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April 23, 2014

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Program gives incentive to consider college — in eighth grade

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Leila Navidi

Eighth graders from 14 local schools gather at Henderson Convention Center on Wednesday to hear about the Crossroads program. Nevada State College is offering $500 scholarships to any student in the program who finishes high school. The partnership with the Clark County School District is in its third year.

The eighth grader was curious Wednesday why he had been chosen to attend an off-campus event to motivate him to aim for college, given that middle school was proving to be a challenge.

“It’s because we’re stupid,” one of his classmates, who was going to the same gathering, answered.

John April, a guidance counselor at B. Mahlon Brown Junior High School, corrected the girl.

“If you were stupid,” April told the group, “I wouldn’t waste my time.”

Frankly, most of the students who gathered at the Henderson Convention Center weren’t the types who usually are rewarded for top-notch achievement, stellar behavior or perfect attendance. But to Nevada State College President Fred Maryanski, they are exactly the ones who should envision themselves as his future students.

And here they came, from 14 local middle schools, to hear his pitch about a concept that many of the students may not have considered: It’s not too soon to set your sights on college.

Nevada State College not only accepts any applicant who has successfully completed high school, but also encourages as many local students as possible to capitalize on that opportunity.

To that end, NSC launched its Crossroads program, now in its third year. Guidance counselors are asked to identify 10 to 15 students at each campus who might benefit from participating. The students meet in large groups four times per year for workshops led by NSC faculty and staff.

“Access to a bachelor’s degree changes lives,” said Rene Cantu, vice president of multicultural affairs at NSC and Crossroads’ creator. “There are a lot of bright, promising kids who just need to feel appreciated and that someone believes in them.”

At Wednesday’s kickoff event, Maryanski put his money where his hope is, giving more than 150 students certificates guaranteeing $500 scholarships to NSC, provided they successfully complete high school.

The program costs about $47,000 annually. This year’s funding includes a $25,000 gift from Bill Wortman, co-founder and co-principal of Cannery Casino Resorts, and $18,750 from the Nevada Public Education Foundation.

Before they can take Maryanski up on his offer, many of the middle schoolers will have to overcome significant hurdles. Some of them have been held back a year, and others are familiar faces in the dean’s office for truancy or run-ins with other students.

April, the Brown guidance counselor, said of the 15 students he chose for Crossroads last year, only five were still at the school at year’s end. The others had dropped out, moved away or been reassigned to alternative schools because of poor behavior or performance.

But the five students who remained at Brown all showed improved behavior, April said.

The first year of the program was limited to the large group sessions four times per year, and 77 percent of the 146 students showed improvement in at least one of three key areas — grades, attendance and behavior.

Last year the Crossroads organizers added mentors — NSC students. Each week they visited Burkholder Middle School to provide tutoring and a friendly ear.

Of the 15 Burkholder students in the Crossroads program, all but one successfully completed eighth grade and moved on to high school. Those results were impressive enough that this year all 14 schools will be assigned mentors, Cantu said.

On Wednesday, students were separated into small groups led by their newly assigned mentors, with NSC faculty and staff also pitching in. The goal was to break the ice and get students talking — and thinking — about their futures.

For one eighth grader, who is being raised by his grandmother and said he earns good grades at Greenspun Middle School, it’s not the academic challenges that stand in the way of his plans to be a doctor. He was recently suspended for fighting, although he described the altercation as defending himself after a classmate decided to jump him.

“It’s the non-friends and bullies,” he said later. “That’s what you worry about.”

For the NSC students who sign up as mentors, the program provides an opportunity for community service as well as a $500-a-semester stipend. Amsala Alemu-Johnson, NSC’s student body president, said she remembers from her K-12 days in the Clark County School District some of the mentors and motivational speakers who encouraged her to aim for college.

But she also recalls that while “they talked about it in elementary school and in high school, they skipped middle school,” said Alemu-Johnson, an NSC junior who graduated from Centennial High.

What’s one of the toughest things about school? Peer pressure to misbehave, said an eighth grade girl at Jerome Mack Middle School. “You’re trying to move on,” she said. “And they’re pulling you back.”

Listening to the discussion was Mack guidance counselor Suzanne Miller, who said she welcomed the additional support from Crossroads. She is responsible for 420 students, well above the 250-student caseload recommended by national organizations.

“The end of the year sneaks up so fast, and there’s always so much left you wish you could have done,” Miller said.

For Greg Ross, a sophomore at NSC who plans to become a psychologist, participating in Wednesday’s event was a chance to revisit his own middle school years — and realize that while some things have changed, the underlying challenges remain the same.

“I’m happy they chose to come,” said Ross, a 2008 graduate of Eldorado High. “You can see they’re genuine kids in their hearts; they all want to be something.”

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