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Grant helps light path to college for Columbus High students


Jason Browne



A $15,000 grant is illuminating the path to college for students at Columbus High School''s McKellar Technology Center. 


The FutureLight Project is helping students and, in some cases, their parents, find their way to higher education. And along the way, it''s also broadening the students'' horizons and helping some to come out of their shells. 


The four-year-old program at McKellar is funded primarily by donations from the Columbus Light and Water Department, TVA and 4-County Electric Power Association. The bulk of a $15,000 grant -- recently provided through the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Mississippi Higher Education Initiative -- is intended to guide CHS students to the next level in their education, whether that means a four-year school, a two-year school or vocational instruction. 


About 25 students are taking advantage of the FutureLight program, including a class that meets every Wednesday morning before school starts. Arleen Weatherby, who co-sponsors the FutureLight program and leads the Wednesday classes with Cathy Kemp, director of McKellar, says the extra class teaches responsibility, punctuality, positive attitudes and camaraderie. 


"We''re big on (attendance) and being on time. Being positive with them. Being there if they need someone to talk to because lots of times kids can''t talk to their parents," she said. "We wanted the program to be about having someone to mentor them through the rough time in high school." 




Interpersonal communication 


The students also learn about interpersonal relationships from one another. 


"A lot of our kids come in really shy. These are really smart kids, but they don''t fit in normally with athletics and the arts. FutureLight is an outlet for them where they can express themselves." 


CHS senior Leeanna Hill, who plans to major in nursing at Belhaven University in Jackson next year, has seen a definite improvement in her people skills thanks to FutureLight. 


"It''s helped me with my social interaction skills because I am terrible with people. But being in nursing, you''re going to interact with people that aren''t healthy or not feeling well and are grouchy. Being in FutureLight has allowed me to deal with all types of people," she said. 




On the go 


Much of that social interaction has come on FutureLight trips. The group''s travels include visits to universities for campus tours, trips to historically significant locations like slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers'' house in Jackson and the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., the Capitol and governors'' mansion and artistic programs like plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis. 


"If I wasn''t in FutureLight I wouldn''t have learned as much as I''ve learned. Some of the places I''ve been I never would have thought to go on my own," said senior Courtney Jones, who plans to major in criminal justice at Southern Miss. 


"We try to plan one activity every month to keep going to college in the forefront of the kids'' minds," said Kemp. 




Doing the right thing 


The primary goal of FutureLight is to give students the best chance to make it to college, but Kemp and Weatherby also place great emphasis on doing the right things in every facet of life. To drive that philosophy home, the students were asked to memorize the definition of character and repeat it at every meeting. 


That aspect of the program has sunk in for senior Portia Wilson, who plans to continue with a pre-med program at Itawamba Community College after completing the Med-Tech program at McKellar. 


"Character is very important to me. Really, it''s what leads you throughout your life. It''s what determines you as a person," said Wilson. 


Weatherby and Kemp check in with students regarding their character and personal decisions at every meeting. Conversations are structured to get students thinking and talking about scenarios or true situations where good character can be demonstrated. 


Responsibility is a necessity as well. Not only are students responsible for getting to school a half-hour early each Wednesday, they must maintain a B-average to remain in the program. 






McKellar hosted a financial aid workshop Thursday for students and parents. A companion event will be held this coming Thursday from 3-6 p.m. in the McKellar computer lab. Parents of Columbus High School seniors are welcome to attend even if they didn''t attend the previous workshop and are encouraged to bring W-2s and other relevant tax information. Parents must call McKellar -- 662-241-7290 -- to sign up for the workshop. 


Counselors will be on hand to walk parents through the process. 


"We''ll have someone there to help because a lot of parents are intimidated," Kemp said of adults who never attended college. 


Along with navigating financial aid requirements, grant funds and donations will help students prepare for the ACT, visit college campuses and develop leadership qualities.




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