Most of us would assume, not unreasonably, that the cream of the vast academic crop that is American secondary education rises naturally to the top — that the very smartest and hardest working students, regardless of what school they attend or what their home life might be like, will be admitted to the best colleges, offered whatever financial aid they need to attend, and then will persevere through to graduation.

But we’d be wrong. The fact is, statistically speaking, even students with nearly identical test scores, grades and abilities have wildly divergent prospects for higher education, dictated largely by their socio-economic status. For instance, among high achieving students with SAT scores over 1200, those from families earning incomes in the bottom 25 percent are only half as likely to graduate from college as those from higher-income families.

The Elevation Scholars Program, a new partnership between the Winter Park-based Elevation Foundation, Orange County Public Schools, and UCF aims to start closing that gap, one student a time, by identifying exceptional students at Orange County’s Title I high schools (those where at least 40 percent of students are from low-income families) and maximizing educational opportunity for these future leaders. “These students are amazing, taking difficult classes, making top marks, and leading their peers in a variety of extracurricular activities,” says Darrell Cañamás, Assistant Principal of Instruction at Colonial High School.

The program’s approach is atypical in that rather than just awarding scholarships that help students afford college once they’re admitted, it focuses primarily on motivating and preparing students as early as eighth grade to pursue a college education and then equipping them with the skills they’ll need to secure not only admission to selective colleges but also needed financial aid. “There is a wealth of resources to help these amazing students succeed in college,” says Scott Lee, President of the Elevation Foundation, “but they need help accessing them.”

With the help of school staff, underclassmen are identified and selected for participation and become Elevation Fellows, who then benefit throughout their high school careers from a variety of enrichment programs focusing primarily on college readiness. Activities with titles like “You Can Afford to Dream” encourage students to think about the benefits of higher education and to begin seeing admission to an elite college as realistically attainable. After their junior year, Elevation Fellows apply to become Elevation Scholars, an award that comes with not only extensive college admissions assistance, summer programming and academic achievement incentives.

A large part of the motivation strategy hinges on exposing Elevation Fellows to college students and graduates from similar backgrounds who have succeeded — students like Revel Lubin, the inaugural Elevation Scholar who graduated last spring from Oak Ridge High School, where 92 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Orphaned at 11 and raised by his sister, Lubin became Senior Class president and was the subject of a lengthy profile in the Orlando Sentinel after he organized a Thanksgiving food drive for the families of homeless classmates. He  was accepted to the University of Florida, Morehouse College, and Wake Forest University and offered more than $300,000 in total financial aid.

Students and faculty at UCF — specifically in The Burnett Honors College — also play a big role in the program. A generous gift from the Elevation Foundation to UCF makes it possible for honors students to participate extensively in mentoring and coaching Elevation Fellows, ultimately delivering a large portion of the planned programming. Elevation Fellows visit the UCF campus and attend workshops on subjects like admissions essays, financial aid applications, and standardized test preparation.

In turn, UCF students gain an invaluable opportunity for service-learning, a key component of The Burnett Honors College curriculum intended to further the learning objectives of academic courses, address community needs, and require students to reflect on their activities in order to gain an appreciation for the relationship between civics and academics.

“The partnership between Elevation Financial, OCPS, and The Burnett Honors College is a great example of a campus-community program that lifts the lives of Central Floridians,” says Alvin Wang, the dean of the college. “This is especially meaningful because it allows Honors students to be positive role models and to share the dream of going to college with underserved high-school students.”

Still in its first year, the UCF-Elevation-OCPS partnership has the potential to effect meaningful change in Orange County and beyond by ensuring that more and more students like Revel Lubin have every opportunity to fulfill their remarkable potential. Successful kick-off events have already taken place at three Orange County Title 1 high schools: Oak Ridge, Maynard Evans, and Colonial.

“We believe that because of the daily challenges they must overcome to achieve academic success, many potentially high-performing students require special preparation for the level of college opportunity they have earned,” says Chris King, CEO of Elevation Financial Group. “By offering that preparation, it is within our reach to beginning breaking the cycle of poverty that results from educational inequality.”