Program gives Access to college

Published 10:06 pm Friday, December 5, 2008

If you’ve got a kid who wants to go to college, Access wants to help make it happen.

The Access College Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose mission field is the high school classroom. The foundation wants to ensure that high school students who want to further their education have every tool possible to reach that goal.

“We want to eliminate all these barriers and put a human resource in the high schools for these students to help navigate them through the process” of applying and getting into college, said Gina Madden, director of development for Access.

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During the four years the organization has been active in Suffolk, more than 3,500 Suffolk students have received college information and services, with more than 800 students getting about $8.2 million in financial aid and scholarships leveraged for them, according to the annual report, released in November.

The organization began more than 20 years ago after Norfolk business and community leaders Frank Batten and Joshua Darden Jr. were inspired by an experiment done in an elementary school in East Harlem, N.Y.

Eugene Lang — an educational leader and philanthropist — was the keynote speaker at his former elementary school’s sixth-grade graduation. When he went back to the school, he was told that an alarming number of the graduates he was about to address would not finish high school, let alone college.

When Lang took the stage, he promised the sixth-grade class that if they stayed in school and graduated – he would pay their college tuition.

This promise, and subsequent project, was the platform for the “I Have a Dream” Foundation that now operates internationally.

Batten and Darden wanted to bring that same accessibility to higher education to South Hampton Roads.

In 1988, they funded a pilot program with five high schools in Norfolk. That program has grown to include all 29 high schools in South Hampton Roads, including Suffolk’s three public high schools.

The approach is simple: Educate the college-bound.

Access sends an advisor to work within the high schools two to three days a week, and it helps college bound students fill out applications, find funding sources, take the necessary tests such as the SAT or ACT and even pays the costs of taking these tests and sending the applications.

Access provides students with detailed informational packets pinpointing the necessary steps when applying to college and reinforces it with advisors who help in the schools.

In a world where high school counselors are inundated with students, class schedules, SOL scores and day-to-day concerns, Madden says these advisors are welcomed in the schools.

“Every superintendent of each school system is on the board, and Dr. Liverman is an Access champion in and of himself,” she said. “We see the relationships as we’re looking at helping prepare the students for post-graduation. We literally take their hand and walk them through the process.”

The advisors also are experts in the field of finding funds.

Last year, in Suffolk schools alone, Access helped students secure $2.8 million in financial aid through federal grants, state aid and scholarships.

“We want to make sure the financial barriers are not there,” said Bonnie Sutton, CEO of Access. “We want them to overcome all those barriers, and we’re very good at that. Our advisors are experts in financial aid, how to find that money. That’s really what we have been focused on.”

Sutton was quick to point out that the Access program in Suffolk would not have been possible without the warm welcome it received from both Suffolk Public Schools and local businesses.

“We have been in Suffolk since 2003, and I think one of the things we have been so pleased about is the fact that the Suffolk business community and the Suffolk school employees welcomed us and embraced the ACCESS program with open arms,” she said.

Businesses such as Chorey & Associates and Birdsong Peanuts donated funds to expand the program into Suffolk.

“We’ve been very pleased with the results,” Sutton said. “We’re seeing more students are going to college and they’re having more opportunities to where they’re going.”