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Clayton school leaders work to get more students into HBCUs

By Eric Stirgus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hydeia Thomas saw recruiters and officials from several historically black colleges and universities at North Clayton High School during her senior year.

The visits had an impact. Thomas enrolled at one of the schools, Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, this fall. Her grade-point average this semester, she said, was an impressive 3.63. Thomas is there on a full scholarship.

“We put the BC in HBCU,” Thomas, 18, an accounting major, proudly said of her college in an interview.

Clayton County school district leaders began an effort last year to help more students enroll in HBCUs. Clayton’s HBCU Promise Initiative includes greater outreach to those 101 accredited schools, nine of which are in Georgia. Clayton said it has also established partnerships with three HBCUs — Benedict, Clinton College, also in South Carolina, and Southern University in Louisiana — to set aside a certain number of slots for students from the Georgia school district.

“It’s an opportunity they may not have had otherwise,” said Alicia Dunn, the school district’s coordinator of school counseling and mentorship.

Nearly 70% of Clayton’s students are African American, state statistics show. About 1,060 Clayton students who graduated from high school this year — nearly half of all of its graduates — enrolled at HBCUs, school district data shows.

Clayton leaders said they started the initiative because some students weren’t aware of the schools, and many offer significant scholarships. There are also potential benefits, such as smaller class sizes, which often mean students at HBCUs get more attention from their instructors. Research shows African American students often perform better academically in classes taught by African American teachers or professors.

Many Clayton graduates struggle finding the right college because of educational and financial barriers. The mean SAT score for Clayton students in 2018 was 962 out of a possible 1,600 highest score, the lowest of metro Atlanta school districts, state data shows. The median household income in Clayton, $45,778, is the lowest among metro Atlanta’s 10 largest counties, U.S. census data shows.

Clayton leaders say their students deserve a shot, and
HBCUs say they are eager to give these students a chance.

“It’s not because they’re not capable academically,” Dunn said of the challenges some students have getting into college. “It’s because of other life circumstances.

”HBCUs, like most colleges nationally, have struggled with enrollment in the past decade. Enrollment declines during good economic times, like the country is currently experiencing, as would-be students choose the workforce over classrooms. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution chronicled this and other issues, such as recent declines in state funding, in a 2018 series on the future of HBCUs.

Clayton is part of a small, but growing, list of public school districts nationally working on enrollment partnerships with HBCUs, said Meredith B.L. Anderson, a senior research associate with the United Negro College Fund. A few HBCUs, she said, have public schools on their campuses. Others offer courses to high school students as bridge programs to enrollment.

“It’s a way to build awareness and build a pipeline for some of these students to enroll at HBCUs,” said Anderson, who has a report on the topic scheduled for release in January.

The exposure is necessary, some say. Former Clayton student Kenya Byrd said many high school counselors don’t talk much about HBCUs. She chose Florida A&M University, an HBCU in Tallahassee, after her mentor at the Hank Stewart Foundation, a local nonprofit with a youth leadership program, took her on a tour of the campus. Byrd was impressed by how accessible the professors were. Byrd, a Morrow High School graduate, said her grades this first semester were all A’s and B’s.

“I feel like I made the right decision,” said Byrd, 18, a biology pre-med major.

More HBCUs, like Benedict College, are coming to Clayton to recruit, and organizing their own tours for prospective Clayton students.

Benedict, through a graduate in the Atlanta area, arranged a bus trip in November for Clayton students to visit the campus. About 150 students came on the three-hour trip. School leaders talked up scholarship opportunities. The college band played for the students.

“The opportunity for us just made sense because the profile of Clayton County students fits our students,” said Emmanuel Lalande, Benedict’s vice president for enrollment management and student services.

Benedict leaders said its enrollment from metro Atlanta has increased 5% this year. Forty-two of those new students, including Thomas, are from Clayton.

“They don’t want to see anyone fail,” Thomas said of Benedict.

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