5th-graders encouraged to aim for college

Senior athletes at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach spoke with fifth-graders to inspire them and help prepare them for college. Videojournalist: Joseph D. Sullivan (Oct. 19, 2012)

Photos of student-athletes competing on football and track fields appeared on the large projection screen in the William Floyd High School auditorium Friday morning.

The accompanying music, with soaring crescendos and booming drums, was a soundtrack fit for heroes. And these heroes were going to college.

That was the message more than 600 William Floyd district fifth-graders received from a panel of 21 high school seniors, encouraging athletics as a pathway to college.


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"We are trying to convey a message . . . that they can walk across that stage and get a college degree," said Kevin Coster, the district's assistant superintendent who conceived of the event, now in its sixth year.

The district doesn't just focus on sports, Coster said, but also hosts a fine arts college-bound presentation for fifth-graders in the spring with music performances and a visual-arts display. "We're really trying to appeal to everyone's interests," he said.

In the "high-needs" district, with many parents never making it to college, Coster said it was imperative that all students walk away with a simple message about higher education: "You can do it."

Nathaniel Woodhull, John S. Hobart, Tangier Smith, Moriches and William Floyd elementary schools attended. It was part of College Awareness Week, in which elementary school teachers wear college T-shirts and discuss the schools that they attended, said Keith Fasciana, principal at William Floyd Elementary School.

This year, fourth-grade students visited a college campus and fifth-graders filled out a mock college application, Fasciana said.

The student-athlete presentation was compelling to younger students because teens led it, he said.

"These are kids who went to the same elementary schools as you, they grew up on the same blocks as you," Fasciana said. "There was a connection there."

Courtney Murphy, 16, of Shirley, who plays field hockey and basketball, and plans to attend Stony Brook University on a full lacrosse scholarship, discussed having a strong work ethic.

"All the passion and drive that you guys show on the field also needs to be shown in the classroom," she said to students. "Because in the end, getting to college is the most important goal."

"The first word of 'student-athlete' is 'student,' " said Vantrell Nash, 17, of Mastic Beach, who's on the football, basketball and track teams. "Your grades always come first."

Fifth-graders also posed several questions -- from how to qualify for athletic college scholarships to preparing for varsity-level sports.

When asked how to manage time, Emily Vigliotta, a tennis player who is active in student government and the debate team, stressed completing homework immediately after school.

"If you start now, making sure you get work done . . . you'll find that it becomes easier when you're in high school, because it just becomes a habit," said Vigliotta, 17, of Mastic Beach.

The tips seemed to resonate with elementary students, who excitedly ran around a gym following the assembly with MSG Varsity magazines and pens that the seniors autographed.

"I think it's a very humbling experience to talk to them, because at one point we were those fifth-graders," said football quarterback A.J. Otranto, 17, of Shirley, who also plays tennis. "You know that they look up to you. You're kind of like their idol. It's just great to be a role model for the younger kids and show them what they can be one day."

Andrew Hall, 10, of Shirley, said the presentation "told us a lot about how they got into college and how much they have to work to improve."

Grace Desire, 10, of Shirley, said she felt that college was important "because it can help you in life with getting a job and learning."

But getting there begins with a healthy dose of self-confidence, according to Mark Mensch, the athletic director at William Floyd High School. He ended the speaking portion of the program with an inspirational mantra, urging students to repeat two phrases after him.

"I'm great!" the students shouted, following Mensch's cue. "I'm awesome!"

"By saying it every day," he said, "you start to believe it."

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