PROVIDENCE – Ask Laurel Shepard why a qualifying fifth-grade student would want to apply to The College Crusade of Rhode Island, and she reels off reasons as if they were items from a shopping list.
“For one, we're an organization that will prepare you for college, so – when you graduate from high school – you're more than ready,” explained the Crusade's Admissions Manager. “We offer a variety of college readiness programs for those in grades 6-12.
“From a kid's perspective, there are other reasons: It's fun,” she added. “They get to interact with other children in our activities and programs, and they have a blast doing that. They get to have cool advisors who can identify with and relate to them, provide guidance and direct them. An advisor is someone who they can lean on and talk to not only about education but everything.
“The Crusade focuses on four areas of development of the child: Personal social development; career awareness; academic support; and college access. It's all about building a college-going culture for the state's urban students.”
If Shepard has sold you on the idea of registering your child, this is the perfect time, as the College Crusade is currently looking for any fifth-graders to apply. The only necessary ingredients to do so are that they live in Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket or the capital city; are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch prices; and promise to bust their humps in the classroom.
Crusade officials already have held eight informational sessions for parents, but there are seven left, all on Wednesdays. The remaining will be held on March 30, April 13, April 27 and May 11 from 11 a.m.-noon; and on April 6, April 20 and May 4 from 5:30-7 p.m.
“This all starts in sixth grade, though the application process begins a year before, when they're in fifth grade,” Shepard noted. “We're here to support children who may have a dream of attending college, and that they know it's a reality, it's within reach. That's why we expose them to our advisors, young people who've done it themselves, who come from where they come from and understand it's achievable.
“Let's put it this way: When high school students apply to college, they usually start their junior year,” she continued. “This has similar elements. We have fifth-graders get the idea of what the process is like.”
The process is rather simple, she said, and it starts with filling out an application. Students then must write a short essay on three questions, among them:
“What do you think it means to be a Crusader?”
“What are your goals for the future?
And “Why do you want to be a Crusader?”
A youngster then needs to provide one recommendation, his or her New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) score and report card and, naturally, proof of residency in one of the four aforementioned cities.
“After that, the student is required to attend a “Study Skills” program entitled 'Ways to A's,'” Shepard indicated. “We'd also like to see the children have the potential to make it through the program … We look at the whole child. We look at the recommendations, the report cards, but also the parents' motivation and level of participation in their children's lives.
“We ask the parent or guardian to enter in an agreement with us, where we work together with the school and help with the child's social, personal and academic growth, be it a boy or girl.”
Pure and simple, the College Crusade begins working with students in sixth grade, and it continues supporting them until they graduate from high school. The best part? It doesn't cost a dime to become a Crusader.
Since 1989, it has aided more than 17,000 children succeed in school, and awarded more than $22 million in college/university scholarships to over 2,800 eligible Crusaders. Currently, it caters to approximately 3,500 students, most of them in 32 public middle and high schools located in the four municipalities.
“Our advisors are located in the children's buildings, so they see the kids every day during the week,” she offered. “Those Crusaders who don't attend one of those 32 public schools, we make sure they see an advisor and that they participate in the programs we offer.”
Indicated Karen Donovan, the Crusade's Marketing and Communications Officer: “The whole idea is that anyone's state is more economically healthy when children graduate from high school, enter into a post-secondary program then move onto the workforce. That's our fundamental goal for each and every one of them.”
The advisors play key roles, as they understand the challenges young people in disadvantaged communities face. They know what someone has to do to prepare for a life in college, as they've done it themselves.
As for the programs and activities the Crusade offers, there are dozens, and all are held after school, on Saturdays or during vacations and the summer. They range from academic enrichment to SAT preparation to taking college visits to career workshops.
This winter and spring alone, it has provided a “Step-Up Conference,” designed to help eighth-graders prepare for an easier transition to high school (time management skills, social issues such as bullying, guest speakers to address the course load, etc.); “Robotics Club” where children ready themselves to participate in the First Tech Challenge robotics competition, sponsored by New England Institute of Technology; “Adventures in Literacy, a computer-assisted learning program for sixth-graders called “ReadAbout,” which includes quiet reading, writing in response to text and teacher-guided sessions; and “Cru Club,” a series of college readiness and career exploration seminars.
Then there's the “CAAP,” an acronym for Crusade Adventure and Academic Program. During the 10-week session for middle-schoolers, it helps in raising the child's self-esteem and develops skills in problem solving, team building and healthy risk taking.
Not so surprisingly, Shepard already has received over 250 applications from fifth-graders in low-income, urban families.
“I love reading the essays; some of them are so cute,” Shepard chuckled. “I had one young kid write that he wanted to go to Johnson & Whales to become a chef. I sent it to a woman I know at Johnson & Wales, and she laughed so hard. She thought it was adorable, but that's how a fifth-grader writes.”
Shepard also reads essays obviously written by parents.
“We always know,” she said. “One parent wrote an essay where he mentioned 'implementation' and other big words. I called him and asked, 'Did you write her essay?' and he said quietly, 'Yes.' He didn't have to, and I didn't want to. I want to hear from the children. Some type their essays, others e-mail it to me for review.
“You know, I actually gave out my business cards to some fifth-graders and asked them to give one to a friend, and – next thing I know – I'm getting a call from parents saying, “My kid told me I better contact you!' I just say, 'Good, because we want your child to be a College Crusader!'”
Stated Todd Flaherty, the Crusade's CEO who's the former Deputy State Commissioner on Education and long-time administrator in the Narragansett and Coventry school systems: “I've always admired the work The College Crusade has done. I enjoy explaining the programs, services and support programs we have for the children, and the families as well.
“Supporting the students goes hand-in-hand with supporting the families,” he added. “Remember, most of our kids are first-generation college-goers, and they'll be the first ones to take that step, so we know how important it is to be behind the families. They're the ones who support the Crusaders day-in and day-out, along with the schools.
“We're 96 percent poverty, and the indicator is if the child can receive a free or reduced-price lunch in school. We also know from the data that the persistence rate of kids through the first year or two (of college) is significantly greater for those who receive scholarships.”
Donovan admitted the college scholarships are awarded to those who graduate from high school, are accepted to college and qualify for such financial aid via a federal qualifier called “Free Application For Federal Student Aid” (FAFSA).
“It doesn't matter what their grades are,” she said. “If they finished high school and are going to college, they receive a scholarship.”
For more information, visit www.thecollegecrusade.org . To request an application from The College Crusade of Rhode Island, located at 134 Thurbers Ave., Providence, RI 02905, call (401) 854-5500.