DaShaun Richardson is ahead of the game.
Well before state education leaders cheered this year’s higher four-year high school graduation rate and vowed a 10 percent boost by 2020, Richardson had a plan – for after graduation.
On Aug. 8, the Broughton High School senior enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
Kudos for forward thinking, he said, goes to the Wade Edwards Learning Lab, or The WELL.
The nonprofit, named for Wade Edwards, who died in a 1996 car crash when he was 16 and was the son of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards and the late Elizabeth Edwards, is a haven where high school students focus on academics, community service and post-secondary options. Most of the services are free for students.
“We get them graduated, not just with a piece of paper, but graduated so it means something,” said Betsey McFarland, The WELL’s executive director. “Kids are graduating, but where are they going? What are they doing?”
Now in its 20th year, The WELL is on St. Mary’s Street near downtown Raleigh across from Broughton, where Edwards attended school. It’s open to all high school students in Wake County for tutoring, mentoring, service learning and youth development programs such as Bridge to College, which includes college tours.
“Since freshman year, I’ve come here every day. Every day,” said Richardson, 17. “It definitely has kept me on track to graduate, and also I’ve learned how to push myself to become a leader.”
Richardson said the program has also strengthened his relationship with his JROTC commander, and as student vice president he makes sure youth voices are heard.
“This is a place where we can grow and focus on what happens after high school, not just on what we’re doing currently,” Richardson said. “It helped me narrow my vision down to what I really want to do with my future.”
Undoubtedly, The WELL fills a void in after-school programs geared toward high school students. It also augments schools’ efforts to guide students to graduation. That’s increasingly crucial if North Carolina is to realize its plan to capitalize on this year’s gains and boost graduation rates from 86 percent to 95 percent over the next four years.
The challenge, McFarland said, will be to boost successful outcomes for all students.
“If you look at the detail, African-American, Latino, special-needs and low-income students, their percentages still lag way behind their white and Asian counterparts,” McFarland added. “We will have to lift up all of our students to get to 95 percent graduation.
“It’s really about showing the community and talking specifically about the needs of our high schools.”
The WELL’s own 2015-16 report card shows it served more than 900 students, with 25 volunteer tutors helping 120 students from 22 Wake County high schools in 21 different subjects. All students passed the classes in which they were tutored, paid for by nearly $60,000 in in-kind support, McFarland said.
The WELL had roughly 202 student members who, like Richardson, show up every day. Of those, there were 38 seniors, 62 juniors, 63 sophomores and 39 freshmen. Among them, 54 percent were girls; 54 percent were students of color; and 56 percent qualified for free and reduced-price lunch.
Of the 201 students who participated in test prep for the SAT and ACT exams, 21 percent received a partial scholarship for the boot camp, totaling about $4,600.
Thirteen of the 14 students who participated in The WELL’s inaugural Bridge to College are now in colleges across the state. One chose military service. All 33 Elizabeth Edwards Fellows got college acceptance.
Brent Sauls, Broughton’s dean of student services, has referred “a handful of students every couple of weeks” to The WELL. Earlier this month, he talked to 13 seniors about Bridge to College.
The WELL’s impact can be immediate or long term.
“The WELL is successful in making sure kids follow through,” said Sauls, one of the center’s 19 board members. “We all need somebody kind of on us to do the right things or make the right decisions, whether that is our parents or a mentor provided at a place like The WELL.
“It’s a good thing.”