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Scholars Programs Inspire Students to Reach Higher

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Ever have trouble convincing students that what they learn in high school connects with the real world? Education World examines three programs -- in Texas, Arkansas, and Maryland -- dedicated to motivating high school students to complete challenging coursework. Local business communities support the programs in many ways.

Engaging college-bound high school students in learning usually presents relatively few challenges. Many students are essentially self-motivated, aware that their grades go a long way in determining which institution of higher learning they will attend and knowledgeable about how much a college degree improves later career possibilities and lifelong earnings.

What about the other students -- those who don't plan to attend college or are unsure about which post-high school paths they might follow? Educators confront greater difficulty in motivating such students. Now, however, some states offer special programs aimed at that student population.

In Texas, the Texas Scholars Program fights to capture the attention of that "forgotten majority." Founded in 1991 and run by the Texas Business and Education Coalition (TBEC), in Austin, Texas, the program focuses on middle-ranked students who have previously not been challenged to work for special recognition. More than 200 school districts have Texas Scholars programs, representing roughly 35 percent of Texas high school students.

More than one-third of the high schools in Arkansas participate in the Arkansas Scholars program, based on the one in Texas. A similar program, Achievement Counts, is up and running in Maryland.

These three scholars programs focus on two major goals. They try to enroll as many high school freshmen as possible in challenging, college-prep type courses, thus making them "scholars." They also work to persuade business people hiring workers to give preference to those would-be employees who have a special "scholar" designation on their diplomas.


"Texas Scholars, on average, scored 102 points higher on the 2000 SAT and 2.7 points higher, on average, on the ACT," Drew Scheberle, outreach director for TBEC, told Education World.

"The message of taking the right [college-prep] courses must come before the student signs up for high school course work," Scheberle explained. That must happen because in eighth grade, when students choose their first high school courses, many middle-ranked students select less-rigorous courses because they don't plan to attend college.

"Employers -- those who will provide the jobs in the community for these students -- must deliver to eighth graders the message that the work world is an information world," Scheberle said.

In scholars programs, educators and business people must work together, Scheberle emphasizes. Both groups have a great deal to do. The commitment of businesses in a community instituting a scholars program is vital.

Where Texas Scholars programs thrive, some business people have agreed to ask prospective employees for transcripts of their high school coursework and then favor hiring young people who have completed the Recommended High School Program of college-prep type courses. Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, four years of English, and two years of a foreign language are generally included. The program also encourages business people to give preference to hiring Texas Scholars for part-time and summer work during high school.

Not surprisingly, after taking challenging college prep courses, some Texas Scholars decide to attend college after all. A TEXAS Grant Program provides full tuition and fees for eligible low-income students who have also completed the Recommended High School Program and thus been named Texas Scholars.

Funding for the Texas program comes from businesses and local employer foundations. School districts bear the cost of labor in arranging employer visits to their eighth-grade classes.


Lee Gordon, executive director of the Arkansas Business and Education Alliance, gave Education World an idea of what a scholars program needs to succeed in Arkansas. "The Chamber of Commerce and the school district are partners in the effort, and often there is a small team of mostly business leaders who guide the program. That handful of people is the key.

"For Arkansas Scholars to work, the program must be broadly understood by a lot of people in the community. Business leaders, teachers, counselors, principals, students parents, and others must grasp the importance," Gordon explained. "It is hard work to get to this point."

Recruiting excellent presenters to talk with eighth graders and persuade them to sign up for challenging high school courses is essential. "We provide the kind of training that prepares [presenters] for this experience," Gordon said. "But in the final analysis, it is the individual's personality, character, and enthusiasm for the program that gets the students' attention. We want adults who can easily connect with young teenagers."

Gordon and Scheberle emphasize that organizations need to lead the charge to inspire and implement a scholars program. "In Texas and Arkansas, it has been the statewide business and education coalition. The statewide Chamber [of Commerce] could do it, and I'm sure others could, but there must be a motivated, committed organization to lead it," said Gordon.

"This program works at the community level," Gordon continued. "Someone with the time and ability must visit individual communities, explain the program, show slides, answer questions, and convey energy about the value of the program. The good news is that most community leaders, after seeing the program, are anxious to participate."

The program "does require constant communication," Gordon cautioned. "You cannot just persuade a community to adopt the program and then say good-bye. We have a newsletter that goes out frequently, and we try to visit them as often as possible."

