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Family approach credited as key to Silas Craft Collegians Program’s success.

Not as glamorous, however, are the community college programs that provide the intense coaching and remedial training necessary to guide students who hovered near failure in high school to a college degree. In fact, when administrators at Howard Community College in Columbia, Md., were planning the 2000 launch of the Silas Craft Collegians Program, which caters to at-risk students at the low end of the academic preparedness spectrum, they had to start from scratch.

“When we were planning the program, we could not find a program like this out there, anywhere. Of course we did not want to have to reinvent the wheel, but we had to invent the wheel,” says Dr. Pamela M. Cornell, director of the Craft Collegians Program.

Craft Collegians are typically in the program for three years, as the first is dedicated to completing developmental courses necessary to move on to regular HCC classes. However, the program is customized to fit an individual student’s goals and needs, as some may finish in more or less time.

Though originally designed to respond to challenges Black males face, Cornell says the program is open to all high school seniors who struggle academically, not just students who “have excellent grades because that’s not whom we’re targeting.

“We are looking for students who have potential but who have not shown that potential in their previous high school level. Their potential and performance has a gap, but we know they’re capable,” Cornell adds.

Craft Collegians are typically recruited as high school seniors, and when they graduate, they begin their HCC experience as a group in a summer retreat at which they are prepared for the rigors of college life and engage in a host of personal development activities. Craft Collegians also have a chance to meet with their handpicked pr

ofessors during the summer and are offered an opportunity to take core classes as a cohort. Craft Collegians have access to all HCC degree offerings but also benefit from having a personal advisor and a host of tutoring and counseling services, and they attend a study session and seminar on a weekly basis.

“We have wonderful services here on this campus. A lot of colleges have wonderful services. But if you leave it up to students to just take advantage of them, it doesn’t usually happen,” Cornell says, adding that students who need support “the most often are the ones that don’t go. So we’re the shepherds; we get them over there so they can take advantage of those services, and we make services mandatory.”

Among the first cohort that entered the program in 2000, 30.4 percent graduated from HCC or transferred to a fouryear college. The graduation or transfer rate for the next two cohorts was 31.6 percent and 37.5 percent, respectively, according to Ron Roberson, vice president of academic affairs. Those figures don’t capture the students who drop out and return and ultimately persist, he says.

The average retention rate for Silas Craft Collegians is 71 percent for students returning in the spring after taking courses in the fall; for the general population the rate is 60 percent.

The Craft Legacy

The Craft Collegians Program’s namesake, the late Silas Craft, was a key force behind the opening of Howard County’s Harriet Tubman High School in 1949 and its principal; it was the first senior high school for Black students in the county. Silas Craft’s widow, Dorothye, serves as the program’s emotional anchor, meeting with students periodically and sending them letters of encouragement. Clearly, the sense that the faculty and staff care for their welfare both inside and outside the classroom is key to the program’s success, collegians say.

Because professors “show so much interest and they do care about you, that keeps that motivation in [you] and gives you that extra drive,” says third-year Craft Collegian Amber Golden. “When you get that sense of caring, it’s just easier to work a little harder.”

Third-year Craft Collegian Keith Curtis echoes those sentiments, noting that it is not uncommon for one of his Craft Program professors to ask how his life is going and how things are at home. “And that actually shows me that she’s not just there to do her job, but she actually cares about her students. That makes me very happy to be in this program because they selected people who are there to inspire and put us on the right path,” Curtis says.

Nevertheless, Dorothye Craft says a teacher’s ability to show empathy and give students individual attention has waned over the years.

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, Craft says, “we as teachers were into students, we wanted the best for them. … We were required to know families, because in knowing the family we would know if this child came with certain [problems]; we would know if something was going on in the family.”

Craft says the emphasis on family and the individual student faded away when schools were integrated in the ’50s. Before that time, parents were more engaged with their child’s school, but with integration they “began to pull away because the atmosphere wasn’t the same. For instance, sometimes you feel now that the teacher’s concern is [his/her] check,” Craft says.

“Silas’ pay for a month was $250 as a principal. Then, the money wasn’t the issue; it was the child that was the issue. … The atmosphere was just different. It was a family. The school teachers, they were a family,” she adds.

A Family Affair

Nearly everyone associated with the Craft program treats its students like one big family, and the program even has a mother and father figure. Cornell, acting as the empathetic mother, joined forces with Craft Collegians Program Assistant Director Joseph Mason, the tough-but-fair father, to form a team that provides the support and guidance many Collegians never got at home.

“Specifically talking about the African-American male, we have almost like a parental approach, which gets back to the family that Mrs. Craft talks about,” Cornell says. “Joe might have to say some things that might be tough, but there’s a certain way you do that; you have to do it respectfully.” And when Craft Collegians “know that you respect them and you’re not demeaning them, they listen. Then they can come to me and I can soften them up some,” she adds.

Mason says at times he has to be tough on some of the Black males and others who chafe at his disciplinary tactics. However, Mason says that, as time goes on, Collegians see there is more to him, a human development professor, than first meets the eye.

For instance, his Black male students grumble at first when Mason tells them to take their hats off in class, but after he explains that professors outside the Craft program may develop permanently negative perceptions of them that could influence their grade, and the students see that he is truly concerned for their welfare, the grumbling generally stops.

“I’d like to think that my style of dealing with students, particularly with African- American males, is confrontational but with compassion. So I typically will approach them directly on whatever issue is going on.

“I think initially, probably students think that I’m just a hard-nosed guy, trying to be tough on them. Over time they find out that that’s just not the case, because they maybe complain a lot, but they realize in the end that I genuinely care that they succeed in this program,” he adds.

And getting a sense that someone cares about them is crucial for Black male Collegians and others whose own parents may have written them off as a lost cause, Cornell says.

“If you approach them with respect and understanding, even some that might have anger or issues, they respond because they know you care; they know your heart is in it.”

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