The fourth-graders streaming into Central Piedmont Community Colleges Halton Theater saw rows of cool, confident college students waiting to greet them.
What they couldnt see is how hard these young adults worked to get there and how hard theyre working to keep each other on track in college.
Communities in Colleges, the group that led the children on a campus tour, is made up of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools graduates who got their diplomas with the help of Communities in Schools. The dropout-prevention group supports students with family, financial, academic and other challenges and those issues dont vanish after Pomp and Circumstance plays.
Getting folks into school, weve solved that problem. Keeping them in college is a huge problem, says Mordecai Scott, a graduate of West Charlotte High and Davidson College who now works for the national Communities in Schools organization.
Across the country, a narrow focus on high-school graduation rates is broadening. Many educators believe that efforts to break cycles of disadvantage must start early, with children like the students from Albemarle Road Elementary, and continue as graduates tackle higher education.
Going to college is like starting over, says Armah Shiancoe, the CPCC staffer who works with the fledgling Communities in Colleges.
It can be pretty overwhelming, he says, even for the most intelligent of students.
Many colleges and universities have student support systems. But the strong student-led program created at CPCC, coupled with the wide reach of Communities in Schools, make this a promising national model, Scott and Shiancoe say.
This thing is going to spread like a wildfire, says president Jamal Tate, a 20-year-old CPCC student. Its going to open a world of opportunity.
Rough around edges
A year ago, Communities in Colleges was made up of Shiancoe, Tate and a handful of other students. With heavy networking during the summer, they recruited more than 100 for this school year.
When classes began, Tate welcomed the newcomers.
We dont want you having to worry about being hungry or problems at home, Tate told them. Whatever yall want to be, we want to make sure that you can get there.
That support takes many forms. Students are connected with CPCC staff and community agencies who can help with anything from tutoring to financial aid to renting an apartment and paying for food.
Successful students act as mentors to newcomers. Speakers talk about time management and other life skills. Community service projects help students build skills and contacts that will be valuable as they move on to jobs or four-year universities.
Students who struggled to get through high school might still be a little rough around the edges. They might not be fully ready for college, Tate says. His goal: When they leave us, theyre ready for anything.
Tate should know. Though he acts and dresses like a young executive now, he struggled in high school. He also spent two months in Mecklenburg Jail North awaiting trial on breaking and entering and larceny charges, which were eventually dismissed. Tate graduated from CMS Waddell High in 2010, just before the school closed, and went to CPCC at the urging of a Communities in Schools staffer.
Shiancoe acted as Tates mentor, helping him get his grades up and step into leadership roles. Now Tate is reaching out to others: I know how great it is to have somebody who will come and show you a better way.
Jasmine Christmas, a 2012 graduate of Hawthorne High, a CMS alternative school, is one of the new students Tate invited to join Communities in Colleges. An 18-year-old with a 1-year-old daughter, she has found help getting tutoring and financial aid. Just as important, she says, is the network of friends not an easy thing to find at a large commuter campus like CPCC. Without them, she says, Id be walking around just like a zombie.
Having friends and being active boosts the odds that students will stay in college, organizers say. The student leaders send weekly texts and emails to remind students of Communities in Colleges meetings and other ways to get involved at CPCC. Mentors make phone calls to see how newer students are doing.
Early community service projects have included doing grounds work at the Raptor Center in Huntersville and conducting the college tour for Albemarle Road Elementary. Students from the east Charlotte school, where about 90 percent come from low-income families, gasped as they saw the theater and the students.
All these people, they so tall! one child exclaimed.
About 30 CPCC students hosted the tours, taking groups of a dozen or so elementary kids around the campus.
Theres a lot of opportunities that yall will love. Its real dope, Sheldon Perry, a graduate of Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, told the children as Freddy Yodi, an East Mecklenburg High grad, led them across the street.
Tate, Scott and Shiancoe talk enthusiastically about creating similar groups around the Charlotte region, and eventually across the Communities in Schools network, which covers 24 states.
But Shiancoe said hes most interested in seeing the support play out in students lives. .
My main objective is making sure they are enjoying college and excelling in the classroom and outside the classroom, he said.
Dorshia Sellers, 22, a second-year student whos acting as a Communities in Colleges mentor, said the experience has helped her focus on a goal of running her own youth center someday. She struggled to find her way in high school and afterward, trying and dropping two career-training programs before enrolling at CPCC.
Now she plans to get an associates degree and move on to a four-year university. Communities in Colleges has prepared her, she says: When you step out in the real world, you have real-life experience.