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26 April 2007
Two JSU Grads Speak Out on Significance
of Next Start Scholarship Program

Steve Ivey
Star Staff Writer
Anniston Star

Looking for a New Vision: Without Next Start,
Graduates' Future Plans are Unclear

Kevin Thompson helps a customer at the vision center in the Lenlock Wal-Mart. Thompson started college at Jacksonville State University with the help of a Next Start scholarship. He is currently working on a master's degree in education and is trying to help keep the scholarships going. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star

Reprinted here in its entirety.

Marquittia Edmonson considers her upbringing typical among her Anniston High School class of 2001 peers.

She grew up in a single-parent home, figuring the promise of higher education was out of reach financially.

“For individuals like me, none of this money is just sitting in an account somewhere waiting to go to college,” she said.

But a presentation by the Anniston City Schools Foundation encouraged her to apply for a Next Start scholarship, the program recently voided by a state attorney general’s ruling.

Begun in 1998, the scholarships funded from city coffers have paid for tuition and books at either Gadsden State Community College or Jacksonville State University for the past nine years.

The foundation recognized the intricately connected threads that form the web of a community’s character: family income, housing, employment, industry, health care, crime rates, quality schools, retail growth and taxes that support public services.

A central thread connecting all the others is education, so the reasoning went. City leaders hoped pulling that thread in the right direction – by helping students achieve higher education levels – would pull the rest of the web along, helping Anniston to overcome a host of factors that were dragging it down by the late 1990s. Among those were environmental contamination, the debate over chemical weapons destruction, the closing of Fort McClellan, and continuing white- and middle-class-flight from the city’s school system.

The scholarship program sought to curb Anniston’s dropout rate, get more students thinking about college and generally improve the city’s quality of life.

Her scholarship covered Edmonson’s first year at JSU, so she could reserve other aid for her second year.

Then, after her second year, the money ran out. But a semester off working for a rent-to-own company and a call to Catherine Chappell, the foundation’s director, got her back to campus.

“It’s the only reason I’m back to school,” Edmonson said. “After that, I got on my feet and got some other assistance. But I would not be in the position I am today” if not for the scholarship.

Today, she’s a JSU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business management. That led to her job in purchasing at Honda Manufacturing in Lincoln. She’s working on her master’s in business administration.

Edmonson’s is one of 480 stories from nine years of Next Start scholarships.

But Attorney General Troy King’s opinion, issued earlier this month, could end the tale there.

The City of Anniston had given $500,000 to the program since its inception. But King said it’s unconstitutional for the city to give public money to private individuals for college.

King’s opinion said Anniston could only offer the scholarships if voters approved using the money for that purpose, and if the council could show the program serves a public purpose.

“The idea was to tell the students that if they stay in school and do what they’re supposed to, there’s a reward there,” said Gene Stedham, Anniston’s mayor when the scholarship program began. “If you get into college, we’ll take care of you. We wanted to try to get our area to lift itself by its own bootstraps. The better-educated you are, the more money you make, the better you’ll be in your community.”

Given the demographics of the Anniston City Schools — it had the second-highest dropout rate and the 12th most students on free or reduced lunch of the state’s 131 systems in 2005-06 — Stedham said the program maintained a noble goal.

The Southern Regional Education Board found last year that college graduates in Alabama earn twice as much as those whose education ended after high school.

And the nonprofit College Board found in 2005 several markers of how college graduates impact their communities:

- College grads pay 82 percent more in federal, state and local taxes combined.

- A 1 percent increase in a city’s four-year graduates increases the wages of workers without a high school diploma by 1.9 percent.

- About 68 percent of college graduates had employer-provided health insurance, compared with 35 percent of workers with high school diplomas.

“I still think it was a great idea,” Stedham said. “I think it could still be implemented.”

Giving back, not giving up

Kevin Thompson wants to keep the program alive, too.

As one of 157 Anniston High School graduates in 1999, Thompson hadn’t thought much about college.

He took two years off to work at banks, restaurants and Wal-Mart, saving what he could. Then in 2001 he met Chappell of the Anniston City Schools Foundation. She told him about the Next Start scholarship opportunity.

“I loved high school, but college wasn’t a big deal that I talked about much,” Thompson said.

Now, he holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Jacksonville State University and serves as manager of the vision center at the Lenlock Wal-Mart. Soon he expects to get his master’s in education.

During his time in college, Thompson returned to the Anniston City Schools Foundation to mentor third- and fourth-graders at Cobb Elementary.

“I want to teach elementary school, get a job in the community school system and give back,” he said. “Doing that volunteering, I decided it was my calling.”

Thompson said 26 scholarship recipients of the Class of 1999 have earned their bachelor’s degrees. He’s trying to contact as many as he can to persuade them to donate to the scholarship fund, and ask their employers to do the same, hoping that enough private money can be raised to do what King has said is illegal for the city to do with public money.

An expensive proposition

Local businesses know the value of an educated, skilled work force.

Steve Routson, director of human resources at BAE Systems, said any job there requires at least a high school diploma. Movement to upper-level positions almost always demands a college degree.

“The days of only having backbreaking labor just don’t exist anymore,” he said. “Alabama has a good reputation for welcoming new companies, giving them tax breaks. But if employers can’t find the educated work force, they’re going to have to train them. And that’s an expensive proposition.”

Chappell said earlier this week that she had received some calls from private industries and “concerned citizens” who expressed interest in helping out. Mayor Chip Howell said the council had not examined any other ways the city might participate in the program, but it could be a likely topic for a Tuesday evening meeting this week.

“This is a big leg up for a lot of students,” Chappell said. “I think any type of positive program would help.”

Chappell said 33 AHS seniors had applied for scholarships this year.

Deidra Brown saw the motivation the prospect of scholarship money provided others in her AHS graduating class of 1999.

“You had to make a certain grade once you got to college,” she said. “It kept me going, knowing that money was there. If they knew they could get financial aid, it changed some of their attitudes about school.”

Brown said she received about $500 from Next Start, which covered her books at JSU.

“I could use my financial aid for tuition, which really helps out a lot,” she said.

Jacqueline King, director of policy analysis for the American Council on Education, found that the average unmet need for low-income students was $2,700 per year for a two-year school, more than 10 times that of middle- and upper-income families when accounting for family contribution.

But those lower-income students are often the most persistent. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 63 percent of high school graduates who enroll in a community college either earn a credential or transfer to a four-year school.

Brown, now a second-grade teacher at Coldwater Elementary in Oxford, said she hopes the community finds a way to help Next Start.

“I feel like a lot of times they’re pulling money away just because of some of the bad publicity Anniston has gotten,” she said. “But if you keep having all these negatives, it’s going to make the kids feel negatively about themselves. We have to keep the positives there.”

About Steve Ivey

Steve Ivey covers education for The Anniston Star.

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