In the year 2000, almost 17,000 Arkansas eighth graders will see a slide presentation about the scholars program. That's about half the eighth graders in the state. Nearly 450 adults present the program in all parts of the state. Of 310 school districts statewide, about 130 have an Arkansas Scholars Program.

Participants in the Arkansas program must earn a grade of C or above in all academic courses. They must complete high school in eight consecutive semesters. The goals are set realistically for middle-ranked students, and so students are willing to take a more-difficult course and earn a C rather than taking an easier one and making a B.


Some kind of celebration, such as a banquet, almost always recognizes the achievement of the scholars at graduation. "Because Arkansas Scholars is aimed primarily at the middle group of students," Gordon said, "just the event itself is special. Many participants have never received recognition for academic achievement.

"Finally," Gordon emphasized, "although these banquets vary from community to community, the important theme is that everyone there is a winner. We discourage special recognition within the Arkansas Scholars. We want every student leaving the banquet to feel good about his or her accomplishment."

Other ways of recognizing and rewarding scholars include

  • publishing scholars' photos and articles about them in local newspapers
  • giving participants in the program "scholar" T-shirts
  • getting scholars publicity on local radio or TV stations.

Leaders in the programs emphasize the importance of doing something at least once a year to recognize and motivate the scholars rather than waiting for graduation, although they do feel an extra-special celebration is important.


"Achievement Counts is a statewide campaign, led by business, to demonstrate the important correlation between achievement in school and success in the workplace," Kathy Seay, associate director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, told Education World. Like the programs in Texas and Arkansas, this one promotes the use of high school transcripts in the hiring process.

As a practical way of bringing business on board with the program, Seay suggests initiating a dialogue with a local business organization, such as the Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club, about their workforce needs and expectations from schools. "Don't be afraid to hear the bad news," she said. "Most likely, they will be dissatisfied with the level of skills and knowledge of the students graduating. Engage [business people] in identifying ways that they can help motivate students to take learning more seriously and achieve at higher levels."

What problems do employers have with workers right out of high school? The Maryland Roundtable, which is two years into its Achievement Counts campaign, surveyed employers in Maryland to find out. Among the results of a 1999 survey:

  • Ninety percent of companies hiring manufacturing and skilled workers have trouble finding qualified employees, up from 79 percent in 1997.
  • Sixty-three percent of companies surveyed have trouble hiring qualified clerical/administrative/secretarial support.
  • Sixty-six percent cited inadequate attendance and punctuality as problems of workers with high school diplomas.


Those deeply involved in scholars programs stress that the presentations -- call them "road shows" -- made to eighth graders must really make the students sit up and think about the future. Speakers offer nitty-gritty, real-life information about the earnings a minimum-wage job nets and how far that money goes toward buying food, paying rent, supporting a car, and so on. Eighth graders learn the difficulty of balancing the budget -- even for people who earn considerably more than the minimum wage -- and almost all students who hear an effective presentation decide they'll need to pursue a career that pays relatively well.

Seay, of Achievement Counts, shared with Education World the anonymous responses of several eighth-grade students to such a presentation:

  • "Thank you for coming to my school and letting me know what I really have to do to grow strong and become something in this world. The presentation helped me to know how important right now is."
  • "The speaker helped me think about my future, and I realized that I honestly had no idea. As he talked, I got more ideas about what I want to do. I learned that I need to shape up. I need to do better in school. He was cool about it -- he had our class early in the morning, and we stayed awake! -- he interacted with us and understood our point of view -- we listened to him."
  • "I didn't even know what a transcript was before you told us."
  • "What I learned: Plan ahead, don't slack off in school, dentists make a lot of money, taxes bite, and you should think about your future now."


  • Texas Business and Education Coalition
    An overview of the Texas Scholars program, its goals, its course requirements, implementation, an eighth-grade presentation, a Q&A, and information on starting a scholars program now round out a thoughtful, user-friendly Web site. It states: "How well [our] vast system prepares young people for productive citizenship, more than anything else, will determine the kind of place Texas becomes in the 21st century."
  • Arkansas Scholars
    This Web site describes the statewide program, including information on its presentation for eighth graders, which shows that an adult earning $9.80 an hour, above the minimum wage, will have trouble making ends meet.
  • Achievement Counts
    How the program reaches out to students, parents and communities, and businesses to involve them is the main focus of this Web site.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 01/19/2001
last updated 02/27/2006