Programs to encourage local students to think college

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

Two new programs will help Sweet Home students, who otherwise might not be able, for financial reasons, to attend a four-year college after graduating from high school.

“Last year, the district received a grant that will be for $240,000 over six years,” Sweet Home Junior High Principal Hal Huschka said. It will fund Gear-Up, or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

Gear-Up has two components: early intervention and scholarships.

The Gear-Up program has identified 12 low-income school districts in Oregon to assist, Huschka said. Some $1.5 million in federal funds will be available as scholarship money for Oregon students who participate in the Gear-Up program.

The program provides early college awareness and preparation activities through comprehensive mentoring, outreach, classes, visitations, counseling and support.

A second program, ASPIRE, Access to Student Assistance Programs in Reach of Everyone, encourages all high school students to see education and training beyond high school as an option.

It offers schools the tools they need to recruit, train and implement a volunteer-based program that extends and enhances the reach of high school counselors. The volunteer advisors help students overcome financial, cultural and academic barriers to education and training beyond high school.

“Both the programs go hand in hand,” Huschka said.

The Gear-Up grant requires a match, he said, and volunteer hours provided to the ASPIRE program count toward that total as the program continues and complements the Gear-Up program.

Sweet Home has a low number of students who graduate and go on to a four-year college, Huschka said. For the most part, the numbers are lower than any other school in the Val-Co league.

The highest number of students moving on to a four-year college since 2002 was 27 in 2003 – out of a graduating class of 192. In 2002, only seven continued on from among 152, and in 2005, that number was 11 out of 159. With the exception of Taft, most of the Val-Co schools send 25 to 40 students to four-year college each year. Taft sends 17 to 20 normally. SHHS’s enrollment is higher than Newport and Philomath, and is second only to Central in the Val-Co.

“I would guess that those numbers are extremely low again this year, Huschka said of Sweet Home’s four-year college numbers. One reason, he believes, is that families in the Sweet Home community believe they cannot afford four-year colleges and just don’t even think about it.

Huschka said his goal is to get them to start thinking about it, realizing that it is an achievable goal once the obstacle of finances is overcome, he said. The students are capable of success at the college level.

Students face three barriers to attending a four-year college, Huschka said. The second and third most common barriers are social and academic.

The University of Oregon is running programs to address those two, but the most common barrier is financial. Gear-Up addresses that one.

“What I’ve seen, kids, because of financial reasons don’t even go to college,” Huschka said. “College is definitely achievable, and finances can be overcome.”

All seventh-graders will have the opportunity to participate in Gear-Up, he said, and the program will continue building next year with new seventh graders signing up.

This year the district has $40,000 in grant funds it can spend, but it must match that funding, Huschka said. The School Board approved an $8,800 match for an ASPIRE during its meeting on Sept. 8. That will count as match money along with volunteer time in the ASPIRE program.

The cash is partly used to pay a part-time coordinator, for 15 hours per week, to work run Gear-Up and ASPIRE, Huschka said. The coordinator’s duties will include lining up volunteers for ASPIRE and applying for other grants and in-kind programs to match the Gear-Up grant funds. In addition, the University of Oregon wants to run a pilot career information system program at Sweet Home Junior High.

Gear-Up activities will begin with a family night once a coordinator is hired, Huschka said.

In the future, Huschka can foresee the establishment of a Gear-Up club and an elective class where the school can work with junior high students in planning for college.