It's a hard world out there for students moving into the workforce.
College grads are staring at the worse labor market since the Great Depression, saddled with an average debt of $28,000, and paying eye-watering interest rates. In Washington, the political class is too busy coddling campaign contributors to care.
On Thursday however, 20 kids, sitting in a library at Horace O'Bryant School, 1105 Leon St., were offered a ray of hope amid all the gloom: full college tuition, with the possibility of free room and board to boot.
"We're going to change your lives -- starting today," Monroe County Education Foundation President John Padget told the assembled students, their mentors, and parents. "From here on in, college is no longer a wish for you. It's a plan."
For the hard-working students enrolled in Take Stock, the program is a dream come true. For their low-income parents, it's a godsend.
Take Stock in Children was founded in 1995 in Pinellas County, and has since evolved into a state-wide program, with participants in all 67 counties of Florida. Monroe County joined the fold in 1999, with the Education Foundation acting as the lead administrator.
"To date we've had nearly 700 students complete Take Stock," Padget said. "They've then gone on to pursue their dreams in state colleges and universities, though the scholarships are transferable, to some degree, to institutions out of state. We encourage our students to go as far as they can go."
Currently 244 county students are enrolled in the program, including 56 who signed up this week. A waiting list is maintained, and students in higher grades have the opportunity to come aboard, should participating pupils drop out, for whatever reason. Signings were held at schools throughout the county this week.
Two Sugarloaf School students inked up on Monday; eight each from Key Largo K-8, and Coral Shores High School (including Plantation Key School and Treasure Village Montessori Charter School) on Tuesday; 11 from Marathon Middle High School on Wednesday ; and seven more from Key West High School, on Thursday.
The 89 Take Stock students currently enrolled at KWHS is the highest number of any school campus in Florida, according to Padget.
Students in the seventh grade agree to a "contract," promising to maintain As, Bs, and Cs, as well as high test scores, including FCATs, and end of course exams.
"Students who receive a D in any subject receive a warning," Padget said. "They can't graduate with a D in anything. They also have to remain crime and drug free, and meet up with their mentors for one hour per week."
In return the students receive tuition and fees for two years in a Florida college, and two years in a Florida university, paid for with funds donated to Take Stock.
The Holy Grail, though, is the Bright Futures Scholarship, which pays for all additional expenses associated with higher education, including room, board, travel costs, and miscellaneous expenses, so that graduates enter the next phase of their lives unencumbered by crippling debts.
"College financing is like a layer cake," Padget said. "Take Stock is the first layer. If they do well, then they get the second layer, which is done by scoring high on SATs and Grade Point Averages. That's the ultimate goal. About half of last year's class got Bright Futures."
The program is a hit with mentors, and Take Stock employees as well.
"Really, what better job is there?" asked Chuck Licis, one of two full-time "college success coaches" employed by Take Stock. "I get to help these students fulfill their dreams. It's such a fantastic program."
Padget, who has been involved with the program for 14 years, agrees.
"It's been a great week for us," he said. "The stories get better every year."