KINGMAN - Highly informational meetings for a program aimed at sending more kids to college than ever will held at two Kingman high schools this week.
Every student from the 2018 graduating classes at Lee Williams High School and Kingman High School is participating in the GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a six-year federal grant managed and doled out to select Arizona school districts by Northern Arizona University.
Wednesday and Thursday nights will provide an opportunity for parents to find out how their kids are preparing for the future and to build a stronger teacher/student/parent relationship.
"Parents will get tons of info on this program," said Kingman High School GEAR UP Coordinator Shelly Moon. "The goal is to improve graduation rates and send more kids to college."
The grant funding follows a cohort of students from 7th grade through high school graduation, and is focused on pushing students to see college, trade schools and even success in the military and business world as a strong reality by helping them find the tools they'll need to accomplish their goals.
The ACT Aspire, a pretest for the ACT college entrance exam, is a measuring factor in academic success.
"I would like every parent to come," said LWHS GEAR UP Coordinator Krista Diblasi. "It would help me explain ACT Aspire."
GEAR UP provides critical early college awareness and support activities such as tutoring, mentoring, academic preparation, financial education and college scholarships to improve access to higher education for low income, minority and disadvantaged first-generation students and their families.
GEAR UP funds are also used to provide college scholarships to low-income students.
Both schools are in the process of closing out their fourth year of the program.
Diblasi has been at LWHS since the grant was accepted by KUSD during the 2011-2012 school year. She has about 250 students and explained the program is a way to prepare students for the ACT college entrance exams through a series of pretests.
"It's a predictor of what and how they would do on the ACT," she said. "We can tell parents 'This is what your kids did well and not so well. Here's what we could do to improve.'"
"They can do better because they know the strategy of how to read the ACT."
This is the first year the ACT Aspire has been given at these schools, so they are in a way a testing ground. College success is a still a few years from being measured but the program as a whole still gives students an edge both now and in the future.
"We want them to take the ACT and get the highest score possible," Diblasi said. "It gives them more opportunities for schools."
Both coordinators have dual roles as both instructor and mentor.
"I'm kind of their advocate," Diblasi confessed. "Some of their parents have never been to college."
They have to know what's going on at school and even at home sometimes. As both teachers and mentors, they have to know how to reach each individual student.
"We don't always have to sit down and look eye to eye," Diblasi said. "Sometimes we'll just take a walk or I'll go outside and play hacky sack or shoot some hoops. It doesn't come off as threatening."
She's been with most of the kids since the 7th grade and plans to be at their 2018 graduation.
"I have a commencement robe signed by all the students in this program at this school right now," she said. "We call it the commitment robe."
"My hope is that all my students succeed whether they go to college, military or become business owners."
The program also pays for students to visit nearby colleges including NAU, UNLV, vocational schools and community and private colleges.
The GEAR UP Student Leadership Academy (GUSLA) gives students the opportunity to gain leadership and social skills while also getting them to mentor and learn from each other.
"You want to make everyone feel welcome and more comfortable," Diblasi said. "I try to find kids with common interests."
One of the advantages of getting into the academy is being able to take trips to universities where they are then grouped with kids from other schools throughout Arizona. Those groupings help the kids break out of their shells and learn to work with new people.
Students sound off
LWHS 10th grader Haley Cieszko, who plans to be the first generation from her family to go to college, energetically described some of the best experiences of the program.
She wants to attend a university to study law and visits to NAU and UNLV piqued that interest.
"I knew I wanted to go to college but it wasn't definite," she said. Her plans slowly solidified as the GEAR UP program changed her perspective. "As the years went on and we visited schools, it seemed more definite as a plan."
Her parents are extremely supportive and involved.
"They're all for bringing me early to the trips, signing the paperwork and coming to meetings," she said. "They ask about what's the campus like, what the best programs are. The costs and what not."
"I know her family and have a relationship," Diblasi said. She keeps in constant contact with the families. "I probably talk to her family more than anyone else at the school."
KHS 10th grader Marlen Alvarez, also a prospective first generation college student, talked about her involvement:
"I've always wanted to go to college," she said. "Now this just made me more focused on that."
Alvarez's parents are also curious about GEAR UP.
"It helps them know what to look out for and how to apply," she said. "Now they know what to expect as far as expenses and what I can do with what I'm involved in."
Each student had certain challenges they deal with. Math is one of Cieszko's biggest enemies and she makes the effort to improve in any way.
"I do take steps to stay after school," she said.
She currently takes a dual placement class at MCC (one that counts as both a high school and college credit) and that the experience makes the challenge easier to overcome.
"It's getting better as I progress. It becomes somewhat more manageable," she said.
Alvarez said she had trouble approaching people for recommendations before GUSLA. That has changed.
"I'm very confident because now I have the connections with the teachers and administrators," she said.
The college visit made Cieszko a bit giddy.
"It was good seeing the environment they have and the freedom. I was interested by the classrooms and structures," Haley said. "It's good to know when I go there I'll have the opportunity to use that stuff."
Representatives from the Arizona Earn to Learn program will attend the parent night to provide information about their matched savings program. It gives students from low to moderate income families a chance to stash money. Basically, for every $1 a student saves for college, Earn to Learn will match $8 towards the same goal.
Both events will have food for all attendees.
Diblasi is looking forward to seeing the families together.
"In this society you need an education as a whole," she said. "I'm blessed and honored to work with these kids. I have a relationship with them and the families."