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The New Century Scholars

by Carl Hoffman

Photo Gallery
Photo of New Century Scholars from Jackson County

It's a typical morning at Smokey Mountain Elementary School in Jackson County, North Carolina, and while most of his eighth-grade classmates are puzzling over algebra and history, Matt Hawkins is pondering how to traverse 30 feet of gravel on a series of six-inch square rubber mats. With nine classmates, three of whom are blindfolded. With at least one part of each of their bodies touching the squares.

"Now, how are we gonna do this?" puzzles Hawkins. "Put your right foot up to your left," he shouts to a blindfolded girl.

"Thirty seconds," calls the group's adult leader, Mark Merritt.

"Go, Molly," someone shouts in a panic to a girl nearing the orange cones marking the finish line. "Jump!"

She does, and Merritt yells, "Nope! Your foot just left the ground!"

"Okay, what did you learn?" says Merritt, as the kids squeal in frustration and delight.

"Not to rush?" someone says.

"That's right," says Merritt. "As you get closer to college, your lives are going to get more demanding, right? More homework. Sports. Dating. And if you slow down and don't panic, if you're patient, you can work problems out. Now, let's try again."

Why is Matt Hawkins stepping over rubber mats rather than hitting the books with all the other eighth-graders? "It's so I can get into college for free," he says.

"It's because we're special!" yells a girl in a baggy sweatshirt.

Special, indeed. In a region where nearly half of all ninth-graders fail to graduate, Hawkins and the other mat-jumpers have signed contracts promising to stay in school, meet attendance and coursework requirements, perform community service, and shun drugs and alcohol. In exchange, the New Century Scholars, as they're known, are promised full scholarships to four years of college, and just about every kind of help imaginable to get them there, from tutoring to etiquette lessons to critical-thinking and team-building seminars like the one Hawkins is undertaking. In September 2001, seven years after the program's first scholars signed their pledges, 22 began their freshman year at Southwestern Community College (SCC) in Sylva. Another 710 scholars in Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties, including Hawkins, are following close behind. And thanks in part to a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the New Century Scholars (NCS) program will soon expand to other Appalachian counties in the state. "I'd say half of us [New Century Scholars] who are here at SCC wouldn't be if it wasn't for the program," says Krystal Hoyle, 18, a member of that first class to enter college. "People pushed us all the time."

Reaching the Kids in the Middle

New Century Scholars was the brainchild of Charlie McConnell, a former superintendent of Jackson County Schools. When he started the job in 1990, McConnell talked extensively with teachers in the county, "and over and over they told me about this group of students who were capable, but not working up to their potential—about 25 percent of our kids," he says. These were the solid kids in the middle, neither the academic stars who were already likely to head to college, nor the troubled ones who commanded the majority of social services and academic intervention.

"Those middle kids are the most likely to get overlooked and to fall through the cracks," says Cecil Groves, president of SCC, "and yet they are also the ones most likely to stay in western North Carolina and be productive members of the community."

McConnell broached his idea for an education partnership program targeting these students to officials at SCC; they, in turn, pulled further inspiration from the now-legendary New York City philanthropist who offered full scholarships to every child who graduated from high school and entered college. The New Century Scholars program began to take shape. Five hundred dollars invested when a child was starting the seventh grade, they calculated, would grow enough to pay for two years of college. That, of course, left a big question: Would potential donors be willing to wait six years for their investment to pay off?

Today, seven years later, the answer is clear. Over half a million dollars in donations has been contributed from communities in Jackson, Macon, and Swain Counties, enough for about 800 students to attend college. "It was the easiest money I've ever raised," McConnell says. Dillsboro restaurateur Jim Hartbarger wrote the first check, and has raffled off several classic cars to benefit the program. "Five hundred dollars to give a kid a college education?" he says. "I think it's a heck of a deal." Romanced by the idea of contributing so tangibly to the futures of their children and community, NCS donors provide a wealth of fundraising stories. The Sylva Rotary Club kicked in $5,000. A gas station attendant slipped Hartbarger $20 for the program. And then there's the Cowee Quilters Club, which has donated 19 scholarships and counting. Says long-time member Frankabelle Scruggs, who initiated the group's contributions to NCS: "This community cares about its young people and puts its money where its mouth is."

