A strong case for taking more stock in children

This simple concept has been working wonders for years: Pave the road to success for low-income and at-risk youth by promising to pay for college. Ensure that commitment with a student's pledge to keep up good grades, obey the law and join a mentoring program.

Take Stock in Children does exactly as its name implies, investing in the next generation of American citizens. But Manatee County's version of the scholarship program cannot accommodate the majority of the applicants for want of resources. So a group of community leaders decided to launch a stand-alone nonprofit corporation and break away from the Manatee Education Foundation, its previous administrator.

The goal is to raise awareness, support and money, thereby giving more youngsters hope for a brighter future.

This fall only about 25 students will join the program, though more than 200 applied for a free four-year education at a Florida public college. With so many students denied admission, it's easy to understand why the community is coalescing around this new strategy.

The new nonprofit's executive director, Diana Dill, explained the ultimate objective: "It's a powerful program to break the cycle of poverty through education and mentoring."

That success is society's success, too, as the community gains citizens better equipped to contribute to our economy, quality of life and future.

With the Manatee County school district's poor state ranking for academic success -- 47th place among the state's 67 counties on standardized test scores -- programs that motivate students to excel are important. By accepting more and more students, Take Stock in Children would become a stronger such program.

Currently, the program features 250 students and mentors for grades 6-12. Another 250 are attending college after finishing the program, which holds an amazing record of success: 96 percent of the participants graduate from high school. Overall, Manatee County's graduation rate fell in 2010-2011 to 74.6 percent, its lowest in eight years.

Free college tuition is indeed a powerful incentive for academic success.

While the state Legislature allocates funds for Take Stock in Children operating costs, scholarship money comes from donations and special events. The Florida Prepaid College Foundation provides matching money for tuition, too, stretching Take Stock donations further.

The Manatee Education Foundation has been associated with Manatee County's Take Stock in Children since the scholarship program's inception here 17 years ago. The new nonprofit will elevate the program's profile in the community in an effort to achieve its expanded mission. The current chair of the Take Stock in Children Leadership Council, school board member Karen Carpenter, plans to relinquish that post to focus on fund-raising.

In announcing the organization's formation Monday, the nonprofit's chair, Elaine Graham, a longtime Take Stock mentor and former Manatee County educator, described the challenge ahead. The organization has been forced to turn away 90 percent of the qualified applicants because of insufficient funds.

Graham stated: "We can do better."

Indeed. We're confident the community will rally behind this mission to serve more at-risk and low-income youth. Their future is our future.