Crossroads helps students reach their full potential

Pittsburgh Catholic

(by Paula A. Smith)

Dwayne Coleman, 24, speaking to a group of graduates at a college signing ceremony in May, said that if someone had told him as a teenager that he would travel to China and teach English he would have never believed them.

But with help from the Crossroads Foundation, his mother and the staff at Cardinal Wright Regional School, he came to believe in his academic abilities and potential for success.

Coleman, who was raised by a single mother with two younger children on Pittsburgh’s North Side, graduated from Central Catholic High School in 2012, thanks to assistance from Crossroads.

For the past nine months he worked with the Rand Corp. on the Phresh Project for Pittsburgh Hill/Homewood Research on Neighborhood Change and Health.

“Crossroads really fosters a sense of community,” Coleman said. “It’s easy for students like us to feel out of place because of having a lower socioeconomic background or for being disadvantaged students. But Crossroads provided financial support and tried to make sure the emphasis was on the whole person.”

The Crossroads Foundation is an organization like no other in Pittsburgh. It is a college preparatory program that began with 11 students in 1988 and recently celebrated its 30th academic year with 580 alumni.

Crossroads provides an integral approach committed to helping promising students of all ethnicities with a limited income to obtain a quality Catholic high school education and receive academic support to attend college. Students do not need to be Catholic.

Esther Mellinger Stief, executive director of Crossroads, said, “I make sure Crossroads keeps its commitment to every scholar of providing financial support, but more than that, the opportunities these young people need to fulfill their potential.

“Every young person has innate potential, but not every young person has a path for that potential,” she said. “We provide that path for them.”

Students are recommended to the scholarship program by their principals and teachers. A partnership is created with the student, family, school and community.

“Scholars will be most successful if their families are part of their journey,” Steif said.

The scholars are enrolled from the city of Pittsburgh and nearby suburbs. Acceptance is based on income, potential, significant obstacles that might interfere with a student’s academic pursuits and a need for support to achieve success. Three significant risk factors for students are poverty, neighborhoods with poorly performing public schools and personal circumstances.

Six Catholic high schools with outstanding academics and extracurricular opportunities are available for scholars to attend: Bishop Canevin, Oakland Catholic, Central Catholic, Seton LaSalle, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Serra Catholic.

The program assists with tuition costs since applicants come from low-income families. All families pay something, including personal expenses, lunches and social activities. Scholarship funds go directly to the schools for four years. Scholars never need to pay it back.

“What is truly unique is we’re not just about tuition support,” said Stief about the nonprofit organization. “We offer year-round holistic programming that includes summer workshops, college experiences and counselor support in school, which is unusual.”

Additional services include English and mathematics enrichment programs, SAT and ACT preparation classes, tutoring and peer mentoring.

Coleman went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies with a minor in Chinese language in 2016 from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

While an undergraduate, he studied abroad and received a certificate in Chinese language, culture and business from Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing.

Following graduation, he worked for 14 months with Aston International Educational Co. in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, and co-taught English and SAT preparation with a Chinese instructor to Chinese students and technical executives.

In August, Coleman plans to attend St. John’s University School of Law in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Thanks to a full-tuition scholarship, his career objectives are to pursue international studies in law, obtain a law degree, a master’s in business administration, and work in law and business.

The key to the overall success of the scholars is the counseling they receive through Crossroads.

St. Joseph Sister Sandy Kiefer, director of academics, was the first employee to be hired and is a former director of the organization. She has been ministering in the program for 29 years. The counselors provide guidance and work one-on-one with the students in their schools.

“I love it,” Sister Sandy said. “It’s very inspiring. When students come in, they’re nervous and not sure of a career path. Our team helps them begin to explore their own potential and envision themselves as college students and professionals.”

For the team, triumph is measured in the long term, she said. That means scholars pursue careers in which they are able to achieve personal goals and give back to the community. Scholars serve 20 hours a year in volunteer programs.

Stief credits Dean Calland, board president, as a crucial component in the success of Crossroads and its impact on young people.

“His visionary leadership has helped us build a sustainable organization,” she said.

There are 130 students enrolled in six Catholic high schools for the fall, with the largest class of 38 freshmen.

A recent study of Crossroads graduates from 2010-2018 indicates high rates of educational achievement:

  • 100 percent high school graduation rate.
  • 96 percent college enrollment rate; more than 90 percent in four-year degree programs.
  • 72 percent college graduation rate within six years.

Collectively, 70 percent of the students are minorities and 70 percent are the first generation in their family to earn a college degree.

“This year, everyone is going to college,” Stief said.

Michele Betts is the mother of Nyla Betts, 18, who graduated this year from Oakland Catholic High School. Her daughter was one of 27 graduating scholars honored at Crossroads’ Annual Senior Recognition Dinner in April. Nyla received six college acceptances, and plans to attend Robert Morris University to pursue a degree in criminal justice.

“Crossroads has been very beneficial and supportive, especially in academic work and in sensitive subjects such as racial diversity, inclusion and financial support,” Michele said.

Crossroads was founded by Susie Gillespie and her father, Edward Ryan, businessman and founder of Ryan Homes. As a 16-year-old high school student in the 1960s, she tutored students weekly for two years at the former Epiphany School in Pittsburgh’s Uptown neighborhood and the former St. Richard School in the city’s Hill District.

Gillespie felt God planted a seed in her heart when she recalled driving home across the Fort Pitt Bridge after hearing stories from the students who were experiencing many obstacles in their lives. She realized she was living in “a very different world.”

When her father asked her in the 1980s what she wanted to do with her life, Gillespie remembered the children she tutored as a teenager. She met with four Catholic grade school principals: Mercy Sister Elizabeth Ann Herbert at St. Agnes in Oakland (who died June 22 at age 90); St. Joseph Sister Valerie Zottola, Holy Rosary in Homewood; St. Joseph Sister Margery Kundar, St. Benedict the Moor; and a former St. Joseph sister at St. Canice.

All of the principals had capable students with limited incomes who could benefit from a Catholic high school education, and they combined to form Crossroads’ first class.

“The sisters had such understanding hearts and knew how best to develop the students’ God-given talents and abilities,” said Gillespie, who recalled the first year of the program as a learning process for everyone. She worked with the organization for the first 25 years.

“We all need somebody to believe in us,” she said. “We knew these kids needed someone to believe in them. They deserve a good education, they can do it. When they believe in themselves they realize that, through the grace of God in their lives, nothing will be impossible.”

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