The sky's the limit for STAR students
FORT WORTH — How do you help at-risk children build better futures?
For thousands of families in the North Texas area, the answer is getting kids a great private school education through the STAR Sponsorship Program.
STAR, which stands for Success Through Academic Readiness, connects children from kindergarten through eighth grade with sponsors who help pay for tuition at a local private school. Students commit to writing to their sponsors monthly, maintaining good grades, and model behavior. Parents contribute what they can afford to tuition and stay involved in the educational process.
STAR students and their parents, along with donors and staff, gathered Aug. 10 at Calvary Christian Academy in Fort Worth to kick off the new school year and celebrate 25 years the organization has been helping students.
“We're here because families wanted choice in education, and we've found donors who want to sponsor a student,” Patty Myers, STAR executive director, said at the event.
Myers went on to tell students, “Complete strangers are willing to help you, and you students have to work hard.”
Myers, who has managed the program since 1998, writes to families and sponsors several times a year, meets with families and school officials when issues arise, and makes sure students have the resources they need to succeed.
Since 1993, more than 4,100 scholarships have been awarded to Tarrant County children. STAR's partnership model between local at-risk students, their families, donors, and local schools has generated almost $19 million in funding, Myers said.
EDUCATION BRINGS OPPORTUNITIES
The results of more than two decades of investing in children show up in students like Collins Yawe.
Yawe, 19, studies chemical engineering at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. He became a STAR scholar in the first grade and attended St. Rita Catholic School through eighth grade. He attended Trinity Valley School for his high school years.
“My parents and STAR valued education and helped me find the best opportunities and the best schools,” Yawe said.
His parents came to the United States from Uganda when Yawe was just 2 years old. They always stressed the importance of education, he said.
He attributes his success in school now to what he learned as a STAR scholar and the private school education he received. His older brother Ronnie, 22, and sisters Chelsea, 14, and Courtney, 11, all have benefited from the STAR program.
Yawe's mother Mary Ssentamu said, “We could not afford the schools they are going to without help. It's been a blessing.”
Amber Castañeda, now a 15-year-old sophomore at Cristo Rey Fort Worth High School, would not have been able to continue her Catholic education at All Saints Catholic School without a STAR sponsorship for fifth through eighth grade.
Myers makes the program “like family” and STAR's impact is lasting, Castañeda said.
“I'm so thankful to the person who wanted a better future for me. I've been able to achieve things I never thought possible,” she said.
Mary Burns, principal at St. Rita Catholic School, said that STAR students are leaders at the school who benefit from the mentoring they receive, as much as the financial help.
“I'm so grateful to the STAR program because it allows us to serve these students and give them a Catholic education,” Burns said.
BREAKING THE POVERTY CYCLE
STAR began in 1993 with a small group of people who had a desire to help families break the cycle of poverty.
Paul Greenwell, a founder of STAR, said, “We were concerned about educational opportunities for those of modest means.”
After looking at programs around the country, they decided to target elementary and middle school students, matching them with a school that fit their needs and a sponsor willing to pay a portion of their tuition.
Greenwell said that STAR began in several inner-city Fort Worth Catholic schools that had seats available for students. Over the years, the program spread to a total of 14 schools, including both Catholic schools and a handful of other private schools.
Schools offer a reduced-rate tuition to STAR scholars, with donors and parents sharing the costs of attendance, based on financial need.
Officials from a number of private high schools, including Nolan Catholic, Trinity Valley, and Country Day, now look for STAR students when they award scholarships, Greenwell said.
Greenwell estimates he has sponsored around 100 students since 1993.
He said, “School choice is a very critical aspect of answering long-term problems with education in Fort Worth and in our country.”
The program's success shows up in the lives of STAR graduates.
Briana Wallace said that STAR helped her earn an academic scholarship for All Saints Episcopal High School and an academic and softball scholarship at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Now the recent graduate in psychology is planning to pursue a master's degree.
“It helped me lay down the foundation of who I am and strive to be better in all aspects of my life,” Wallace said. “STAR has really made me the person I am today.”
Many former STAR scholars attended the 25th anniversary kick-off meeting to encourage current students.
STAR graduate Brandon Flowers, who got his bachelor's at Texas Wesleyan University and just completed a master's in business administration, told the young scholars, “The only person that can stop you from achieving anything you want to do is you. You can achieve whatever you want to achieve, if you're willing to work hard.”