Rondout Valley CSD creates school-to-college pipeline

On Board Online • January 23, 2017

By Merri Rosenberg
Special Correspondent

What's the most disheartening thing that students can say about their future? That they don't think they have one.

Rosario Agostaro, superintendent in the Rondout Valley school district, has heard such sentiments. Some students have told him that they "weren't going to be successful" or "weren't going to make it in life."

It might have something to do with the fact that 45 percent of the families in his Ulster County district live below the federal poverty level.

Agostaro knows what that means. "I grew up in an impoverished Italian immigrant family. I came from Italy when I was six."

But there's a well-known ladder to climb out of poverty: higher education. How, he wondered, could Roundout Valley, a rural district with about 2,000 students, instill the ambition of going to college?

Agostaro brought his concerns to Alan P. Roberts, president of SUNY Ulster Community College, in nearby Stone Ridge. Rondout Valley is a major feeder school to the college, supplying 30 percent of its students.

The result? A new program called the President's Challenge Scholarship. It identifies promising eighth-graders who might not otherwise consider going to college and awards them scholarships to attend community college after they graduate from high school.

At the end of 2014-15 academic year, six eighth-graders were selected from a pool of 20 applicants. Each scholarship from the Ulster Community College Foundation covers two years of tuition at SUNY Ulster.

Why eighth grade? "Statistically, the most valuable time to reach children is at the eighth grade level, so they're thinking about college prep when they start high school," Roberts told On Board. "When you target that group you have the greatest influence."

All of the students will be the first in their families to attend college.

With college in their sights, these students will make different course selections in high school, expanding their options for future opportunities, said Robert Cook, principal of Rondout Valley High School. Teachers and guidance counselors will mentor the scholarship recipients throughout high school and make sure they receive support when choosing academic programs.

"It's nice to have the scholarship," said Rondout Valley freshman Abigail DeGraw, one of the scholarship recipients. "This gives me more time to find a four-year college." She hopes to become a lawyer. Her father, Randy DeGraw, said "I'm beyond elated. It helps tremendously, beyond the financial piece. She can attend Ulster and get the core classes. It's a great steppingstone. Ulster is an exceptional school."

The program includes regular visits to the community college campus, so the scholarship recipients can envision themselves as college students. Whether it's talking to college professors, or sitting in on a class, "We want them to feel comfort being part of the day-to-day college experience," said Lorraine Salmon, executive director of the Ulster Community College Foundation. "We want them to be familiar being in the library."

Rondout Valley is just the beginning, Roberts said. "Our goal is to eventually hit all nine districts" in the region.

Parents say the program is a step in the right direction for their children. "My daughter very much wants to go to college," said Renee Carlson, whose daughter Hunter Bender is one of the scholarship recipients. "She can still go without that worry [about tuition] or loans. It's phenomenal. It's fabulous."

The financial benefits are just the beginning, Salmon said. She hopes the scholarships will lead students to think about themselves differently.

"When they enter the program, they feel 'lucky,'" she said. In time, she said, they will see themselves as deserving.

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