A Network of Support

Nominated at the end of their sixth-grade year by a panel of teachers, counselors, and administrators in each school, the kids, along with their parents, the school, and SCC, "each promise to do certain things," says Patty Wilson, NCS program coordinator for Jackson County. "Parents promise to encourage their children to attend school and study, and to provide opportunities for their children to do their best. The kids promise to perform ten hours of community service a year, to graduate, and to attend college. The school, in turn, promises to create an atmosphere for the children to grow academically, but also socially and emotionally." All of which means a close network of support for every scholar, watched over by coordinators in each county who are linked with SCC and paid by the three counties' school systems. Extra tutoring. Constant lessons in critical thinking and team building. Birthday cards and special congratulations when something good happens in their lives. Help with college applications.

They also get regular interaction with the campus and staff at their ultimate destination—Southwestern Community College. "We have tried to bind the college with the public schools," says SCC president Groves, "and the scholars who come here have known us for six or seven years, so college becomes part of their psyche and belief system."

Still, six years is a long time, and the program couldn't really be judged until the first group of scholars started classes at SCC in the fall of 2001. Connie Haire, who oversees the program as vice president for student and institutional development at SCC, remembers seeing a crowd of scholars walking across campus one morning, laughing, completely at ease. "Yes!" Haire remembers thinking. "I could tell they felt comfortable here, and that's exactly what we wanted to happen." Instead of seeming like a foreign, formidable institution, college was simply part of their regular turf.

"They brought us here all the time," says Alisha Deaver, 18, before classes one morning, "so you're not lost when you get here." Deaver is the first in her family to attend college, as is Krystal Hoyle, and both admit they might not have made it if it weren't for the NCS program. "The activities kept us centered on our goals and gave us something to strive for," says Hoyle, "and we ended up competing for who had the most hours of community service."

"They push each other," says Ivanell Hoyle, Krystal's mother, whose younger daughter is also a scholar, "and they feel like the whole community and the college believe in them, and they need to meet those expectations."

When the first scholars were picked in 1995, college seemed a far-off, abstract concept. To commit to something so foreign and so distant seemed, as Deaver puts it, "weird. We were nervous, and we didn't really know what it was about." But as Deaver discovered, "college is so much more fun and laid-back than high school." She and Hoyle both have younger sisters in the program, who now can't wait to get to college, too, a phenomenon occurring throughout the counties. "Suddenly all these kids who didn't take it all that seriously now realize what it means," says Swain Middle School NCS coordinator Ann Rickman. Adding to the appeal is Western Carolina University's offer to provide two-year scholarships to New Century Scholars who want to continue working toward a bachelor's degree after completing their two years at SCC.

The program is also helping SCC expand the services it provides for students. The college has used the foundational components and successes of the New Century Scholars program to leverage over $3.5 million dollars in additional public and private resources; funds Laura Pennington, SCC director of grant activities, says are being used "to create a whole menu of supportive services and enrichment activities for middle and high school youngsters. We've been able to create a mechanism by which the schools and college package resources based on students' strengths and needs. This packaging is virtually invisible to the student—all they know is that they're getting what they need to be successful and feel good about their school experience."

With ARC's grant, SCC is working to export the New Century Scholars concept to North Carolina's other Appalachian counties. Announcing the grant, Governor Mike Easley said, "New Century Scholars gives students of all educational levels and backgrounds the personal, academic, and financial assistance necessary to become productive citizens. With funding from ARC, we'll be able to work to expand the New Century Scholars model to more of our western counties and help more of our students go on to college. I'm confident that the program will further our education and economic development goals in North Carolina."

If everything goes as planned, the region may eventually achieve Haire's vision of a network throughout western North Carolina in which scholars would be eligible to attend any of the state's community or four-year colleges. "That way," she says, "the money can follow the child, not the program. We're dreaming big dreams, but why not?"

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.