May 092010
 
Authors: David Martinez

Ted Glynn and Angus Macfarlane, two New Zealand natives, flew more than 7,000 miles to lay two books on the concrete floor of a community center in Rocky Ford, a dusty farm town far removed from the wild, majestic scenery of their island nation.

They said nothing as they placed the books –– a pair of gifts that address low graduation rates of underrepresented high school students, a big problem in New Zealand and in the U.S. –– in front of two dozen CSU and high school representatives.

The gift was meant as a hand off of knowledge from their culture to Colorado’s. And as Paul Thayer, CSU’s associate vice president of student affairs, thanked them as he picked the books up off the floor, he made a symbolic promise for CSU to improve the quality of Colorado education.

Glynn and MacFarlane made the trek on April 30 to introduce a New Zealand teacher-auditing program that, if implemented in Colorado, is expected to cut the state’s substantial differences between white and minority graduation rates.

“This program will affect the way your schools do school,” said Tom Cavanagh, a representative from Walden University who earned his doctorate from CSU and helped conduct the New Zealand project. “And it will change dramatically.”

Cavanagh, Glynn and Macfarlane spoke to the group of Colorado high school educators about the Culture of Care, a program that would focus on teacher-student relationships. Auditors would interview students at underrepresented high schools in an attempt to find and fix communication and discipline problems between students and teachers.

“The focus of the project had to be what’s going on in the classroom,” Glynn said.

Colorado could use the help.

According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Colorado has the largest education gap of any state in the country, with a 24.6 percent difference in degree gap between white students and minority students.

That number dwarfs the national average of 12.43 percent and pales in comparison to Maine, which has the lowest national difference of 1.4 percent.

The Alliance Partnership

CSU hopes to use the Culture of Care in its Alliance Partnership schools, which are 10 low-income, high diversity high schools spread throughout Colorado.

The university has partnered with the schools for three years in an effort to keep high schools students interested in education and moving on past their high school diplomas.

“We’re not just working with a high school counselor, we’re working with the community,” said Mary Ontiveros, the associate vice president of enrollment and access, in an interview.

Schools in this Alliance Partnership, which is part of CSU’s Access Center, sign an agreement with the university that legally commits both sides to helping each other within the program.

Ontiveros, who helped create the Alliance Partnership, said that the program was also meant to reduce the achievement gap between white students and Latino/Hispanic students.

For schools in the partnership, which is entirely CSU-sponsored, Ontiveros holds annual college information sessions at the high schools that are open to students, family and faculty.

“It’s kind of a system focus,” said Patricia Vigil, director of early outreach and retention initiatives. “Bring your middle school kids, bring your kindergarteners.”

Both Ontiveros and Vigil said the program’s inclusion of the entire high school community is key to the success of the program. The more parents and faculty know about applying for and going to college, the more support students get to further their educations.

Ontiveros said many families either can’t afford college or don’t trust it.

“If they fail, who’s gonna pay their debt?” Ontiveros said. “If they succeed, they’ll never come back.”

Gayle Hinrichs, the assistant principal of Sierra High School in Colorado Springs, one of the 10 Alliance Schools, said it’s crucial for students and families to feel comfortable with leaving home.

“Sometimes they’ve never even been to Denver,” Hinrichs said.

The Alliance Program also offers a $2,500-per-year scholarship for high school students who choose to attend CSU, an incentive that catches the attention of most of the students, Hinrichs said. The scholarship also extends to students who start at a community college and transfer to CSU.

In addition, CSU provides the Alliance schools with several chances for students and parents to tour the campus in an effort to give students a picture of what college life is like. In some instances, groups will meet with a student panel to ask them questions about campus life and participate in a mock college lecture. The panel addresses many of the common concerns respective groups have with CSU’s campus, such as how to thrive on a predominantly white campus.

“If visually they can see themselves here, they start to say, ‘Yeah, I could do this,’” Ontiveros said.

The university also provides the high schools with Naviance, a student interest-tracking program that Oscar Felix, the executive director of CSU’s Access Center, says the “rich” high school students and staff use. He said the software tracks the colleges that students show an interest in as well as the status of their college applications.

In addition to helping students find information on the colleges they show an interest in, it also helps counselors pay attention to how far along the application process their students are and where to send college transcripts.

For the first two years of use, CSU paid for each of these schools to carry Naviance –– about an $8,000 total cost. But next academic year it will require the high schools to pay for half of the program, a cost some of the high schools worry that they won’t be able to pay.

While Ontiveros was unclear on what would happen to the schools should they not be able to pay the extra fee, about $400, she was both understanding in the schools’ financial situations and adamant that they find a solution.

Although teachers and students in these high school communities have said the program is a success, the number of students the program has gotten to come to CSU amounts to less than what would fit in a 100 level class; it recruited 58 students from the 10 high schools in 2009 and has recruited fewer than 200 since its inception.

But the university has benefited from this program with a higher number of diverse and low-income graduates attending CSU in each of the program’s three years. They have also helped CSU minorities slowly increase from 14 percent to 15.7 percent of the undergraduate class in the past five years, according to CSU’s office of institutional research.

A growing trend

Ontiveros said recruiting diverse students at CSU has been “historically difficult.”

But Felix said efforts to attract diversity have “taken off” since 2000.

He said many of CSU’s newer programs “focus on a population that typically wouldn’t go to college if not for some intervention.”

“There’s a lot of talent that just doesn’t get used,” he said.

While CSU has created a new position that spearheads diversity efforts, its access center and enrollment office have created scholarships, summer programs and communications streams that allow Colorado’s low-income and diverse students afford and pursue a college degree.

Access to Higher Ed

Although the university has increased its efforts in the past decade, it has used federal efforts to allow most low-income and diverse students to come here since 1965 –– the year the Pell Grant took effect.

The Pell Grant is a need-based money grant that takes into account personal student income, family income, the family’s household size and the number of family members who attend post-secondary schools, according to the grant’s website.

The site also says the amount of money a student gets depends on the student’s expected family contribution, the cost of attendance and the student’s enrollment status.

Through this grant, more diverse and low-income students had gotten a chance to attend universities that were out of their price range, such as CSU. From there, the university implemented the Educational Talent Search program that provides workshops to middle and high school students. The workshops include academic, financial and career counseling and assistance in completing college applications.

Felix says the program provides a key service that students need but would have a difficult time finding otherwise.
“How do you teach a sixth grader about FAFSA?” Felix said, when talking about the program’s uses.

Sean Jaster, a counselor at the Access Center, said the Center now offers four additional federally funded programs, Upward Bound, Reachout, the Bridge Program and the Educational Opportunity Center. These programs help spark student interests in higher education.

While the Federal Government gave CSU’s Access Center $41.6 million for its programs last year, Felix said it had not raised its funds in six years. With economic inflation, the Access Center actually receives less money than it did when the funds were set six years ago.

“We really need it,” said Felix, when asked whether the department needed an increase in federal funding. “Otherwise we’ll be in bad shape.”

CSU lobbied for an increase in funds in Washington in March, but the department will not know if it receives a fund increase until between October and the beginning of December. This year, the Access Center didn’t know its federal funding situation until January.

Felix said the lack of funding increases would likely cause the Center to cut back on services and department materials. He isn’t looking at serving more students or expanding its programs, as he doesn’t expect an increase in funds this year.
“But I have to hope,” he said.

News Editor David Martinez can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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