Leland & Gray gets resources for college readiness program

Initiative looks to close a gap for rural students, who attend college at lower rates than those who live in cities and suburbs

TOWNSHEND — Leland & Gray Union High School has been chosen as one of five schools in Vermont - and the only one in Windham County - to be part of CFES (College for Every Student) Brilliant Pathways' newly launched North Country Brilliant Pathways program.

“It's really exciting,” says Leland & Gray Multiple Pathways Coordinator Terry Davison Berger. “This is going to give us the opportunity to put into place some ideas we've had for a long time but haven't had the foundational support to implement.”

“Basically, we have the ideas and the school counselors and I have been talking about this and trying to formulate a plan, but now we will have an assigned program director,” she said.

The CFES program will add structure and guidance for three years in the form of approximately $25,000 worth of support programming. No cash will be exchanged.

“We aren't giving them fish, we're teaching them how to fish,” says Rick Dalton, president and CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways.

During the program, students will be matched with a mentor and also have a partnership with an urban school. Ultimately, each student will have a certified college and career readiness plan in hand.

“We're super, super excited,” says Davison Berger. “This has been a really trying year for school staff. We have the passion and excitement and a game plan sketched out, but it's really hard to commit the time, so this gives us the foundation and push to get the ball rolling.”

Dalton says any of the applicants would have been worthy, but Leland & Gray also stood out.

“We wanted geographic range, but most important, we wanted schools who were committed to changing the status quo,” says Dalton of the selection process. “And we felt there was a good fit between the school and our process and our values. Leland & Gray looked terrific.”

The program has started with planning exercises and preparation and will officially kick off Sept. 21 with a planning/training workshop.

Bridging a rural/urban divide

CFES Brilliant Pathways, an international nonprofit based in Essex, N.Y., has helped more than 100,000 urban and rural students attend college.

Relying on research-driven methods and best practices, CFES says it has sent more than 90 percent of its students to college since 1991. The organization serves 25,000 students in 30 states and Ireland.

Seventy-two rural schools in northeastern New York and Vermont applied for the program, and 20 were chosen for the $1.5 million initiative that will provide those schools with a “multi-faceted, comprehensive college readiness program intended to put more of their students on a path to college,” according to a news release from the organization.

A lower percentage of rural students attend college compared to their urban and suburban counterparts and they drop out at far higher rates.

While rural students attend college at only slightly lower rates than urban students (59 percent versus 61 percent), retention rates are much lower. Just 29 percent of rural Americans aged 18-24 are enrolled in colleges and universities, compared to 42 percent of all Americans in that age range, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Federal student aid (FAFSA) form completions dropped 10 percent nationally this year, and 15 percent in rural areas.

Two-thirds of all jobs and 80 percent of all jobs that pay a median of $65,000 or more require post-secondary education, according to research by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

Good response to program

“We couldn't be more pleased with the responses, both in their number and quality,” Dalton said in the news release. “Too many rural young people lack the skills and education to take on today's high-wage jobs and they are being left out of the 21st-century economy as a result. The goal of this program is to level the playing field for a large group of rural students and, ultimately, rural communities.”

The schools chosen demonstrated a need for the program and a strong commitment to working in partnership with CFES to make it successful, Dalton said.

North Country Brilliant Pathways will offer a variety of services to Leland & Gray:

• A dedicated professional program director for each school to make in-person and virtual visits throughout the year and guide the development of college and career plans.

• Myriad professional development and enrichment opportunities for educators, partners, and families, such as monthly college- and career-readiness advisor trainings certified by the University of Vermont.

• A vast library of resources, plus partnerships and networking opportunities with 200 colleges/universities and 230 businesses and corporations.

• Opportunities for networking, collaboration, and recognition, including becoming a nationally recognized School of Distinction.

• A partnership with an urban school to promote cultural exchange and connection and prepare students to navigate a diverse world.

Each participating student will complete a 10-point college and career readiness plan annually certified by CFES.

The North Country Brilliant Pathways program is a distillation of strategies CFES has developed over its 30-year history, many of which are shared in detail in a new book written by Dalton, Rural America's Pathways to College and Career (Routledge, April 2021).

Dalton says the new program will be expanded.

“We hope to find additional funding to work with other schools that applied,” he says. “All of them submitted strong applications. We also see the program as a national model that could be put in place in rural communities around the country.”

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