It was a celebration of three years’ hard work at a barbecue on Saturday afternoon, where eight graduating seniors of Saratoga Springs High School were recognized as the first college-bound class of the Saratoga Sponsor-A-Scholar program.
Friends and families of students participating in the program crammed under a pavilion in the Saratoga Spa State Park to commemorate the inaugural class and welcome 10 new enrollees who will be high school sophomores in the fall. The new students were presented two diploma frames from Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Mike Piccirillo.
“The goal is to fill each frame,” he said, “one with a high school diploma and one with a college diploma.”
To achieve that goal, the program offers monetary support and guidance targeted at students who have the skills to go to college but need help realizing that goal. Executive Director Jim LaVigne said the program targets good students who just lack the background or the financial capability to attend college.
“We select 10 students every year … who have good marks, good character, who have shown good behavior and want to go to college, except that they’re fiscally disadvantaged,” he said.
Students begin in the program during their sophomore year, and while they’re in high school, the program will invest up to $4,000 per student on test preparation courses, fees for exams and whatever random costs might be incurred.
For Gabrielle Batista, 17, of Saratoga Springs, a graduate of the program, one costly roadblock was the expense of visiting St. Lawrence University, which is in the North Country. With the family car unable to make the trip, the program ended up reimbursing her family for renting a car, tolls, gas and anything else related to her college visit.
Batista, who received a $120,000 Presidential Diversity Scholarship, will begin at St. Lawrence in the fall.
For LaVigne, paying for these types of expenses is a no-brainer.
“[Gabrielle] going to the interview, with her personality, was an ace,” he said.
Once students in the program get to college, LaVigne said they’re given a $1,500 stipend for each year they complete. The graduating class was also presented with the laptop of their choice, which was a big surprise for Natalia Allyn, 18, of Wilton, who was scrambling to purchase a MacBook computer for her program at Sage College of Albany in the fall.
“I’ve been stressing about how I was going to get a MacBook, because I’m going into the graphic field and it’s required,” said Allyn. “So for half of this whole year, I’ve been running around trying to figure out prices and how I was going to afford to get one.”
Backed into a corner, Allyn had decided to sell her guitars, until she and the other seniors learned they would get the laptop of their choice.
“I started crying. My eyes started tearing up, and I was just overjoyed,” she said.
The program is more than a checkbook, though, as it also provides guidance through the college admissions process and is a regular presence throughout an enrollee’s high school career. Students are given a mentor who becomes part of their lives, and they’re also given a set of guidelines and commitments that they need to live up to.
LaVigne said the program is strict with its requirements, which include a mandatory weekly study skills program and tutoring in any subject where averages drop below 75. While not enforcing a zero tolerance standard, he said, students in the program are expected to make a serious commitment.
The hard work by students in the program appears to have paid off, with Batista hypothesizing that the program had made their futures possible.
“Without [their] help, we wouldn’t be going to college in the fall,” she said.
Allyn added that she had originally been skeptical of the program’s import when she enrolled three years ago, but was now seeing the dividends.
“I never thought that it could do so much for me,” she said. “I appreciate them way more than I could probably express.”
LaVigne said 38 students are currently enrolled in the program, with an eventual peak of 70 students. He hopes that eventually they can endow the program to guarantee its future for local students.
To learn more about the program, including opportunities to get involved, go to www.saratogasponsorascholar.org.
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