Summit School District Pre-collegiate program continues making post-secondary strides
Not even a year out of high school and Suleyma Martinez-Lopez is showing others how big an influence the school district’s Pre-collegiate Program can have on someone’s life.
Martinez-Lopez was the recipient of a handful of local scholarships during her senior year and is currently working toward an associate’s degree in general studies at Colorado Mountain College. But, she’s also a full-time business owner in the community after buying Dillon’s Avalanche Communications cellphone store shortly after graduating last spring. That’s a lot for anyone to tackle, especially a teenager, but because of the time spent in the college prep and access program for first-generation students, the ever-cheerful Martinez-Lopez is confident in her abilities to take on any challenge that presents itself, offering glowing reviews of those who helped her with all she’s achieved.
“It’s been chaotic,” she admitted during a recent school board meeting, “but I’ve got this. Just having that support, that’s probably what helped us the most. Being first generation, if I was alone, I wouldn’t have even known where to start.”
The initiative, now into its seventh year in Summit after beginning as an experiment, has grown dramatically over that time, increasing from eighth through 11th grade, and just 10 kids from each class in 2010, to a max of 30 per class, sixth through 12th grade. The program that provides college visits, mentorship and academic tutoring today has upped grade-point average requirements to maintaining a 2.0, and added a growing wait-list because of its recognized success rates for guiding students, many just like Martinez-Lopez, to the next phase of their lives.
Each year, program director Molly Griffith travels to the middle school to introduce Pre-collegiate to an auditorium packed with the next collection of sixth graders. She routinely asks who plans to go to college after high school. Not surprisingly, most, if not all, hands shoot to the air. It then becomes Griffith and her small staff’s aim to maintain that enthusiasm for what follows the students’ public school educations.
“It becomes our goal to keep that excitement going throughout the next seven years to get them through to graduation,” said Griffith, “because I think of lot of things come up along the way. School gets harder, family things come up, social issues develop, and it’s keeping them on that track and focused on that prize and that goal of their life after high school. A lot of it is building that college-going culture.”
The program has been focused on building an environment of pride and success for these first-time post-secondary attendees — celebrating academic triumphs every step of the way. So far, it’s hard to argue with the results.
Summit’s chapter has graduated more than 135 students. Of that total, nearly half have either completed or are in the process of obtaining an associate’s degree. Another 48 of those students have either earned their bachelor’s at a four-year institution or are progressing toward one. Three students have even begun coursework toward a master’s.
Those who have been a part of the program — currently 69 percent of which are Latino — have also watched as the prospects of college through quarter-long support classes called Reach, tutorials on filling out the FAFSA and general academic assistance has produced higher GPAs, ACT test scores as well as increased graduation rates. The difference has been clear to those helping the program along.
“We’ve been very proud of our growth over the years,” said Drew Adkins, principal of the high school. “It’s become more than just a program, but really an infrastructure that permeates every building in our community, which I think these kids are a testament to. You’re able to see the power of what it can do because it’s not just the generation of students here; we’re talking generational change.”
Through a pay-it-forward model of mentorship, high schoolers receive advice from community volunteers once a month, and that then trickles down on a weekly basis from these students in secondary school to those presently in middle school. At each stop, the perpetual cycle only propels the participants, and next wave of graduates, to bolster the program further.
And the approach, which receives contributions from The Summit Foundation, Vail Resorts’ Epic Promise Foundation, Summit County government and CMC, is not just for those who envision attaining a traditional college degree. Instead, it’s geared toward general planning for the future, no matter the chosen path.
“Our goal is to help students to prepare for the life that they want after high school,” said Griffith. “That looks different for everybody. It’s not a four-year school and then a master’s degree or whatever, so there’s lots of alternatives to that.”
That includes doing so in a financially responsible way, given the swelling costs annually to continuing pursuing an education after high school.
“(That) is a huge stressor for any student in this climate,” said Jen Wolinetz, the program’s high school coordinator, “but something we’re really cognizant about. We want to make sure that our students have the life they deserve without bankrupting their families, so we spend a lot of time talking about that.”
Already the next bevy of Pre-collegiate students in Summit is moving through the program, fulfilling the high school upperclassman requirement to attend a two-week residency at the University of Colorado-Boulder during the summer and applying to colleges. For several like current senior Ray Salazar, who will be the first in his family to graduate from high school, let alone college, the support system has made all the difference, offering resources for locating scholarship opportunities and tidying up admissions essays.
“I’m definitely a lot farther along in the college application process than I would ever have been without them,” he told the school board at its meeting last week. “I would be probably completely lost. And staying at CU-Boulder for two weeks, it kind of gave me a little intro to how it’s actually going to be, how the schedules are going to be.”
Organizers recognize that, despite its growth, the program is not perfect. But facing both classroom and instructor constraints and limits, the student cap per class is a necessity to ensure the value remains for the relationships and applied college strategies it helps facilitate. Salazar, who signed up as a high school junior, agreed that in his experience the program suffers from one marked drawback.
“I wish I would have joined earlier than I did,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know more people and made more friends, and the college visits we go on are always a blast. I think it definitely changed how I was thinking about college, in a good way.”
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