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Three dozen students are getting a head start to their freshman year at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where they are learning skills to help them succeed, and getting a chance to meet friends and discover the campus.

The students are part of the college’s DeSousa-Brent Scholars program, which provides extra support to a selected, diverse group of students, Sybol Anderson, associate professor of philosophy and director of the program, said.

Ian Scribner of Baltimore said he was interested in going to University of Maryland, College Park, but chose St. Mary’s College instead because it is “a more intimate campus.”

He said Wednesday that he was nervous at first about coming to the summer session, but that it has been a great experience. He said he is glad to have the extra support provided through the DeSousa-Brent program, which he said creates a sense of community.

State legislation passed this spring included funding to expand the college’s DeSousa-Brent program based on a new performance-based model.

The funding will be phased in starting this year, and will ultimately provide St. Mary’s College $800,000 per year. Money will be used to pay for mentors and other support.

New funding outlined in the legislation would continue past 2019 if the group of students starting college in 2015 in the DeSousa-Brent program meets certain retention and graduation rates each year, including a 70 percent four-year graduation rate.

The performance-based funding is a relatively new concept for a higher education program like the DeSousa-Brent Scholars, and could be used as a model for other colleges and universities, officials said.

The students are drawn from the pool of admitted students, based primarily on their reported family incomes. Most all are recipients of federal Pell grants to help pay for college expenses, Anderson said.

She also selects some students for the program based on where they attended high school, if they are considered a first-generation college student and other factors. She said she also tries to balance racial and ethnic diversity within the group.

Summer jobs or other responsibilities kept some of the 45 selected students from attending the two-week summer session, which began last Sunday, although 36 of them are on campus, Anderson said. Most of the others plan to attend a family weekend event at the conclusion of the two weeks.

The DeSousa-Brent Scholars program grew out of a controversy in the early 2000s when a group of 42 students from a Washington, D.C., elementary school were denied college scholarships promised by a millionaire. St. Mary’s College at that time gave five of those students full-tuition scholarships, all of whom graduated in 2005.

“That was the genesis of the program,” Anderson said.

The following year college professors and administrators created a similar program aimed at giving added support to a group of students during their freshman year. In 2008 the program officially took on the name DeSousa-Brent Scholars.

For the last several years the program has directed extra resources to a group of about 30 freshmen each year.

With the new funding available, the college expanded the program, increasing the number of students to 45 this year, with an ultimate goal of 60 per graduating class and offering support to them all four years of college.

The program is not just to give the students a leg up in college. They in turn are expected to become leaders on campus who promote diversity awareness, Anderson said.

“These students may be [demographically] underrepresented [on campus], but that’s through no fault of their own,” she said.

Anderson said they are all “high-capacity” students who are able and ready to learn. To prove that, Anderson can rattle off a list of success stories from the last couple of years, including DeSousa-Brent scholars who are pursuing graduate degrees or who already have successful careers.

During the last several years, the four-year graduation rate for the group has fluctuated between 40 percent and about 60 percent. The graduation rate does improve when an extra year or two is added on, but that is not the goal, Anderson said.

The performance benchmark is specifically based on the four-year rate because the college does not want the students to absorb more debt by taking extra years to finish their degrees at St. Mary’s College.

Samantha Elliott, a biology professor, said she signed up to teach a Biology Boot Camp mini-course this summer to help her future students get off to a good start.

Elliott sprinkled in note-taking and other classroom tips with biology lessons.

“You’ve got to keep the big picture in mind,” Elliott said.

Imani Staton-McCrimmon had her sights set on Howard University, where several of her relatives have attended.

That was before St. Mary’s College professor David Kung came to her high school in Baltimore and gave a lesson on the connections between science and music.

“He really got me interested,” she said.

Staton-McCrimmon said the mini-courses offered this week have been particularly useful. “I’m going to have a head start” when classes begin for the fall semester next month, she said.

During down time the students had opportunities to watch movies, tour neighboring Historic St. Mary’s City, attend the River Concert Series and hang out with mentors who are upperclassmen and were part of the DeSousa-Brent program.

jyeatman@somdnews.com