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Officials look beyond risks for Bridges to Belmont

President Bob Fisher will readily admit he’s not one to think about risk, even with the biggest projects he oversees.

Like most Belmont officials who have helped develop the Bridges to Belmont program announced last week, he exudes optimism for the 25 students who will enter Belmont next fall from Stratford and Maplewood High Schools, two East Nashville public schools with historically low academic achievement.

Even when faced with the below-average ACT scores and graduation rates at these schools, the program’s potential pitfalls are simply something Fisher doesn’t think about, he said.

“The academic answer is that you tried it, and it didn’t work,” he said. “I don’t see that as a risk.”

And with a Maplewood coffee cup in hand Tuesday morning, Fisher was just as quick to laud the program’s incoming students and what they’ve done to get where they are – that is – they’re just months away from likely starting at Belmont.

“These are heroes,” Fisher said. “These are young heroes who have already overcome incredible adversity. We think taking Belmont is going to be a piece of cake for them.”

Fisher’s confidence in these incoming students, ones who will receive full rides to Belmont through federal, state and university sources, has been widely seconded by many on campus. At the same time, several are wary of the risks of bringing in students from underperforming schools and what it could mean to both the students and the university.

Statistically, the two schools chosen to start this program are some of the weakest in the Metro Nashville Public Schools district. At 64.4 and 68.4 percent, Stratford and Maplewood had the lowest graduation rates of any Metro Nashville traditional or magnet high school last year. The average ACT score at both high schools is below 16, three points below the minimum score for a Tennessee HOPE Scholarship and the second- and third-lowest scores in the district in 2012.

While Provost Thomas Burns said the students Belmont will likely accept will be students with standardized test scores starting in the low 20’s, in contrast to a Belmont freshman’s average score between 24 and 29, he is confident their test scores won’t tell their entire stories.

The seniors’ grade point averages, recommendations and interviews with Belmont officials will be what make them stand out as students with high potential, he said.

“If it is a bit a chance, it’s one with a high success rate,” Burns said.

That success rate is one sophomore nursing major LaShawn Morrow isn’t certain about. Morrow, who attends Belmont as an Edgehill Scholar, a smaller but similar program associated with the development of Rose Park, is thrilled with the concept of Bridges to Belmont. She does have concerns, however, about the size of the program and the readiness of the students who will be accepted.

“If you bring 25 students in and some of them fail, then you’re wasting your time and their time,” Morrow said. “They have to be willing to come here and learn and admit they don’t know everything.”

Before these students start their first semester, though, they must complete what university officials are calling a summer immersion program into the university. The prospective freshmen will take part in several courses that will focus on their writing, reasoning, research and speaking skills as well as community service and other social activities.

The summer program is a key component to the overall program Morrow applauds Belmont for trying.

“Belmont is the first university to step up to the plate to give students who typically don’t have the chance to go here an opportunity,” she said.

Director of Community Relations Joyce Searcy also acknowledged the risks involved with taking incoming students from these underserved neighborhoods and placing them into a completely new one, even if it’s only across town. She hopes the support from both locations will be enough for the students to succeed.

“You take kids that are getting ready to go into culture shock,” Searcy said. “They’re going to have to adjust. But we hope with the people we’re getting involved, the blow will be softened because we’ll wrap our arms around them.”

The chances the university is taking, she said are necessary to make the differences the university is striving for.

“How can we not try? What would we do if not try?” Searcy said.

As Bridges to Belmont inches closer to its initial fruition, campus administrators are also quickly connecting the program to the school’s long-term goal to become “Nashville’s University.”

The goal was first mentioned in the school’s Vision 2015 plan released three years ago where the university called itself to “engagement with and service to the Nashville community that is unmatched by any other institution of higher education.”

For Fisher, the reaction he’s received from the community is telling in how effective and unique a program like this could be in the city.

“I go around and tell a lot of stories in this job,” Fisher said. “But I’ve never seen the response I get when I talk about this.”

From that, he is optimistic he can rally support for the project. The actual cost of the pilot program will not be in place until the school knows the amount of federal and state aid students will receive. Belmont will cover whatever cost remains for the 25 students through donations and their own funds.

No matter the level of funding though, Fisher said the program is one of the most effective one the school could offer.

“We have to invest back into our community, and what’s the best thing we have to offer,” he asked. “It is to reach into our public schools and create opportunity for kids who we don’t think would be able to do it otherwise and then send them back into the community to become leaders.”

Trying to address issues like these will help Belmont especially to stand out when other urban universities “don’t interact, don’t engage and don’t try to solve community problems,” Burns said.

“Our approach is different,” he said. “It’s to try to make sure that as we grow and as we expand, we work with our community and our neighbors to make Nashville a better place.”

In addition to Bridges to Belmont, Burns ad Searcy cited a number of other partnerships between Belmont and its surrounding community they say are crucial to the school’s development. Those included, student-led projects such as those led by Enactus and university-led initiatives such as hosting the Tennessee Arts Academy and establishing a leadership development program with 100 Black Women of Tennessee.

“We want Nashville to be the best Nashville it can,” Searcy said. “So for Belmont to have to keep getting better, it’s in our best interest to work for a better Nashville.”

Photo Courtesy Andrea Hallgren/Belmont University

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