Exit Lancaster helps kids set sights on college

College can be challenging, but for 76 School District of Lancaster students a city program is making the possibility of college life a bit easier.

Established in 2002, Exit Lancaster has been dedicated to increasing the number of college graduates from economically disadvantaged communities. The program, created by Hand Middle School teachers Ty Bair and Shayne Meadows, provides students with activities, learning opportunities and discipline.

The goal of Exit Lancaster, Bair said, is to give scholars the chance to become familiar with the demands of university life so that they aren’t intimidated later by the idea of attending college.

Bair said he got the idea for the program after thinking of his own experience as a School District of Lancaster graduate. He had left the area to attend West Chester University, but returned to the district after earning his degree.

Wanting to give back to his community, Bair partnered with Meadows to launch Exit Lancaster as a way to broaden the horizons of his students.

Exit Lancaster began as a summer program after gaining the support of the Boys and Girls Club of Lancaster. The first 12 participants were students Bair and Meadows felt would benefit from the program. The group visited several college campuses and completed community service projects.

After the success of the first year, Bair and Meadows decided to expand the program’s reach. They got the Urban League of Lancaster County on board and added a technology class.

Bair said that he and Meadows also realized that they had taken students to visit colleges, but hadn’t told them how to get there. The focus of the program was shifted to provide more structure for participants.

With the encouragement of district principals, Bair and Meadows began to offer several sessions of Exit Lancaster year-round.

Today, the majority of funding for the program comes from the school district.

Meadows said that over the years the organization has been able to partner with Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology to offer college-level courses to participants and the Lampeter-Strasburg YMCA to use its facilities for free.

Visiting colleges is still an important part of the program, Bair said, but trips to museums, course work, reading assignments, exercise and community service are other key elements.

It has become a group tradition for participants to take part in the YWCA’s Race Against Racism event every spring and raise $2,500 for the American Cancer Society.

The program is open to all middle and high school students who are ready to put in the work, Bair said.

Meadows said they try to target kids who can get the most from the program. No student has ever failed to meet the requirements, although some remove themselves when they learn the expectations.

Despite the strict requirements, Exit Lancaster has a 97 percent attendance rate, Bair said.

And the effort comes with benefits. Participants who read a book approved by the mentors and handed in a report had the opportunity this summer to take in a Broadway show and tour the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Thirteen-year-old Jasmide Berard said her favorite part of the program this summer was touring Shippensburg and Howard universities.

Emil Velez, a rising freshman at McCaskey, said the program helped him set goals for his future. He plans to go to Drexel University to study engineering.

Emily Rodriguez, a graduate of the program, said she enjoyed her experience in Exit Lancaster so much she returned this summer as a mentor. She participated in the program as a sixth-grade student and is currently studying to become a nurse.

In addition to former members of the program, the group of mentors include coworkers recruited by Bair and Meadows.