MANATEE -- School board member Karen Carpenter looked down at more than 200 applications for the Take Stock in Children of Manatee County program.
The expressions in the photos attached to the applications seem hopeful, Carpenter said, as if they know how acceptance into the program could change their lives.
But only about 25 students from low-income families will be admitted this fall to a program that guarantees students a four-year education at a Florida college in exchange for maintaining good grades, obeying the law and participating in mentor programs, among other things.
"It's hard to say no," Carpenter said.
Carpenter and other community leaders involved with the Take Stock in Children program hope they soon won't have to decline applications.
On Monday, program leaders will officially announce the program will become its own nonprofit corporation. The announcement will be made at 10 a.m. in a special meeting in the school board room. The program previously was part of the Manatee Education Foundation.
"We're hoping that by going independent, we can raise more awareness in our community," said Take Stock in Children Executive Director Diana Dill. "We are hoping that the community will want to support a program that has been so successful."
Take Stock in Children began in Florida in 1995, and the program has been in Manatee County for almost that long. The program provides mentors to low-income and at-risk students, who sign contracts saying they will keep their grades
up and stay drug-free to keep tuition scholarships. Many participants are the first in their families to attend college or high school.
Take Stock in Children can select as many students as they can raise scholarship dollars for. That makes their mission simple, Dill says.
Raise awareness and raise more money.
"Our goal is to guide them to higher education," Dill said. "It's a powerful program to break the cycle of poverty through education and mentoring."
The program includes about 250 students and mentors for grades 6-12, Dill said. Another 250 have graduated from the program and are in college.
Over the years, the program has become a statewide and community venture.
Operating costs for the organization are funneled to them by legislators, Dill said. Scholarship funds come from donations and fund-raising events. The Florida Prepaid College Foundation matches their total amount each year, doubling the impact the program has on the community.
Students can choose to attend any public university or technical school, and the split from the Manatee Education Foundation will help the organization focus on raising the money to do so, Carpenter said.
"Whatever we do, we want to do it with rigor and success," Carpenter said. "If you are investing in children, you want to make sure the program has good standards and is going to work."
Carpenter, currently serving as chairwoman of the Take Stock in Children Leadership Council, said she will soon step down from that role and devote her time solely to fund-raising.
Council member Alex Chavez will take her place as head of the governing group.
Former Manatee County educator Elaine Graham, who will act as chair of the new nonprofit, came into the program seven years ago as a mentor.
Her first student is now a sophomore at Central Florida, and the two still stay in touch.
Graham says she has been overwhelmed by the power of the program and the consistent success rate -- 96 percent of program participants graduate high school. And Graham wants to do more.
"We want to take it to the point where we aren't turning away 90 percent of the qualified students for this scholarship," Graham said. "Our goal is to provide qualified students with these scholarships."
The organization will still target past donors to continue to make large contributions -- some choose to pay a student's entire way through college. But they also hope to collect smaller donations that can add up, Graham said.
The group holds a Strides for Education 5K walk in December and a 10K race this spring, and it hosts an annual leadership breakfast.
And more people are being recruited to participate in the program.
Like Bill Galvano, the Manatee County politician running for state senate, who will serve as an honorary chair for the program and help the organization find more resources.
"It's one-by-one engaging people," Graham said. "It's one step at a time. One person at a time."
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.