The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era 

As money from GEAR-UP wanes, its effects increase in SH


October 4, 2017

Photo by Scott Swanson GEAR-UP Coordinator Kristen Adams, in her office at the high school, says the effects of the program continue to manifest themselves in students and parents.

After 10 years in Sweet Home, the GEAR-UP program is in its waning years but its effects are very evident, in many ways, its longtime coordinator says.

Kristin Adams, who has coordinated the district’s college awareness programs since they started more than a decade ago, said the approximately $40,000-per-year federal funding for GEAR-UP has largely stopped, but the numbers indicate that it has had an increasing effect on the Sweet Home community.

“It’s just become kind of our culture,” said Adams, who has assisted nearly all of Sweet Home’s recent graduates in planning for their futures, applying for admission to college, trade schools, the military or other goals, and finding ways to finance those plans.

The number of Sweet Home High School graduates who’ve crossed the dais with a plan in writing for what they intended to do after high school increased by more than half between 2010 and 2017, according to her figures.

Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR-UP) is a competitive grant program of the U.S. Department of Education that has focused on making low-income students aware of post-secondary educational opportunities and helping them get into college.

GEAR-UP has been implemented at Sweet Home Junior High and Sweet Home High School since the 2007-08 school year. The funding actually lasted for six years, but Sweet Home is still receiving some remnant dollars. It has operated in conjunction with ASPIRE, a mentoring program with similar goals, over the years.

Through the Class of 2019, any student who has signed up for GEAR-UP is eligible to receive a $2,500 college scholarship. Adams said that while GEAR-UP funding officially ended with the class of 2016, residual money remains and the state has given the go-ahead to continue giving until the “carryover funds” run dry.

GEAR-UP-style introduction-to-college classes continue at the junior high but no longer at the high school.

“It’s kind of who we are now,” Adams said. “We have Career Day every year. We do campus-wide placement testing. We introduce students to different events, such as this Classroom to Career Expo (see page 1).

“We’re trying to increase awareness, have the kids do exploration.”

At the end of students’ junior years, Adams begins meeting one on one with them, she said. She also leads classroom activities to encourage students to plan.

“I just did my first senior workshop last Monday, and I told the kids, ‘What are you going to do the day after graduation? What are you going to do the month after graduation? If it’s not school, do you have a job? Are you going into the military?’ I try to work with them just to get some sort of plan.”

Though the money is drying up and the high school no longer has an official GEAR-UP class, the program’s objectives have been “built into our curriculum,” Adams said.

“The specific class went away, but what we have now is high school culture – going to school, going to college, trying to find a post-secondary option. It is built into our culture. It’s who we are.

“The teachers express it. We have built some more College Now classes into our curriculum so students are doing their 2-plus-2 credits. We’ve opened up some opportunities and doors for them.”

Now, Sweet Home freshmen go on a campus tour each year at a nearby college or university campus. College T-shirt Tuesdays happen district-wide. Seventh-graders take a Beyond High School class.

“The things that were working, we’ve embedded them into our curriculum.”

One evidence of that is teachers who “look for opportunities to take their kids to explore careers.”

“We’ve had math teachers get hold of Selmet, because Selmet came to our Career Day,” Adams said. “Now math teachers are taking kids to Selmet. They’re taking kids to the Radiator Supply House.”

Adams said attendance at Parent Workshops has increased. The number of students coming to her office early in the year, looking for help with college prep issues has increased exponentially in recent years.

Five years ago, she said, “we didn’t even talk about it.”

The frequent knocks on Adams’ high school office door, as she spoke with a late-morning visitor for 40 minutes last week, bear up what the numbers say. Seven students and a teacher entered to ask questions, drop off forms, or, in the case of a couple of alums who stopped by on their way to Linn-Benton Community College’s Sweet Home Branch down the hallway, to just check in.

Each spring Adams holds Signing Day events in which students have their individual photo mounted on a wall poster that tells where they’re headed and what they’re planning to do.

The need remains great in Sweet Home, she said.

“I always tell kids, ‘There’s life after Wal-Mart.

“We drive to Wal-Mart to get our stuff and then we come back home. I’m amazed at the amount of students who do not realize that Linn-Benton Community College is more than the Sweet Home Center.”

