as they progress in school, and they have to be admitted to the school they plan to attend.
Is recruiting students in early grades a bad thing? Not to Gaither.
”If I were a college I would think that would be recruiting and I don't think that would be a bad thing,“ he said.
While the schools offer the scholarships, that doesn't mean the student gets a free pass into the university in another six to eight years.
”It's not just a free pass to college,“ says Gaither. ”Students have to maintain certain standards.“
Still, it's a nudge into preparing for college, Gaither says: studying the Kentucky core content items, bringing a better game to the on-demand writing that bedevils Kentucky students, figuring out how to take college preparatory courses rather than general education.
Brianna Mayo, a fifth-grader at Meadowthorpe Elementary who has performed with the Lexington Children's Theatre, received her EKU scholarship for her winning on-demand essay writing. And while she may not go to Eastern — her next stop is the Gifted and Accelerated program at Winburn Middle, and her college application summer is still six years away — the scholarship definitely has Brianna focused on college.
”She's just more inclined to think about college now, to think about where she can go and what opportunities are out there,“ says Brianna's mom, LeToi Mayo. ”It definitely made it a hot topic.“