Published Oct. 10, 2007
She was one of the quieter students sitting around a round table in the career center at Great Mills High School last Wednesday.
Others joked with the instructor, Robin Willis, and were quick to answer questions during a meeting of the school’s Southern Maryland College Access Network (SoMD CAN) program.
But for the teenager with long brown hair and glasses, Diann Downer of Lexington Park, it was her first time sitting in on one of the weekly meetings held during a lunch period at the school. And she wasn’t entirely sure what she was doing there or what the program even involved yet.
“I had no clue. They just gave me a pass,” Downer said near the end of the meeting. “They talked about college and how it would help me.”
And that was the point. That single meeting encouraged a student like Downer to consider the idea that she could go to college.
SoMD CAN is a kind of mentoring program designed to educate and encourage students who are eligible to attend college, but perhaps are lacking family experience that would give them an idea about what furthering their education entails. They may be unsure about how to begin the application process or how to choose between the different financing options.
Through college coaches like Willis, the program educates juniors and seniors in four of the region’s high schools — Great Mills, Leonardtown, Patuxent and Calvert — about the students’ options, decisions they need to make when considering college and the financial assistance that is available. The only limitation is that students have to have at least a 2.5 GPA to participate.
“Statistically, there are a lot of students capable of attending higher education institutions, but they’re not going … because they don’t understand the process,” said Sonia Wagner, executive director of the program. “What we’re doing is developing a homegrown workforce.”
Wagner knows the need for appropriately educated residents is a concern for local employers. The SoMD CAN literature notes that 43 percent of regional job openings from 2002 to 2012 will require post-secondary training and/or degrees, according to a 2006 report from the Maryland Department of Labor. At the same time, fewer than 36 percent of tri-county high school graduates continue their education at four-year higher education institutions, according to 2004-2005 figures.
College is something for Downer to think about. Although she’s only just begun her senior year, Downer is aware that only a few months separate her from graduation. And she has made no plans.
“No, no clue,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m kind of lost.”
Willis hopes to change that for Downer and for other students in the program. Juniors or seniors meet with Willis once a week during their lunch period. And through a curriculum that explains the college application process, educates about scholarship opportunities and discusses things that affect a college student’s life — living in a dorm, the quality of college food and handling an interview.
Last year, the first year the program was active in Southern Maryland schools, Willis worked with 66 seniors at Great Mills and had a 100 percent success rate, with all of those seniors successfully admitted to some kind of institution of higher learning. There was a 94 percent success rate at La Plata last year, although the program is no longer active in Charles due to its similarity to another county program. And at Patuxent High School, SoMD SCAN achieved an 86 percent success rate.
“It’s a great program. I can’t say enough about it,” Willis said.
Joleesa Nelson, a senior from Lexington Park, was one of the first students to arrive at Wednesday’s session at Great Mills. This is her second year participating in the program, and she says the weekly discussions have given her plenty to consider. “It opens your mind up for colleges you might not have considered,” Nelson said.
Nelson has been on the fence, trying to decide between the military and college. “I’m weighing my options,” she said.
The financial issues surrounding going to college are what have surprised her the most in her participation in SoMD CAN — “how expensive college actually is and how many opportunities there are for getting scholarships,” Nelson said.
Another student at Wednesday’s meeting, Candace Kessler, already knew she wanted to attend college before she became involved with SoMD CAN, she said. She has wanted to be an elementary school teacher since she was very young, and she knew that required a college degree. Willis has helped Kessler work through that process of getting in to the best college for her interests. “How to answer questions in interviews, what exactly to put in your application, the essay, the scholarship information,” Kessler said, were all areas she needed help on.
SoMD CAN was launched last year with the help of seed funding from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and assistance from local school systems. But the current funding level has not allowed the program to be offered in every high school in St. Mary’s and Calvert. For instance, the program is not offered at Chopticon High School.
The seed funding from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation will run out this December, and Wagner has been pursuing both federal and state grants to keep the program running. She’s also been pursuing non-government funding. “We need investment from the private sector,” Wagner said.
Some may question the need for a program like SoMD CAN in a school system that already staffs each high school with a team of guidance counselors. However, Nancy Highsmith, principal at Patuxent High School, says there’s a need for this concentrated effort beyond what guidance counselors are already doing.
“Guidance counselors have so many other issues that they get caught up in,” she said last week.
Highsmith said that this year in particular, the program seems to have found its niche at her school. “This year it has taken off, and it is soaring,” she said. “I fully support it … absolutely. It’s very valuable.”
James Stewart, another senior at Great Mills, walked into the school’s career center for the second session of the SoMD CAN program on Wednesday. After enthusiastically greeting Willis, Stewart described what the program is doing for him.
It’s “made me visualize where I can go now,” he said.
He’s set his sights on attending Bowie State University next year, and he says Willis is helping him get there.
Without SoMD CAN would Stewart be pursuing college at all?
“Probably not,” he said.