Sheridan Saunders placed an artificial hand beneath an X-ray machine and prepared the scan.

She was inside the Fralin Center at Virginia Western Community College, practicing techniques before class. The head of the radiography program, Susan Nolley, gave her pointers.

Saunders has been fascinated by skeletal structures since breaking her arm as a child. Now, she’s studying X-rays using the same technology found in hospitals.

Once she earns her associate degree through the radiography program, Saunders can become certified to perform X-rays professionally.

Saunders, 19, is a graduate of Roanoke’s William Fleming High School. She said her dream job is in reach, thanks in large part to the Community College Access Program. The initiative pays up to three years of tuition for Roanoke Valley students to attend the community college.

For 10 years, hundreds of Roanoke students like Saunders have pursued a college degree through the program.

The city’s superintendent of schools, Rita Bishop, said the program has sparked hope throughout the school system over the past decade. Students are first introduced to CCAP in elementary school.

The opportunity serves as a great motivator, Bishop said. “I think it has more significance for an eighth grader than a high school graduate.”

Roanoke has sent 752 students to the program, more than any other school system. Bishop said she’s convinced she’s seen a more engaged student body since Roanoke first joined the program in 2009, following Salem City Schools’ successful run in the pilot year.

When Salem first agreed to participate in 2008, some in the community were concerned about the program’s sustainability. But those worries soon vanished, Assistant Superintendent Curtis Hicks said. The program has staying power because of Virginia Western Educational Foundation’s aggressive fundraising efforts, and the annual contributions from localities, Hicks said.

In recent years, Franklin County, Roanoke and Roanoke County each have contributed more than $150,000 annually, according to data provided by Virginia Western. Salem approved $70,000, Botetourt County offered $57,000 and Craig County supplied $17,000 a year ago.

The program tends to have enough funding to support most applicants in each locality, according to the college. But funding levels don’t always meet demand, resulting in the program’s turning away some qualified students. This semester, the program could not fund 82 first-year applicants, up from 53 a year ago, according to the educational foundation.

Since 2008, CCAP accepted more than 2,800 students. But not all remain in the program once they enter college. The program mandates students take at least nine credit hours at Virginia Western and meet academic benchmarks, along with other requirements. From 2013 through last spring, the average fall to spring retention rate in CCAP was about 69%.

Overall, retention has improved. The rate was 63% six years ago. Last school year, it was 73%. The college credits its advising staff for encouraging students to remain in school and meet requirements, Virginia Western spokesman Josh Meyer said.

The retention rate for Roanoke students was lower than for other localities at times over the years, but has improved in recent years.

During the 2016-17 school year, only 53% of participants from Roanoke stayed in the program from fall to spring. But the rate improved to 73% during the next school year, then above average at 74% last spring. The college employs a program coach to encourage students to remain in the program.

William Hobbs, a graduate of Patrick Henry High School, is in his second year with the program. He expects to graduate this spring with a degree in integrated environmental studies, and to transfer to the University of Virginia.

Hobbs said his acceptance to the program alleviated a financial burden for himself, and his family.

“It meant a lot to [my parents.] It’s an opportunity they didn’t have at my age,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs, who lives with his father, said his mother and sister are set to graduate with him from Virginia Western this spring. The 19-year-old said he’s thankful for the program, and hopes more students have the same opportunity.

The educational foundation launched a second major fundraising campaign a year ago to ensure more eligible high school graduates can enter the program. The total goal is $6.5 million, with the educational foundation raising half of the funds. The remaining half is expected to come from the localities.

The foundation said it has raised $2.1 million toward the drive.

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