GCF ‘Giving Circle’ supports NKY's new pathways to college, workforce

As the director of Kenton County Academies of Innovation and Technology, Francis O’Hara believes his calling is to look at his students today and figure out how to prepare them best for tomorrow, regardless of what path they may be on.

Generation Z has entered the realm he works in, and he and his colleagues in leadership in the Kenton County School District are intent on making sure that when this generation leaves high school, they will be at the greatest advantage possible for what is ahead.

“When a scholar comes to high school, they’re growing up and we want them to be able to walk out with a set of skills and not just knowledge,” says O’Hara, talking about today’s students who fall in the generation born between 1995 and the early 2000s, and who make up a larger percentage of the U.S. population than the Baby Boomers.

“We want them to walk out of here with associate degrees, we want them to walk out with defined professional certifications, anything that goes beyond the high school diploma that leads them into the workforce. Because we know that the workforce needs them now,” he says.

Developing a skills edge that opens the door to career success is a particularly acute challenge for those students who may not have the desire or means to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Kenton County’s program recognizes that and, in turn, a group of Northern Kentucky residents decided to recognize those who are making a difference on that issue. And that recognition is not just talk but directly allocated dollars.

The NKY Giving Circle, organized by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF), has awarded three grants to support workforce development and equitable college access in Northern Kentucky. The total distribution is $50,000, which includes a separate benefactor, the friend of a Giving Circle member, who liked the Kenton County project so much when he learned of it that he gave $15,000 of his own money.

Besides the “Team Kenton Foundation” grant designated to Kenton County Public Schools, grants were also awarded to Bellevue Independent Schools for a program called “Cradle to College” and to the Gateway Community and Technical College Foundation for their “15 to Finish” initiative.

The concept of giving circles, in which donors don’t just send money to the charities they know but actually pool dollars for greater, collective impact and then participate in a group-based grant evaluation and decision process, has generated enthusiasm and impressive results in recent years. Most notably the Impact 100 organization of hundreds of community-minded women has awarded more than $4.8 million in grants in the Greater Cincinnati area since 2001. From its Cincinnati roots, Impact 100 has grown into a movement with chapters in more than 50 U.S. cities and two foreign countries.

The NKY Giving Circle was created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation’s Northern Kentucky Fund and to give participants a seat at the grant-making table. With a process that began in September, the Giving Circle was organized around the idea of supporting college exposure or job training for young people.

With an equal contribution from each member, matched with GCF grant dollars, the Giving Circle members wrote the Request for Proposals, reviewed the applications, and selected three programs for funding that support a pathway across Northern Kentucky that covers students as young as kindergartners all the way up to those who are pursuing their associate’s degree in college.

“This process, to me, was a chance to understand even deeper what is going on in the community and how to best support it,” says Rebekah Gensler, who was the NKY Giving Circle’s chair. “Giving is not always an easy thing. I think for organizations, it can be difficult to ensure (to donors) that you're giving responsibly and making the best decisions on how funding is distributed. So these donors learned a little more about the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and, frankly, how much effort they put into making good grant-making decisions. That's a good thing, not only for us, but for the rest of our community.”

The Giving Circle made a conscious effort to support organizations across Northern Kentucky, with one recipient each from Boone, Kenton, and Campbell County. As it turned out, Gateway Community and Technical College ended up being a common factor tying together each gift.

Gateway’s grant will support “15 to Finish,” an idea that has been implemented statewide at Kentucky’s two-year public colleges, and that has proven effective at a number of schools in incentivizing at-risk students to stay on track for their degrees.

The concept is easy to understand. Many students who enroll at two-year colleges are facing any number of real-world challenges in being able to pursue their degree. Of Gateway’s current enrollment of about 5,000 students, approximately 70 percent are going to school on a part-time basis. The longer it takes for a student to get the credits needed to graduate, the greater the chance that something will come up to interrupt or interfere with their plan.

The “15 to Finish” program requires students to take a full course load of 15 credit hours each semester. For each semester they are successful in that effort, they become eligible for a $500 scholarship for the following semester, as long as they once again are taking a 15-credit hour load.

“What makes this program even that much more important is because it obviously takes much longer to finish if you're only going part-time or not taking a full load to get done,” says Amber Decker, Gateway’s Vice President of Development and Community Partnerships. “We want to help with getting that student back out into the workforce or achieving their goal that they're trying to reach.”

