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Broken Pledge Fails to Stifle Students' Promise

Foundation offered college scholarships to sixth-graders if they stayed in school. When it went broke, St. Mary's College stepped in.

June 05, 2005|Stephen Manning | Associated Press Writer

ST. MARY'S CITY, Md. — Layla Wynn and twins Adrianna and Andrea Cofield know all about broken promises, setbacks and sacrifices.

They also know about perseverance.

This spring, the three young women from the same neighborhood in Washington, D.C., became the first in their families to earn a college degree. However, the trio's biggest accomplishment may be that they even got to college.

Ten years ago, the girls were among a group of 63 inner-city sixth-graders promised full college scholarships if they stayed in school.

But when the students were high school seniors, they learned that the money wasn't there; the foundation that had promised it had folded.

The families scrambled to find new sources of aid, helped by donors who learned of their plight and generous financial aid packages from several schools. In the end, the girls went to St. Mary's College of Maryland for free. Although the money came from a different place, the fact that they graduated helps repair a trust that eroded years earlier.

"My main goal was to finish college," Layla said. "The money, unfortunately, didn't come from the source where it was originally promised, but we still got it."

The scholarship pledge was made by businessman George Abel at the Bruce-Monroe Elementary School sixth-grade graduation in 1995. Abel said his foundation would pay the college costs of each student if they agreed to complete high school. That was the last that the Bruce-Monroe students heard from him.

By late 2000, the senior class at Cardozo High School was in a panic. The majority of the students had come from Bruce-Monroe. Many had not applied for college or financial aid yet, and many parents hadn't saved money for college, believing that their children had full scholarships waiting for them.

"We assumed it was there," Andrea said. "We knew we had it like it was in our back pocket. We didn't realize it wasn't going to be fulfilled."

Enter St. Mary's, whose admissions and financial staff canceled holiday plans to help the students and parents meet college application deadlines.

Abel later said that his foundation ran out of money in the early 1990s, and that he had said his promise hinged on his ability to raise new funds.

Reached recently at Bethesda Unity church, where he is the spiritual leader, Abel told a reporter: "I don't want to talk to you," and hung up the phone.

Layla, Adrianna and Andrea entered St. Mary's in the fall of 2001. Scholarships covered all of their tuition and board during their time at the school, which now costs $24,560 per year for out-of-state students.

At first, the adjustment was difficult. St. Mary's is in a rural portion of the state, at the tip of southern Maryland, much different from the northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood where the young women grew up. The three came from predominantly black high schools to a college that is 85% white.

Adrianna struggled somewhat to integrate into the college community. Andrea transferred to Nyack College because she wanted to take theology classes that St. Mary's did not offer.

For Layla, sophomore year was toughest. A lifelong basketball player, she quit the St. Mary's team after a falling-out with the coach and a dip in her grades, which were nearly perfect in high school. She often left campus on weekends, retreating to her home 75 miles away.

But slowly, she regained her footing. Without basketball, she had more time to study, and her grades gradually improved. By her senior year, she loaded her schedule with tough classes like physics, but still managed to post some of her best grades in college, including a 3.4 grade point average this spring. Pickup games replaced team play. And she didn't leave school as much.

"I guess I began to enjoy it more rather than feel like I had to run away every weekend," she said after finishing her last final exam.

As a senior, Layla helped create an educational program to combat childhood obesity -- a program now used in an area school. Adrianna eventually became a theater major, writing and producing her own play for her senior project. Andrea excelled in Nyack's theology program.

Maggie O'Brien, president of St. Mary's, kept close tabs on the Bruce-Monroe students, celebrating their victories, like Adrianna's play or Layla's time on the basketball team. "It confirmed for me that if you have an educational opportunity for a student who has the drive, they will take it and run with it," she said.

At O'Brien's urging, the young women plan to go to graduate school next year -- Andrea in theology, Adrianna in Pan-African studies and Layla in city planning.

Adrianna and Layla say they still see some of their former Bruce-Monroe classmates around the neighborhood. Some went to college and dropped out; some never graduated from high school. A few got pregnant. Some went to prison.

The District of Columbia College Access Program, which has helped fund some of the Bruce-Monroe students, is trying to track down the 30 members of the Class of 1995 who went to college out of the 63 who graduated. Executive Director Argelia Rodriguez said she knew of five, including Layla and the Cofield twins, who will receive college diplomas this year. Five others should graduate next year.

Reginald Ballard, principal of Cardozo High, said that even though the original promise was broken, its original intent is being realized.

"It was a dream somebody had that these kids would get a college education," he said. "I guess it doesn't really matter how it happened. It did happen."

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