She said when she helps students register for LBCC classes, many assume they are taking those in Sweet Home.

A growing incentive for Sweet Home students, she said, has been the steadily increasing college scholarship funds offered by the Sweet Home Alumni Foundation and others, as well as increasing efforts by college-bound students to secure scholarship money.

In 2010, SHHS graduates received about $862,000 in scholarships, military signing bonuses and other aid for post-secondary education. In 2017 the number was a record $2.3 million, $1,073,000 of that in scholarship money alone.

“Sweet Home is very fortunate that we have a lot of local scholarships that we hand out,” Adams said. “The more and more kids that receive those, and the more parents see that in the paper, the more and more questions come.”

Adams said she remains connected with the state GEAR-UP program and other leadership groups, “making sure Sweet Home isn’t forgotten.”

“We’ve struggled with that for years,” she said. “East Linn County always has stopped at Lebanon. I’m there to say, ‘You’ve got to remember Sweet Home.”

With the institution of the Oregon Promise, a state grant that helps to cover most tuition costs at any Oregon community college for recent high school graduates and GED recipients, Adams said the high school is making greater efforts to inform students about financial aid and satisfactory academic progress – what it takes to keep scholarships and how to lose them.

“I think that the upper 30 percent, 40 percent of the class are listening,” she said. “They understand that if they go into school with kind of a bad attitude, like they had at the high school, they are going to lose their funding.

“And that has happened. I’ve had kids come back and say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ Well, you don’t apologize to me.”

It’s all paying off, if the numbers are any indication.

In 2010, the first year Adams started tracking plans, the high school graduated 149 students, of which 54 percent had verifiable post-secondary plans. Of those, 19 percent planned to head to community colleges, 19 percent had plans to go to a four-year school, 9 percent went to dual enrollment, and the rest were headed for trades, the military or some other on-the-job training, mission work or other activities.

This year, the number of graduates in the Class of 2017 was 137, of which 72 percent had verifiable plans. Of those, 53 percent were headed to a two-year college, 18 percent to a four-year school, 10 percent to the military and 7 percent to the trades and 11 percent to work-related education or other verifiable post-school activities.

“It’s a considerable jump,” Adams said. “To me it says it’s working, whatever we’re doing. Not only is it our programs, but I think we have increased our rigor to some degree because those kids, you can’t get $1 million in scholarships by having GPA’s below 3.00.

“More and more kids come into our high school with the expectation that they know they need to keep their grades up to get those scholarships.”

Sweet Home’s involvement in the East Linn Pipeline Project is another opportunity for local students, she said.

A meeting to “kind of establish what’s going on” will be held Oct. 13 for the Pipeline, an effort by local companies to educate local students in skills those companies need in their workforce. Most of the emphasis is manufacturing and some health services, Adams said. She said she hopes local firms participate in the program.

“The nice thing about the Pipeline is it’s industry-driven. The industry has come to colleges and said, ‘We need help.’”

Adams can name students who typify not only what she’s driving for, but what has been accomplished.

One is Candalynn Johnson, a 2013 graduate who went to Oregon State University where she served in student government and graduated last June with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

The Class of 2010 sticks with her, particularly. Chris Thompson, a 2010 graduate went to Pacific University, where he ran cross-country. Ruth Hernandez graduated from Western Oregon State University and is helping to run her family’s restaurant. Stephanie Szuch graduated from Western Oregon and is teaching preschool, Adams said.

There are many more, she said, noting that she enjoys reading the lists of local students who’ve graduated from Linn-Benton Community College and local universities – full of names of her students who’ve succeeded.

Though she can see accomplishments, Adams said the needs are more than she can handle individually, particularly after Career Center colleague Nancy Ellis retired and Kris Hiassen, her replacement, became dean of students.

“It’s more than a full-time job,” she said.

Meanwhile, she said, the effort continues.

“I try to emphasize to students when I talk to them that I think education is the ticket out of poverty, but I’m not naive enough to believe that all students can go right into college or that they have the desire to go right into college. What I try to work with students is that they have a plan.

“‘I don’t want to see you walking the streets of Sweet Home. You have to have a plan.’

“I still see some of my students walking the streets. They didn’t have a plan.”


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