Nonprofit hones in on area private schools for student success

Focus on Excellence program launched this fall

Getting students through school and into college is a challenge for any family – particularly in today’s economic climate. But add at-risk and financially drained to a bright student’s load, and many would-be college leaders slip through the cracks.
A local nonprofit organization aims to change that outcome. Focus on Excellence has recently established partnerships with several local private schools in the neighborhood to give at-risk students a firm educational grounding – and better position them for college and college scholarships.
The group’s goal is “to get our scholars into the best possible college or university with the best possible retention rate and best financial aid package.” To achieve that, FOE believes a private school education will give its students the best chance for collegiate success. During the past year, the group has been working with local private schools to find student applicants who fit its standards. To qualify for the program, students must be entering the ninth grade and have a 3.3 GPA and acceptance at one of the partner high schools. According to an FOE brochure, selection is based on middle school performance and recommendations from current teachers. Parents of the student must meet financial requirements to prove need and the student must complete a formal interview process, write an essay and meet with FOE staff. The student also must plan to attend college.
Local private schools have been eager to help, according to FOE officials.
“The response has been great from the participating private schools,” said Rebecca Faiella, director of development for Focus on Excellence. The nonprofit organization is based near San Marco on Philips Highway. “We receive more applications than we can help each school year and our goal is to raise awareness and program dollars to accept more FOE scholars in the future.”
In the group’s first year, it awarded 25 scholarships to students from a few private schools. Currently, organization officials said there are more than 50 students participating in the program at five private schools – The Bolles School, Bishop Snyder High School, Episcopal School of Jacksonville, Providence and University Christian School.
“This approach works well as FOE students are supported academically, socially and emotionally to help them achieve in high school and to receive the best college and university acceptances with complete financial aid packages,” Faiella explained. “The small academic environment and support from our participating schools – coupled with the mentoring, tutoring, workshops and summer programs offered through FOE – give at-risk, high-performing students the foundation and skills necessary to succeed in life.”
The group’s first workshop of the year was in early September and marked the program’s official kick-off. During the workshops, students looked at tracks for the students based on grade level. Junior and senior students worked on college preparation and standard application requirements, as well as financial aid and standardized testing requirements. Freshmen and sophomore students learned more about public speaking and being confident.
FOE hosts nine mandatory Saturday workshops throughout the school year to help prepare students for college.
Faiella said the workshops and program help retention, which translates to scholars getting into college with the best financial aid packages.
The plan seems to be working. All eight graduates from the 2011-2012 program are in college with ample financial aid support. In a few years, the FOE will produce its first college graduates.

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