MIDDLETOWN — As a child, Chuck Weeden loved school.
To be fair, though, he would have loved just about anywhere that wasn’t home.
“My mother struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, together with a number of related mental health issues,” he recalls. “We ended up losing her to it when I was nine. My dad died a few years later from his own health problems. So I first started loving school because it was a place for me to escape from the chaos of my family life.”
The death of Weeden’s father meant the collapse of his already unstable family. He was about to enter high school at the time, and relatives thought that the structure and safe harbor of a boarding school might complement the academic promise which he had already shown.
The only problem? A $70,000 price tag.
In most situations, the story would end there: Weeden would have bounced between public high schools as he shifted between different relatives and foster families. Statistically, the odds of his making it to college would have been lower than his chances of falling into the same familial cycle of addiction.
“It was my uncle who first told me about the Star Kids Scholarship and thought it might be able to help,” Weeden says. “I had just taken the PSATs and scored well, and I had passed the admissions tests for a few local private schools, and he didn’t want to see my potential go to waste.”
Four years later, Weeden proudly crossed the graduation stage at Portsmouth Abbey School, where he earned distinction both in the classroom and on the baseball field. Like nearly 100 other Star Kid scholars, he was on his way to college — Georgetown, no less.
“Georgetown was a great school, and I certainly learned a lot there,” Weeden says. “But my educational and professional goals, my academic interests, and my spiritual life all really started at the Abbey — and Star Kids was what made it possible for me to go there. Becoming a Star Kid broke down the financial barriers and let me start actually planning for my future, and that education kept me from falling into a family history of poverty and substance abuse.”
For the past two decades, this is precisely what the Newport/Fall River Star Kids Scholarship Program has been trying to prove: that breaking generational cycles of addiction, incarceration, and poverty begins with providing at-risk students and their families with the resources to fund their educational needs.
“We have impressive statistics to back that up,” explains Kathy Giblin Stark, the recently retired Executive Director of Star Kids. She spoke with Rhode Island Catholic on her final day in office, describing how Star Kids helps at-risk families afford private education, including at 18 Catholic schools throughout the Dioceses of Providence and Fall River.
“All of the students that enter the program are from low-income families, with at least one parent either in prison or addiction treatment,” said Stark. “We provide them with tuition assistance, along with help for other educational expenses, and 93% of them go on to graduate high school. That’s not only higher than the graduation rate for low-income students (76%), it’s higher than the overall state average (84%).”
Additionally, 90% of Star Kids have gone on to attend post-secondary education, compared to the statewide average of 56% for low income families.
Perhaps the most important statistic, however, concerns what these ambitious scholars have not done. As of 2021, 82% of the students entering the program had at least one parent with a history of incarceration. Children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely than their peers to spend time in prison; on paper, about 28 of the program’s 89 graduates might have been expected to end up following their parents’ examples.
Not one has.
“Becoming a Star Kid gave me the power to see beyond my circumstances,” remembers Weeden. “I remember reading Viktor Frankl in theology class at the Abbey, and suddenly understanding that the difference between being a victim and being a survivor is how you see yourself in relation to your circumstances. And that realization set me on a path that led to my Confirmation in my freshman year of high school, along with a newfound faith that continues to provide me with a sense of direction and hope.”
In addition to Catholic schools, the 26 Star Kids partners include several nondenominational institutions, charter schools and vocational programs.
“It’s about empowering both the family and the student,” Stark says. “We want them to be able to find the educational environment that best suits the needs of their child. For many children living with a chaotic family situation, the small size and individualized attention of a parochial school can provide the sense of stability they need to thrive.”
Individual schools and (for Catholic institutions) the local diocese generally work together with Star Kids to cover the majority of the student’s tuition, with the family making a small contribution determined by their financial need. Tuition is not the only financial barrier to educational success, however, which is why Stark says that it is important to offer a holistic approach to funding.
“Getting a meaningful education today requires what we like to call ‘wrap around’ support,” she says. “That includes money for incidentals like field trips, uniforms, transportation, books, tutoring, and college prep. And that’s just during the school year; during the summer, we help families fund camps and educational programs to make sure they’re learning year round. We maintain close contact with the child’s guardian in order to help with any other needs or challenges that might arise, whether they be financial, academic, or social.”
It’s a dynamic new approach for a scholarship program — and one founded on sound medical science. Deacon Timothy Flanigan, M.D., is a specialist in infectious disease working at both the Miriam and Rhode Island Hospitals, as well as a professor of Medicine at Brown University. He is also a permanent deacon, currently serving at St. Theresa and St. Christopher Parishes in Tiverton.
“I first came to Rhode Island in 1991 when I was hired to develop the HIV Core Program at the ACI in Cranston,” Dr. Flanigan says. “And one of the things that immediately struck me was the way that incarcerated families face doubled and tripled challenges: not only is there a high comorbidity of addiction and mental illness among incarcerated persons, there’s a lack of resources and a lack of hope. Most of the prisoners I talked to didn’t believe that their children would ever find the resources to pursue a quality education.”
These experiences led Flanigan to suspect that solving the public health crisis of addiction required attacking the problem at its roots.
“I became convinced that providing substantive educational support at the K-12 level could prevent these social problems from being passed on to the next generation,” he says. “We started a program initially focusing just on the children of the SSTAR rehabilitation center in Fall River — which was the origin of the program’s current name.”
That initial class had six students in it. In the 22 years since, the numbers have swelled to almost 130 — and the program continues to grow.
“We’ve been lucky enough to pick up several generous new sponsors recently, which really offers us an opportunity to expand,” says Flanigan. “We’d love to start taking in kids from throughout Rhode Island, going beyond the Newport/Fall River region; we’ve already started spreading through East Bay communities like Bristol and Warren, so we’d love to make the jump to Warwick, or elsewhere on the West Bay. We just need to spread the word to families and schools in that area.”
These sentiments are echoed by a different Flanagan — Karen Flanagan, Kathy Stark’s successor as the Star Kids Executive Director. She describes the program’s unique approach to sponsorship as the key to its success.
“Our sponsors are really the fuel of our program,” Flanagan says.
Each student entering into the program is matched with a specific sponsor, a donor who develops a unique relationship with the student they’ll be supporting.
“Sponsors receive reports about their students twice a year, along with report cards, photos, and letters from their students. It’s a position of long-term support, which both shows the sponsor the good that their money is doing and reminds the student that someone out there cares about their future.”
According to Flanagan, students accepted to Star Kids remain in the program even if their educational plans change.
“We do have students that enter the program to attend a private school and end up transferring to public,” she says. “But they remain Star Kids and we continue to support them — not with tuition, naturally, but with money for technology, tutoring and other educational needs. The scholarship is attached to the student, and our focus is really on trying to help parents find the school environment best suited to their child, not promoting any specific form of education.”
Helping families navigate their educational options is another of the services provided by Star Kids counselors — volunteers like Chuck Weeden himself, who joined the Star Kids Board of Directors in July of 2021, becoming the first alumnus of the program to return in an official capacity.
“The education I received through the scholarship changed my life, and I know that I’ll never be able to pay that debt back,” he says. “But I can pay it forward by helping to create the next generation of Star Kids, and that’s an even greater mission.”
For more information about Newport/Fall River Star Kids, including application forms and sponsorship details, please visit https://www.starkidsprogram.org/. Students in the Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket areas are encouraged to instead visit another of Deacon Flanigan’s projects, Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education, at riseonline.org/index.html.
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