Author: Jessie Holmes
While the Crosby Scholars program serves public school students in three counties – Forsyth, Rowan, and Iredell – you’ll also find its alumni in every corner of North Carolina succeeding academically, personally, and professionally. A $500,000 grant from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funds is strengthening the program right when schools and families need it most.
In March 2020, as the pandemic upended long-standing academic structures and social routines, Crosby Scholars adapted its programming and one-on-one coaching to an online format, becoming one of the few constants in its students’ lives. The scholarships and grants that Crosby Scholars provides also took on renewed importance.
“With people uncertain about their jobs, to know that they have that gap funding to help support them was really important,” says Mona Lovett, President and CEO of the Forsyth County Crosby Scholars Community Partnership. “The majority of the families who need that money are not the families who necessarily have a home equity loan or credit card, or other sources they can fall back on.”
A Holistic Approach to College Prep
A completely free program for sixth through 12th grade, Crosby Scholars provides financial assistance opportunities only after students complete several annual requirements, such as community service, remaining drug-free, avoiding out-of-school suspension, and participating in academic and personal development workshops in its flagship Crosby Scholars Academy. Seniors also receive personal assistance in applying for college and financial aid.
While most of those activities looked different during the pandemic, Crosby Scholars continued to promote social connection at an especially fractured time in young people’s lives. That included a new focus on mental health, like the weekly online hangout known as What’s Up Wednesdays.
“Our middle schoolers could log on and just share their feelings about what this experience has been like for them and talk about some of those challenges,” says Jessica Vess, Executive Director of the Rowan County Crosby Scholars Community Partnership. “So just trying to be there for them no matter what that looked like in a virtual landscape.”
As the pandemic stretched on, Crosby Scholars also found new ways to celebrate and encourage its graduates by swapping its typically large, indoor ceremonies for porch parades, yard signs, care packages, and in Forsyth County, a drive-in event where families cheered from their cars.
Addressing COVID’s Lasting Impacts
While schools have since reopened, the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on student learning and mental health are well documented and in fact being studied by academic researchers across North Carolina and the nation. Crosby Scholars’ holistic approach to college and career prep remains vital in helping some of the most vulnerable students transition back to school, afford and complete college, and achieve long-term success.
Despite COVID-related fundraising challenges and shifting priorities among donors, each Crosby Scholars program has been able to consistently maintain its scholarship and grant opportunities without a reduction in staff or programming. Crosby Scholars' leaders credit in part the money their organizations received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
Congress passed ARPA at the height of the pandemic in March 2021, providing economic relief money to state and local governments. That included $5.4 billion for North Carolina, which was then appropriated by the state legislature. The Forsyth County Crosby Scholars program received a $300,000 grant, while the Rowan and Iredell County programs each received $100,000. The grants are administered and monitored by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, with support from the North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office. It’s the first time Crosby Scholars has received government funding.
“It felt like a magic wand had been waved over us,” says Vess. “We didn't have an in-person fundraiser for at least three years, so that was a huge impact for us to know those dollars are there and our students aren't going to be negatively affected.”
The funds go directly to the Crosby Scholars need-based last-dollar grants, which are awarded after students draw upon other existing financial aid, like a federal Pell Grant. The program in Forsyth County provides eligible students up to $1,200 per year, while Rowan provides $1,000. The ARPA grant enabled the Iredell program to increase its typical last-dollar grant from $750 to $1,000.
Graduates Succeed Beyond College
Crosby Scholars touts a 100% high school graduation rate, with students from all three programs attending over 170 different colleges and learning institutions. In Forsyth County alone, Crosby Scholars has awarded over $9 million since its founding, leveraging even more public and private scholarship dollars in the process.
“In addition to the money, it's just that feeling that somebody cares about them, and someone is there to support them that encourages them,” says Suzanne Wegmiller, Executive Director of the Iredell County Crosby Scholars Community Partnership, which serves 1,800 students a year. “They want to do well because somebody is paying attention.”
It’s that personal attention, and the self-confidence and self-discipline that students develop along the way, that makes Crosby Scholars graduates so resilient, propelling them through college and towards new opportunities that may not have been otherwise available.
“Education is one of the ways that many of our underserved communities in particular see a way to move up, and to have greater economic mobility,” says Lovett.
The majority of the program's 2023 graduating class will attend a college or university this Fall, including some first-generation students. Despite historic challenges for teachers, schools, and students, Crosby Scholars will ensure more young North Carolinians have access to a brighter future so they can share in the benefits of the state’s recovery.
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