Gateway actually launched “15 to Finish” at the beginning of the fall semester. The first scholarships will be going out for students who qualify in the upcoming spring semester. The Giving Circle’s gift will support 30 students, in addition to support provided for the program by the state.

Part of Gateway’s mission to the community as an open-enrollment institution is to serve at-risk students such as low-income or first-generation college students, or those who are underprepared. Another aspect of “15 to Finish” provides for advising and support services to try and make sure these students stay on track.

Gateway is already on the radar for a number of Northern Kentucky high school students who are taking advantage of dual-enrollment opportunities to earn college credit while they are still in their final two years of high school.

Bellevue is one of the school systems that has been sending students to Gateway for the program over the last few years and has reached up to 30 percent participation among its junior and senior classes. This past year, in fact, they had their first student who was graduating from Bellevue having already earned her associate’s degree through the Gateway opportunity.

Advancing those kinds of opportunities is at the heart of the Giving Circle grant to Bellevue Independent Schools.

Bellevue historically has had a sizable population of lower-income residents often engaged in blue collar careers. Tara Wittrock, the director of special student populations for the district, says that children from those families often don’t see college or post-secondary education as an option for their future.

Bellevue graduates go on to college at a rate of 68.9 percent, more than 10 percent below the overall average for all Kentucky high schools, and with an even bigger gap when compared to surrounding school districts in more affluent parts of Campbell County. The “Cradle to College” program aims to make college seem like a normal goal from an early age by taking students to college campuses throughout their Bellevue years.

At each grade level, students will be making at least one programmed visit per year to area higher education institutions. For instance, the planned schedule has Bellevue kindergartners visiting Gateway, an exposure they will repeat when they are in third grade. First-graders will go to Thomas More University, and visit again in fourth grade. NKU will get visits from Bellevue second-graders, and those students will return when they are in fifth grade.

“College itself is an intimidating idea for somebody who has lived in a community that is about one square mile for their whole life,” Wittrock says. “There is also the thought of potentially taking on a lot of debt for college, and I think that deters a lot of kids. There's just so much that is a bunch of unknowns when it comes to college for these kids, so the fact that we get to give them this opportunity to become familiar with the idea is amazing.”

Kenton County’s “Team Kenton Foundation” award, the third project the Giving Circle chose to support, takes an even more specific path towards getting graduates in line for the training kids need for a good career.

As Francis O’Hara mentioned, the goal is not just a diploma, but marketable skills that lead to career success. Students from Dixie Heights, Scott, and Simon Kenton high schools will be eligible for this program.

Team Kenton Foundation is an independent, non-profit arm of the district that works to promote community and business partnerships that can enhance educational outcomes for the district’s students. With partners in Gateway and Messer Construction, the foundation and the school system will develop a Building Construction Pathway for its students.

Those who complete the program will have finished full-semester dual-degree level coursework in four areas: construction, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical. As part of their training, they will past certified testing in at least three areas — and potentially up to six — allowing them by the time they are high school graduates to be completely job ready as building and construction building technician assistants.

“There are going to be no barriers, because a lot of times what stops kids is a money issue, but they are going to be able to go from class to class, no stopping, from concept to completion,” O’Hara says. “We are really going to target kids whom our college coordinators in each of our schools are telling us are biting at the bit to get out there and learn something, such as something like plumbing. And, now we can say here it is, finally.”

Team Kenton Foundation’s plan also includes a component where students in the program will have internship opportunities during the summers after their junior and senior years with the Kenton County Schools’ operations staff who are responsible for project work on facilities throughout the district. What those students have just learned in the prior year can then be put into immediate practice with a mentor close at hand.

For the graduates who complete the program, O’Hara says, it could mean the difference between finishing high school and having to take a job in fast food somewhere that pays $10 an hour versus getting a quality start on a construction career where they may be making upwards of $18 an hour.

“The chance to get this grant was really a miracle,” O’Hara says.

“Our chief operations officer, Rob Haney, and our chief academic officer, Dr. Kim Banta, are so enthusiastic about this," she continues. "So is our superintendent, Dr. (Henry) Webb. He talks about how he wants every kid who walks out of here to have a skill set and be able to walk right into the work force or go on to college. He doesn’t want 20 percent or 30 percent, he wants 100 percent of our kids, and that, to me, is exactly the way school should be. We don’t one kid walking out of here with a high school diploma and no skills.”

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