College scholarships for six-year-olds. Fund set up for inner-city students across the US

Six-year-old Romonia Clark is from a single-parent home in an impoverished Chicago neighborhood. And she's college-bound.

``We're very excited, I'm trying to calm Romonia down,'' says her mother Sandra, who herself never finished college.

``I'd like to be a teacher,'' says Romonia in the background.

The first-grader is a recipient of one of 250 scholarships to inner-city pupils in 10 cities, announced last week by Merrill Lynch & Co. in conjunction with the National Urban League.

The philanthropic project takes previous ``adopt-a-class'' programs a step better by starting so early, says an executive with the investment firm.

Upon graduation from high school in 2000, this class will be eligible for college and vocational scholarships (including tuition, books, and room and board), or special stipends.

The Merrill Lynch Foundation plans to contribute about $8 million over 16 years into an investment account that will provide the funds, with the ultimate value of the account estimated to reach up to $16 million.

``By involving parents early and holding out hope of post-secondary training or college, it more or less gives these children a middle-class structure to their hopes,'' says Leo Ellis Jr., principal of Chicago's Overton Elementary School, where Romonia and 24 other first-grade scholarship winners attend. He calls it ``unprecedented generosity.''

Romonia's mother says, ``at first I didn't have too much in mind of furthering her education after high school ... but right now I find that ... she can advance herself.''

Schools across the country that had scholarship winners were selected because of factors such as an environment focused on educational achievement and good parental involvement. Pupils were selected because they were representative of their individual city's inner-city population. There were no academic or aptitude requirements for the awards.

Local Urban League affiliates will work with schools in monitoring selected children and parents and working with them to provide services such as counseling, job-placement help and tutoring when needed, say Urban League and Merrill Lynch officials.

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