Cash for college (plus friendly pestering to get you there)

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Twelve years ago, the likelihood that many children in Ikay Henry's neighborhood would get a high school diploma and go on to college was slim. A crack epidemic engulfed the area, and allegations of corruption and drug use in New York City's public school system alarmed city residents.

In response to the social tremors, leaders at Merrill Lynch decided on an investment they hoped would make a difference: In partnership with the National Urban League, they offered college scholarships to 250 first-graders in 10 cities, including New York.

The 25 children in Ikay Henry's first-grade class at the Rafael Hernandez-Langston Hughes Elementary School were among the students promised a full four-year scholarship if they made it to college.

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Mr. Henry did finish high school, and this fall he will enter Hampton College in Virginia. And while he was acquiring a love for math and science, Merrill Lynch executives were learning some lessons, too. A promise of a free college education was not all it would take to help the children reach their high school graduation day.

"We needed to provide them with support programs," says Eddy Bayardelle, Merrill Lynch's director of philanthropic programs. That support included tutoring, mentoring, life-skills training, community involvement, and conflict-resolution workshops.

The challenges the students faced ranged from poverty to family breakups. As a consequence of the disruptions in their lives, some children were held back in school early on. Bayardelle, a former superintendent, knew that could be detrimental to a child's prospects for finishing high school, so the company stayed as involved in the children's lives as possible.

To Henry, it felt like he suddenly met aunts and uncles he never knew about before. "As soon as they gave us the scholarship, they was on our backs," he says, referring to their attentiveness.

When intervention was necessary, the company turned to the Urban League, which provided counseling and other services. Additionally, Merrill Lynch employees became deeply involved. When Henry didn't get into the public high school he had hoped to attend, his mentors suggested he apply to a private Catholic school. They helped him study for the test and paid his tuition. Now, he even works part time for Merrill Lynch.

Amid the hard work, the program keeps fun in the equation, as well. Ask Starrene Rhett about her experiences, and she's likely to rhapsodize about meeting a WNBC news anchor: "When they found out I want to be a news anchor," Ms. Rhett says, "we went out to dinner at an Italian restaurant with Sue Simmons." Another student, Ashley Lightbourne, says a highlight for her was meeting members of the Women's National Basketball Association. But more important, she says, the scholarship inspired her to work harder in school. "It's just a blessing," she says.

The $16 million program, called ScholarshipBuilder, helps students in cities from Boston to Miami.

As Henry looks ahead to college and a career in business, he's hoping to share his blessing with his family. He has encouraged his mother to register for classes at a local college. And he has big plans for his younger siblings, too. "I feel like if I go through college successfully and get a well-paying job, I want to give them the chance I got."

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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