A program designed to teach students about issues of ethics and diversity at Robert E. Lee High School has received a shot in the arm from media giant America Online.
The Springfield high school is one of 11 Washington, D.C.-area schools to receive a $10,000 grant as part of the AOL Aspires grants program, which offers financial assistance to schools that have created innovative programs to help disadvantaged youth.
"We’re very excited about this grant. It’s going to allow us to deal better with our diverse student body," said Lee principal Donald Thurston.
Lee will use the grant money to boost its "Project LEAP" program, which exposes students to ethics issues in an effort to create a more positive and unified student body. The program is aimed at freshmen, and Assistant Principal Denise Katz said the money will help to improve the school’s annual Freshman Ethics Day. During the one-day seminar, freshman students at Lee are separated from the rest of the student body and explore in greater detail issues of conflict resolution, cyber-ethics, drugs and alcohol. They also have a chance to meet with the "Lancer Leaders," a group of 65 seniors who break the freshmen up into small groups and discuss these issues in greater detail with them.
"The whole idea is when you leave that day, you’re a Lee Lancer," said Katz.
HISTORY TEACHER Susan Cox started the Lancer Leader program and believes it not only helps to give students information about the pitfalls of the high-school years but also makes the students feel a part of the student body.
"It works wonders," she said. The mentors remain in contact with their assigned freshmen throughout the school year. Last year’s Freshman Ethics Day had a theme of "Superheroes," and the seniors were encouraged to dress up as their favorite superhero.
The AOL Aspires program was started in 2001 as a way to provide schools in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area with additional funds for programs that focus on reaching disadvantaged youth. This year, the program expanded to include schools in Columbus, Ohio; Albuquerque, N.M; and Jacksonville, Fla. According to AOL, over $500,000 has been awarded to schools through the program.
Lee applied for the grant in 2003 but didn’t make the cut. To apply for the grant this year, Katz, Cox and several other staff members submitted their proposal in the spring, with the help of the Fairfax County Public Schools grant office. Volunteers from AOL toured the school in the spring and conducted interviews with faculty and students. It wasn’t until last week, though, that Lee found out it had been awarded the money.
"They were very thorough. They’re not just giving money away," said Thurston.
Cox hopes that the money from the grant can be used to rent an off-site facility to conduct the Freshman Ethics Day in the spring, which she believes would be helpful. The school has also discussed providing lunch for the students and having a motivational speaker. AOL has offered to provide staff members to speak on the hot-button topic of cyber-ethics.
"If we put the freshmen on the right track, they’ll be successful as sophomores, juniors and seniors," Thurston said.