The 2015-16 school year is barreling to a close. Soon, graduating seniors will be walking across a stage into the next phase of their lives. It’s new, uncharted territory, but some are better prepared for it than others. Still, a wondrous time awaits for all.
I spent the better part of the week interviewing 38 students who wanted to be Peyton Anderson Scholars, along with other selection committee members: Jo Wilbanks, a retired Georgia Power executive; Theresa Robinson, external affairs manager with Georgia Power; Mark Stevens, a former banker who now works with the Rescue Mission; and Chris Grant, a Mercer University professor. We spent time with each candidate in a number of ways.
First, a little about the foundation and the scholars program. Juanita Jordan, then-executive director of the Peyton Anderson Foundation, worked for Anderson. She started the scholars program 20 years after the foundation was formed after Anderson’s death in 1988. (Disclaimer: Anderson owned The Macon Telegraph and The Macon News. The newspapers had been in the family since 1914. Although it is looked at with unworthy derision by those not in the know, W.T. Anderson started “News of the Colored Community.” Most Southern daily newspapers didn’t have any news about the black community at all, but W.T. was an exception. He supported the black community and was known to have to carry a pistol because of that. In his will he made provisions for health care for the black community. The W.T. Anderson Health Center is part of Navicent Health.)
Back to the scholars. The first class of 15 were selected in 2009. I don’t know how many applications the foundation had that first year, but I can tell you we had 87 qualified applications this year. Each committee member had to review every application, read every essay, compare GPAs, SATs and letters of recommendation. We came together to choose the top 38. This may have been the toughest part of the process. All of the students were excellent. However, the 38 chosen stood out. It could have been the essay. It might have been the letters of recommendation. We did not just do a data dump, meaning that we didn’t just choose students with the best GPAs or SATs. That’s not what Peyton would have wanted.
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Let me stop right here for a moment. It would have been impossible for the committee to do this without the hard work of Charla Ivey, the foundation’s program director; Chenza Geiser, the program manager; and the executive director of the foundation, Karen Lambert. You have no idea how much work goes into this effort. Students, no matter how talented, are deadline averse. Someone has to keep them on schedule. School counselors are drowning this time of year as well. Someone has to keep them on schedule, too.
While I’m on this rant, I can only say this one way. Parents, school counselors, principals and students, take heed. If a teacher tells you he or she can’t give a good recommendation or doesn’t have the time or any sort of excuse — believe them. Find someone else. There were a few students in this year’s group where the recommendations threw the student under the bus. It was not pretty. It would have been better if the teacher had flatly refused to write a recommendation. Another point. Do not let a child walk into an interview unprepared. They should have practiced interviewing skills and know how to greet people, speak up and make eye contact.
There are some lessons every parent, teacher and school counselor should learn — even the janitors and bus drivers. These children may not be as they appear. I don’t care if you’re talking about private or public schools. Without giving any stories away, a student’s outside appearance is no indication of what’s going on inside. Please, please be aware the next time you greet a student. We don’t know the hell they’ve been through just to get to a safe place. Let me stress again: This is not just a public school phenomenon.
There are outstanding counselors and teachers out there who know their who. They take the time to understand what kinds of situations their students are coming from. I can’t stress enough how important this is. I have watched teenage bravado disappear, replaced by excited wonder at a world about to open up all because a teacher, a counselor, a janitor or bus driver believed in them.