Houston's Linda Lorelle Scholarship Fund Reaps Benefits of Membership

April 10, 2015

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst

“That’s exactly what I need! I need access to those resources and to meet with these other organizations and to say, ‘I don’t know what I do from here, what do I do?’ That’s what I need.” These were the reactions from Mandi Lovett, Program Coordinator for Houston’s Linda Lorelle Scholarship Fund (LLSF), when she first found out about NCAN. The topic came up while Lovett was speaking with representatives from College Forward, an NCAN member, on their data management platform, Co-Pilot. Both the LLSF and College Forward are engaged in the Houston-focused Juntos Logramos/Together We Succeed project run by NCAN, through the Houston Endowment, which is intended to help local nonprofits understand the most promising practices in the college access and success field and help these programs improve their use of data to inform their programs.

Like other programs in the Together We Succeed project, the LLSF has a strong commitment to seeing Houston-area students get to and through college. Founded in 1991 by Emmy award-winning journalist, Linda Lorelle, her husband Lou Gregory and Linda’s former colleague, Martha Harvey, the LLSF “seeks mid-level students who may be overlooked because of their average grades; students who could be nearer the top if not for the circumstances life has dealt them.”

15 scholars are selected each year to receive both financial support to cover postsecondary costs (more than $4 million has been disbursed so far) and college preparation and life skills guidance. This guidance comes in the form of a series of mandatory SMART Seminars that teach scholars about the college application and admission process, FAFSA and financial aid, time and stress management, study skills, banking basics, and what to expect when arriving at college.

Not notable about the application process for a Linda Lorelle Scholarship is that there are a lot of students who apply but only a few scholarships to be awarded. What is notable, however, is the Fund’s intentional focus on making the application itself a learning experience. “Our application is very long and intensive for a reason,” says Lovett. “We are hoping to use this as a learning experience. We want applicants to go through the process of all of the [college-going] applications at once. We want them to find out what a W-2 is, what 1040 is, what an EFC is, what the FAFSA is.” This is all in addition to writing essays that demonstrate both past hardships and future potential. The process is intended to have students answer the question “What have I done up to this point in high school and how can I demonstrate it?”

Once the selected scholars arrive on their college campuses, Lovett and the LLSF monitor and support their scholars throughout the duration of their undergraduate experience. Scholars submit tuition requests every semester along with official transcripts. This information reveals where scholars are enrolled, their GPA, their course load, and whether there are classes in which they struggled in the previous semester. This information can lead to interventions to assist students with whatever is impeding their academic performance.

LLSF’s reach extends beyond its scholars. Each yeah the fund hosts a college preparatory conference that is free to those in the Greater Houston area. “It is a combination of all of those SMART Series that we do for our scholars combined into one day,” says Lovett. And it’s large. Approximately 2,500 students and parents attend annually. In addition to the preparatory series mentioned above, there are also presentations from business and civic leaders that encourage students to not only stay in school but also to pursue higher education. There is also an on-site college fair that provides a perfect forum for students to directly engage with college representatives.

The conference is not narrowly focused on high school juniors and seniors. On the contrary, there are early awareness sessions aimed at middle school students as well as sessions for parents on “how to prepare your students for college and how to prepare yourself for your students to go to college,” says Lovett, in addition to sessions on ways to pay for college. This year, LLSF is partnering with the Houston East End Chamber of Commerce to add an element of career readiness in addition to college readiness. This will expand the conference add a career fair on-site as well as the college fair. New sessions on professional skills like creating a resume and interviewing will also be added.

All of this impressive scope was already taking place before the LLSF ever came into contact with NCAN. When Lovett, a graduate student at the University of Houston-Downtown, was conducting an environmental analysis of the college preparatory market in Houston for class, her work took her to meet with Charlie Herrman, College Forward’s Houston site director. After hearing about the Co-Pilot platform and being intrigued, and the hearing that College Forward was an NCAN member, she was connected with NCAN’s Director of Technical Assistance, MorraLee Keller. The rest is (rather short, given that LLSF are recently joined members) history.

Despite the recent introduction to the world of NCAN and Together We Succeed, LLSF has already seen some improvements. For example, using Co-Pilot, Lovett has “noticed that my time that I spend on very minute data entry has vanished because it’s all in the software now.” That time is important, Lovett says, because “normally I would be so swamped that I wouldn’t even think about it, wouldn’t be able to give it a second thought, but now I have time to focus on it and focus on these things, and really making sure my students are getting what they need. With that cleared up I am seeing more of the needs of my students and how I can help them.”

Additionally, through Together We Succeed, LLSF now has access to five tablet computers that can be taken into high schools to facilitate the application process for students. This allows counselors to work directly with students in real-time on their applications.

A final benefit, beyond access to the Co-Pilot platform, is access to other college access programs, which is commonly reported on our annual survey as a valued aspect of NCAN membership. Lovett has been able to connect with Project GRAD Houston, who is also using Co-Pilot, about tweaks and implementation of that system. Being able to seek the advice of a neutral third party is a useful benefit of NCAN/TWS membership. “I think one of the biggest things we have gained is the networking and the access to the other organizations,” says Lovett. We look forward to other NCAN members connecting with each other, in Houston and across the country, just like the Linda Lorelle Scholarship Fund has, to further their important work on the behalf of students.

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