Elon works to boost college access, success

By Todd Cohen

ELON, N.C. — In 2007, after Superior Court Judge Howard Manning threatened to close underperforming Hugh M. Cummings High School in Burlington, Leo M. Lambert decided he wanted to do something to help.

So Lambert, president of Elon University, created an advisory group and asked it to develop a strategy to better serve low-income and at-risk students in the county.

The result was Elon Academy, a college access and success program the University launched that year.

Supported by private contributions and an endowment, and not using tuition revenue from Elon students, Elon Academy provides a four-week summer program for rising sophomores in high schools in the Alamance-Burlington School System, and weekend sessions throughout the year for all participants.

The Academy adds a new group of rising sophomores each year as existing participants advance through high school and college.

Directed by Deborah Long, a professor of education at the University, Elon Academy currently serves 152 students, and its initial class of rising high school sophomores will be college seniors starting this fall.

Among students currently in the program, 62 are in college, including 13 at Elon, with 19 more set to enroll in college this fall, and another 71 still are in high school.

Operating with an annual budget of nearly $500,000 and supported by endowments created with private funds that now total nearly $3 million, Elon Academy counts on Elon faculty members and students to serve as instructors and mentors for participants, says Chris Esters, coordinator of foundation and community engagement in the Office of University Advancement at Elon.

Summer classes, which are taught by Elon faculty members, focus both on traditional curriculum such as science and liberal arts, and extracurricular activities such as music and dance, as well as topics geared to preparing students and their families for what they need to do to pursue and get into college, such as how to write a college application essay and secure financial aid.

Students also are taken on tours of college campuses.

The focus of weekend sessions during the school year is more heavily geared to providing students and their parents with information and support they need to get into and succeed in college.

Students at Elon University serve as mentors for Academy participants, most of whom are from low socio-economic backgrounds and are the first members of their families to pursue or go to college.

And students continue to participate in the program once they get to college.

“When they get to college, we stay with them,” Esters says.

To support annual operating costs for the Academy, the University aims to build its endowments for the program to $10 million, she says.

It already has received endowment gifts from alumna Edna Noiles and her husband, Doug Noiles, and from alumnus Frank R. Lyon, all from New Canaan, Conn.; from Russell and Rosella Wilson of Burlington; and from the ING Foundation in Atlanta, LabCorp in Burlington, and the Riversville Foundation in New York City.

Elon Academy has produced results: Eighty-two percent of students who enroll in the program complete high school, Esters says, 100 percent are enrolled in at least one honors or advance placement class in high school, and 100 percent of those who complete the high school program are accepted at colleges and universities.

The average weighted grade point average of high school students currently enrolled in the program is 3.93.

And the first three groups of students who graduated from high school after enrolling in the program were awarded a total of over $2 million in merit-base aid, and three individual students were awarded the Gates-Millennium Scholarship.

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