Project Potential in Lexington helps more students become first-generation college graduates

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LEXINGTON, N.C. — A program in Lexington City Schools is helping students graduate and go to college. It’s called Project Potential, and it’s specifically for students whose families are at an economic disadvantage and who will be the first generation of college graduates.

Project Potential starts interviewing students in eighth grade. Students have to go through an application process, and ultimately 36 students are selected to start the program in ninth grade.

It takes buy in from both the students and their parents. Students take a rigorous course load but have the assistance of tutors, mentors, study sessions, and more during high school.

The program started back in 1994, but it’s grown significantly since then.

“The program started off as a scholarship program, and over time we realized that it wasn’t enough,” Project Potential Executive Director Anna Hayes said. “So what would happen in 8th grade, they would promise them a scholarship when they graduated from high school. What we realized was that they needed a lot of support over the four years to make sure they were prepared to be accepted and to succeed when they’re there so that piece is still in place, but we have so many more services. Over time we’ve just evolved.”

99% of Project Potential students have been accepted to college, and more than 500 have been offered scholarships to different colleges and universities. The program also celebrates a 100% graduation rate.

Project Potential Program Director Chevon Burton says the program does not end when students graduate from Lexington City Schools. They want to make sure their students are earning a college degree as well.

Over six years after high school graduation, around 45% of their students are earning a college degree.

Nationwide, only about 11% of low-income first-generation students are earning a college diploma.

To get those numbers even higher, the Project Potential leaders try to continue working closely with the students.

“Anna and I have went to college campuses and sat down with professors and students to work out plans for them we have, went to colleges to sit and make sure they are mental health-wise they’re healthy,” Burton said. “Sometimes, if nothing else, we just go to check on them. It’s cool to see a familiar face coming by to just say, ‘Hey, how you doing? Is everything OK? Do you need anything?’ Our students know if they are having problems, they text us, they call us. We try to make sure that they are OK before making any decisions.”

They also work with students on what exactly to expect once they start college and how to navigate it. Especially because there are certain challenges first-generation college students can experience. Burton says she’s familiar with some of those first hand.

“I too am a first-generation college student,” she said. “I didn’t know; I’m thinking if you go to see a professor, you’re in trouble if you’re going to professor hours. We didn’t know that when you go to tutoring, that’s a good thing because for some reason in our heads we think, ‘Oh, man, I’m not supposed to be here anyway. If I have to go to tutoring that’s just showing I’m not supposed to be here,’ so we’re trying to educate our students to know, build that relationship with your professor, even if it’s nothing wrong, go introduce yourself, or if it is something wrong, you go to him first.”

One of the special things about Project Potential is the impact it has on Lexington City Schools outside of the program as well.

“It’s important we have to pay it forward, and I think our students do a good job of that,” Burton said. “They help us in multiple different ways even when they’re in high school. They’re volunteering at our events, they are working with our other students, we have some student tutors, so its cool to see our students really become a family over the time that they’re here in Project Potential.”

And sometimes, the efforts inside the classroom come full circle.

“We have students I think right now, do we have like 6 or 7 of our graduates who have come back to the Lexington school system to teach which is a huge success for us,” Hayes said. “They’re giving back to their community. Some of our participants even serve as mentors to our students and that’s a success in and of itself.”

Project Potential is successful with help from the community. They are always looking for volunteers to become a college coach or mentor, people to help with fundraising, scholarship support, and dorm room donations. You can visit the Project Potential website to learn more.

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