WAVERLY --- Keeping one child on track to graduate from high school ready for college can be a challenge.

Now multiply those challenges by 16.

That's what Waterloo couple Dennis Harbaugh and Juanita Williams are facing. More than five years ago, they made a commitment to provide up to two years of college scholarships for a class of 16 boys from Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence. The students, who are all black, are finishing seventh grade at George Washington Carver Academy, Bunger Middle School and Central Middle School.

"The goal is one day at a time," Williams said Wednesday while touring Wartburg College with the students. "Because there are so many more challenges than we imagined."

The Harbaugh-Williams Class of Promise Fund was started after the couple mortgaged an apartment building they own for $85,000 and has since grown to $260,000 through community donations --- about two-thirds of the way to the goal of $394,000.

Williams and Harbaugh started the fund with the idea that they would do more than raise money. The couple also planned to provide the appropriate support and guidance for the students and their parents to help the boys succeed academically and graduate from high school. The group has annually visited a college as part of that effort.

"I think the first two years of middle school have been a real challenge for most of the students," said Harbaugh. All the students have struggled with grades, behavior or both since starting sixth grade. "None of us saw that coming to the extent that it did."

Carver student Myles Anderson was one of those who struggled academically last year, when he attended Hoover Middle School.

"I was getting, like, F's at Hoover and I just wanted to change and get good grades." He was "tired of failing" and began doing better in school last fall. "I didn't want to be held back."

Harbaugh said they always planned to ramp up academic support during middle school with additions like reading volunteers who meet individually with students each week. But they found more intervention was needed to deal with some behavior problems and low grades. They began contracting with Waterloo-based Heal the Family Inc. to provide a weekly after-school group session, which is paid for through a grant from the Guernsey Charitable Foundation.

"They were losing their grasp, their connection," said Mike Robinson, president of Heal the Family. Sessions focus on topics like impulse control, respect and peer pressure. Parents must also participate in some sessions.

"We were brought in to provide structure and prepare them for the next level, which is high school," added Corye Johnson, the agency's vice president. The men, who joined the students on the visit, say they can serve as role models, as well, since they are black college graduates.

College is definitely on the minds of these students.

"I think I'd like to go here," said Anthony Ross, a Carver student, after touring Wartburg's campus. "I want to play sports here" like basketball and football.

He's gotten the message, though, that academics come first and hopes to study mathematics, a subject he struggles with now. "I need to get better at my math," said Ross.

Anderson is not certain about what he wants to study or where he'll go, but said the visits are helpful.

"It's getting me prepared, and it's giving me a chance to see what it's like in college," he said. Some of his peers at school are interested in gangs and not many are giving any thought to college. Not so with Anderson.

"My greatest goal is to get through high school and go to college," he said.

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