Loudoun Wins Grant to Support High-Achieving, Low-Income Students

A hefty grant from Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is helping Loudoun County educators realize a dream they’ve had for years: to prepare promising elementary students for the rigorous coursework they’ll face in high school and beyond.

Loudoun County Public Schools has been awarded a $100,000 Selective High School Grant from the Lansdowne-based foundation to fund an expansion of its after-school EDGE Academy. The school system started EDGE last year at three elementary schools in Sterling: Sugarland, Forest Grove and Meadowland. It targets about 90 low-income fourth and fifth graders who have a knack for science, math and technology but don’t typically have access to enrichment programs to hone those skills.

The grant from the Cooke Foundation will allow the county to continue the program for those students and others as they go on to middle school. The school system will launch EDGE 3-Level Up at two middle schools this fall, offering after-school workshops twice a week for 18 weeks.

“We wanted to provided experiences for high-achieving, economically vulnerable students who wouldn’t normally either consider themselves prepared for a gifted program, AP courses or other rigorous coursework, or aren’t identified as prepared,” Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Ashley Ellis said.

“We’re thrilled. This has been on the wish list for a very long time,” added Odette Scovel, supervisor of science education for the school system. “The idea was we’d address needs for kids who don’t typically have the opportunity for any kind of enrichment.”

Each summer, her department puts on a STEM camp—funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—for high-achieving students with financial need. Scovel said that gives kids a taste of STEM, but doesn’t necessarily translate to more confidence in the classroom.

The EDGE programs bring in industry experts and STEM educators to guide the students through research and hands-on projects. The curriculum was written to give the students a lot of choice to build their confidence, but also opportunities to work in teams to problem solve.

“They’re learning how to face failure and figure out how to get past it,” Scovel said. “They have to have the ability to be persistent through challenging work.”

Scovel said writing the grant application was a huge undertaking, with help from in-house research and curriculum experts, as well as educators who specialize in gifted education, science and math. “We wanted to make sure we were being specific about all of the student outcomes that we wanted from this.”

Ellis has also seen unexpected benefits from the program. For example, in the past year, more students are being identified as gifted learners and referred to the county’s gifted program, FUTURA. And she’s noticed that the teachers who teach at EDGE are incorporating more creative strategies to teach STEM in their regular classrooms.

Seppy Basili, executive director of the Cooke Foundation, said that the Selective High School Grants aim to support those schools that are providing rigorous content, deep engagement, and academically oriented peer support that leads to strong preparation for top colleges and universities. But high-achieving youth with financial need are historically underrepresented in the nation’s most elite public schools and programs, resulting in what educators call the “excellence gap.”

“Our selected grantees are pioneering strategies and practices that can serve as a model to schools nationwide working to expand opportunities to succeed at selective public high schools to more high-achieving students,” Basili stated.“We are committed to supporting the critical work they are leading in, ensuring that financial need does not preclude exceptional students from fulfilling their full potential,”

Loudoun school leaders’ sights are set on eventually expanding EDGE into the high school level, to continue supporting the kids who started the program as fourth- and fifth-graders. “My hope is that we can provide these opportunities from elementary through high school to really create a pipeline,” Ellis said.

Scovel added, “I think we’re on the road to a sustainable program.”

Loudoun was one of four Selective High School Grant recipients. The Academic Magnet High School in Charleston, SC; the Carver High School for Engineering and Science in Philadelphia; and The Ingenuity Project at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore also won $100,000 grants.


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