UConn-bound senior says Explorations ‘family’ helped pave the way

With its small class sizes, dedication to individualized attention and personal development, Explorations Charter School, a public charter high school located in Winsted, Connecticut, aims to help all of its students succeed. One such success story is that of Marshall Shields, an Explorations senior who, despite facing incredible odds, is headed to the University of Connecticut this fall. Marshall was the recipient of several academic and merit-based scholarships, notably the 2018 Horatio Alger National Scholarship valued at $25,000. We spent some time with Marshall and learned just how his time at Explorations helped to prepare him for this next big step.

Explorations_Marshall_Shields.jpgExplorations Charter School's Marshall Shields is UConn-bound!

Overcoming Obstacles

The prestigious Horatio Alger National Scholarship Program awards scholarships to students who have "faced and overcome great obstacles in their young lives." It is one of the largest privately-funded scholarship programs in the U.S., and has awarded more than $125 million in scholarships to more than 25,000 young people since 1984.

As Marshall shared with us, he and his family have overcome tremendous obstacles together -- and Explorations has played a great part in that.

Marshall’s first introduction to Explorations came through his older sister and Explorations alum, Renee. He shared that before coming to Explorations, Renee would frequently skip class and act out, and that her grades suffered. Meanwhile at home, Marshall and Renee were being raised by a single father as their mother faced ongoing personal struggles. The challenges at home, Marshall says, likely contributed to Renee’s behavior at school, as well as some of his own difficulties. But after coming to Explorations, Marshall noticed a change in her.

"She came here, she toured it and she loved the concept of it. She decided she would’ve loved to be here. So she secured a spot," Marshall says. "And through being here, her grades improved, her attendance improved and she really became who she could really be."

After graduating from Explorations, Renee was able to find a successful career in the industrial industry in Winsted, and is now a loving mom to a two-year-old daughter.

"She’s doing quite well for herself," Marshall says of Renee’s growth and progress.


From Renee’s Little Brother… To 'Marshall' 

While Renee attended Explorations, Marshall was attending Torrington Middle School and says that while he was doing fine academically, the environment didn’t suit him.

Marshall’s soft-spoken nature didn’t quite lend itself to a large, traditional public school where, as he says, "the whole 'clique' thing was starting to form." Marshall also notes that in the traditional public schools, classes were arranged and rearranged in a way that didn’t allow for him to form meaningful relationships.

"Every time I’d really get to know my friends, they would move onto a different part of the building next year," he explained. "I didn’t really have any structure to my friend group because they were all starting to move away."

After seeing Renee’s success in the smaller environment offered at Explorations, Marshall decided to shadow her at school for a day. The experience was eye-opening, and he decided to follow in her footsteps and secure a spot at Explorations his freshman year.

"Immediately, all the teachers loved me because I was Renee’s little brother," he says. "But quickly, that changed. The first year there, I didn’t become Renee’s little brother. I became Marshall."

Marshall says the culture at Explorations is more like family or friends than a large, traditional public school environment. Everyone is on a first-name basis (teachers and school leadership included), while classes are small and tailored to the learning needs of each student. Marshall says being able to attend a school like Explorations has helped him to find success and reach his fullest potential.

"I didn’t really have to create a facade for myself. They really knew who I was. And that helped me to find the learning style I needed, and I got that learning style here," he says.

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Very quickly, Marshall discovered a love of math and science, as evidenced in his high scores in math and robotics classes at Explorations. He knew college and graduate school would be in his future, but like many high school seniors, the task of figuring out how to pay for all of this was daunting.

IMG_0186.JPGCLICK FOR VIDEO: In robotics, Marshall helped to create this elephant that crawls and roars! 

He learned of the Horatio Alger Scholarship Program through his older brother’s girlfriend, who is currently studying law at UConn. She was also a recipient of the scholarship.

"She messaged me personally and said, 'Hey, this changed my life. I still have connections with these people.' (This scholarship) wasn’t something that’s grab a scholarship and go," he says. At her suggestion, Marshall applied for the need-based scholarship not thinking he would receive it.

Soon after, Marshall was invited to join a Facebook group of other applicants and recipients of the scholarship. In the group, applicants shared stories of similar hardships that he and his family had experienced. Many shared stories of being able to overcome these obstacles thanks to the help of the scholarship. Still, Marshall had no idea he’d received the scholarship, and actually believed the Facebook group invite was a scam.

It wasn’t until his mother posted a clipping online from the Register-Citizen newspaper identifying Marshall as one of the winners that he realized he’d gotten it.

"I went on the website, checked the member list, and there I am," he said. "I was very excited."

Marshall is looking forward to attending UConn and studying engineering, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a Master’s degree in the subject. He says he also looks forward to having a family one day, and appreciates that the scholarship will help him to achieve his academic goals without the added worry of finances.

Marshall says, "You hear a lot of students talk about financial hardships, having to balance school and work. Having to pay off debt later in life. That really drags down on them. But being able to get the scholarship and have that much less worry where I can put that focus into work and other things like community service, personal needs... it will be very helpful."

Explorations_MarshallS_JaimeC_Elephant.JPGMarshall, along with classmate Jamie C. -- the robotics duo behind the elephant!

Next Steps

As Marshall finishes up this chapter and prepares to head off into the next, he first had the opportunity to take an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. where he participated in the National Horatio Algers Scholarship Conference. He was able to meet other award recipients, and tour the nation’s capitol for the first time, all while representing Explorations Charter School.

Jill Johnson, Executive Director and Principal of Explorations Charter School, is confident Marshall will continue to be a great representative not just for Explorations, but for all public charter schools.

"When we have students, especially Marshall, who put themselves out there, whether it’s receiving scholarships or doing community service, it just makes me proud," Johnson said. "Anytime that a charter school can get their name out there in a positive way it definitely helps. And when we have our name associated with somebody like Marshall, it makes it even better."

We’re excited to see what lies ahead for Marshall, as well as for all of our incredible public charter school graduates. They are proof-positive that when students have access to a high-quality public school option that best fits their needs, there’s nothing they cannot achieve!

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UConn-bound senior says Explorations ‘family’ helped pave the way
UConn-bound senior says Explorations ‘family’ helped pave the way
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