Seventh-graders at two Beaufort County schools will soon get one-on-one guidance to help them head toward college.
Robert Smalls and Whale Branch middle schools will have graduation coaches, thanks to a six-year grant through the U.S. Department of Education and S.C. Gear Up, a program designed to help low-income students go to college.
The grant, about $82,000 a year per school, will fund a new graduation coach at each school. The coaches will regularly work with the students, discussing career goals, class work, home life and more. As the students move into high school, the coaches will follow.
The personal relationship the coaches will have with 230 seventh-graders can't be underestimated, Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said.
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"Life happens, and students can get off track academically," Truesdale said. "This coach could be in the home asking, 'What's going on?' and 'What can we do?' "
The program works, says Sjanna Coriarty, S.C. Gear Up research and evaluation manager. The organization has worked with 17 schools since 2005. About 83 percent of the students involved in the program graduated this year, Coriarty said. About 71 percent received college acceptance letters.
That's compared to the 51 percent of students, on average, from those 17 schools that usually go to college, Coriarty said.
"It really works," she said. "I think when you're dealing with students in a poverty area, a lot of times they don't have the belief that they really can go to college. This is someone there to instill in them that belief and expectation. To say, 'Yes you can and here's how.' "
The program will now be in 24 schools across the state, Coriarty said.
Denise Smith, principal at Robert Smalls, said she's excited to give her students this chance. Many of them would be the first in their families to graduate from college, she said.
Schools receiving the grant have to meet several criteria:
The grant will also be used to fund college visits, tutoring and summer programs.
Truesdale said the district will advertise for the two coach positions soon and hopes to fill them quickly. That way, students can begin working with them as soon as possible.
Smith said she hopes the program will help students reach their career goals.
"When you have a formalized program and someone who is monitoring the data, it helps it to become a reality rather than just saying something off the cuff," she said.
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.