As principal of Martin Elementary School in Lake in the Hills, Ill., an hour northwest of Chicago, Matt Webster '05 had a novel idea to assist occasionally overlooked school children.
"Think of a spectrum of students," said Webster. "There are a lot of supports in place for students on both ends of the academic scale, the low and the high. But I started thinking about those ‘middle kids,' kids who kind of fall in the range of average."
He needed a name for his program, a name that would create loyalty and buy-in, one that would inspire the targeted students and their parents. Then one day on his drive home, it dawned on him.
A member of the Fighting Bees football team from 2001 to 2005, Webster often heard coaches use the acronym NOW, or "Never an Opportunity Wasted."
"They told us to take advantage of class opportunities, weight-lifting sessions, early-morning runs, whatever opportunities arose," he said.
Webster took this to heart, earning all-conference and all-American honors as the Fighting Bees starting place kicker from 2002 to 2004. Five of his school records still stand. He also was a two-time NAIA scholar-athlete.
"My football experience at St. Ambrose helped me realize who I was," said Webster. "It built confidence."
Webster hopes to do the same for Martin Elementary students through the NOW Academy, an academically driven enrichment program for "average" students. Participation requires after-school attendance on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as a commitment to attending Saturday sessions.
Webster was pleasantly surprised when 108 of the 225 students who were eligible to apply joined the academy at the start of this past school year.
Besides the academic enrichment component, Webster structured the academy with the intent to inspire students to focus on the future and always be on the lookout for opportunity.
The program's first-year results were encouraging. Northwest Evaluation Association standardized test results showed marked gains in NOW students' reading levels. Teachers also reported significant increases in the confidence levels of participating students.
As an educator, Webster is intent on making the most of every opportunity himself.
"I had many positive male role models in my life: coaches, grandfathers, my dad," he said. "Not every child is growing up with that. I have the opportunity to be that in a child's life."
Friday is Webster's favorite school day. Not because it is the end of the work week, but because it is the day when fifth-grade students proudly email him screen shots of their weekly test scores. Yet, the NOW program's success goes beyond test results.
"We had 108 kids statistically doing just fine," Webster said. "Now, I've got 108 kids walking into classrooms being classroom leaders, walking into classrooms participating, fired up and ready for tests, ready to demonstrate what they know.
"You may have a lot of excuses or things that you could lean on to suggest why these kids in the average range will just stay right there," he said. "But I see these students. I was really determined to not settle for anything, to waste no opportunities on their behalf."