LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 18, 2023) — When Melissa Merscham and Onesimo Banda hear a student described as being “at-risk,” they see opportunity.
They too were once considered at risk.
This summer at the University of Kentucky, they began guiding rising ninth graders with backgrounds like their own on a path to reach for the stars.
In its pilot year, “Bright Pathways: Ignite Your Future” is providing a small group of students with concentrated academic and experiential opportunities through a community partnership between the UK College of Education, Fayette County Public Schools and the Blue Grass Community Foundation.
Support is provided by the 3.14 Going Forward Fund at Blue Grass Community Foundation, with additional support from the Walton Family Foundation's Workforce Pathways Program at Blue Grass Community Foundation.
Organizers believe — and evidence shows — that by providing rising ninth graders at risk of dropping out a chance to earn credits the summer before starting high school, they will enter high school strong and be set up for success.
Bright Pathways, which lasts seven weeks, is a partial residential program where students attend classes at a local high school, then move to classrooms on the UK campus and stay overnight in UK residence halls during weeks four through six. In the residential portion, Saturday mornings are spent exploring local museums, businesses, and cultural opportunities before a brief trip home for one night, then a return to campus Sunday afternoon.
Ultimately, the program is expected to increase the likelihood of the participants not only finishing high school, but being accepted into a college or university upon graduating.
“The opportunity these students had to accelerate their learning over the summer while also living on UK’s campus for four weeks is something they will never forget,” said James McMillin, chief school leadership officer, Fayette County Public Schools. “Each of these Bright Pathways students will enter high school with at least one credit and an experience that will put them on the road to success over the next four years.”
Of particular importance, organizers say, is the summer focus on Algebra I.
“Data shows students, no matter their background, who do not master Algebra I in high school struggle in post-secondary education opportunities. This summer course is not an easy, or ‘gimme’ credit. Even those who don’t earn it during Bright Pathways, they are getting the background and will go on to complete Algebra I freshman year. Our focus on growth mindsets, self-esteem and mental health is going to give them that push too,” Banda said.
By hosting portions at UK, Bright Pathways is designed to demystify the college experience and create a pipeline of belongingness in a higher education environment.
Like the students taking part in Bright Pathways, Merscham, who has a Ph.D. and is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion, and Banda, who is completing his doctorate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation, came from families with no college background, with some members never having a chance to finish high school.
Merscham enjoyed Upward Bound during her youth in Texas, where she was able to attend classes on college campuses and experience living in residence halls. Not only did she eventually become a first-generation college student, but she is one of relatively few Latina women in the U.S. to be a first-generation college student who went on to earn a doctorate.
“I can 100% connect with these young people. I was them. Upward Bound saved my life. I know Bright Pathways can have this same effect and impact,” Merscham said.
During classes this summer, Merscham and Banda, along with Fayette County teachers Kaci Cohn (algebra I) Shane Ware (robotics), delivered engaging lessons and made their way around the room, approaching students with raised hands to offer help on assignments. Their hours together this summer have created a special bond that feels like a family unit, Merscham said.
“Even the more quiet and reserved students are coming out of shells,” she said. “Their confidence is building because they know this is a safe place for them to be themselves. I asked one student, ‘Why don’t you believe in yourself?“ He said, ‘You’re the first people who told me I’m smart.’”
An important component of Bright Pathways is building students’ confidence in their ability to succeed. Each morning this summer, the day starts with a leadership course that focuses on emotional well-being. At their respective high schools, the ninth graders will be referred to specialists who can help them continue to build self-confidence throughout their high school years, evaluate their progress, access tutoring and meet their basic needs.
“If students’ basic needs are not met, they are not going to be able to focus on school,” Merscham said. “If they are growing up with one or more adverse childhood experiences, that also puts them in a deficit. By us focusing on their emotional well-being and connecting them with resources and tools to deal with everyday challenges in the classroom and life in general, then they can focus more on academics and bringing up their self-confidence.”
Integral to the program’s success, Banda said, is selecting Bright Pathways teachers and staff who are relatable to the students.
“Nationwide, the majority of educators are white and from upper- and middle-class backgrounds,” Banda said. “Teachers of color or culture, or those who grew up in a multicultural environment or a title one school, they are able to communicate and create relationships with these kids to have more success.”
Many of the Bright Pathways students have indicated they can now see themselves going to college. In fact, organizers expect the high school credits the students are earning this summer will put them on track to being able to complete a college-bound high school curriculum, which also opens doors to opportunities to earn college credits in high school through dual credit programs.
“They are seeing the backgrounds and life experiences of the mentors here and are saying, ‘Wait, you really do come from that background?’ They literally had this mindset they were not good enough for college or they were not the type to go. They are learning they really can reach for the stars. When we set super high goals with the students, even those who don’t reach the highest goal will still achieve even more than they ever expected,” Banda said.
During his graduate studies in Texas, Banda was mentored by Texas State University professor Jaime Chahin, Ph.D., who developed a program — Caminos — that Bright Pathways is modeled after.
Caminos produced highly successful results, including that:
100% of students earned at least one credit, the computer technology course;
60% of students earned two credits;
30% of students earned all three credits;
100% of students who did not earn the Algebra I or English I credit, would go on to earn the credits their freshman year of high school (No student earned a grade below 80 in Algebra I or English I.);
90% of students who stayed in the local school district graduated on time; and
70% of students were accepted to a college or university upon graduating.
Bright Pathways students in Lexington are on track to replicate these results and potentially exceed them. Out of 11 students who participated in the pilot program from beginning to end this summer:
100% of students earned the robotics credit;
82% of students earned the ethnic studies credit; and
64% earned the Algebra I credit.
The success of the students in Bright Pathways could lead to outcomes that will last for generations. This is something Banda and Merscham are witnessing in their own families.
“I’m from the last generation of sharecroppers in my family,” Banda said. “From age 4, I was working in fields, but Austin is gentrifying. The land we sharecropped in 2001 is where Tesla sits now. When we go back to family reunions or cousins call, they ask how they can set their kids up for success or about filling out forms for college. It’s one of those things that, when you are the first one doing it, you are setting a tether line behind you, literally trying to pull as many as you can up. It feels great.”
Merscham and Banda plan to keep paying forward the mentorship they received throughout their youth, academic journeys and careers to not only inspire and encourage the next generation, but also as a way of showing their own gratitude. They look forward to continuing to build upon the successes of Bright Pathways in the coming years and creating similar, supportive experiences that create more opportunities and access for young people, especially those that have a similar background.
“My mentor, I asked him a long time ago, ‘How am I going to ever repay you for saving my life?,” Banda said. “He told me you thank someone by continuing their legacy.”
As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.
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