As summer draws to a close and families with schoolage children begin preparing for the coming semester, the leaders of Project REACH are gearing up for their second year of work. The program, which provided intensive college-prep guidance in five Cincinnati Public Schools high schools last year, hopes to expand to two more schools for the 2009-10 year.
And according to the staff, volunteers and school officials involved with the program last year, it likely will be a welcome addition at the new locations.
“The whole concept is a win-win,” says Craig Hockenberry, principal of Oyler School.
Project REACH (Realizing Educational and Career Hopes) is a college advisory program that pairs recent college graduates as mentors for first-generation and low-income students and their families on the college planning and preparation process. The Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, using AmeriCorps volunteers, administers the program.
Project Director Kristin Barnes provided data to back up Hockenberry’s enthusiasm: Of the slightly less than 200 students who participated in Project REACH, 74 percent took either the SAT or ACT, and as of late July, 93 percent of the seniors in the project who applied to colleges had been accepted to one or more schools.
“For our students, that’s going to be the baseline going forward,” Barnes says.
Making the numbers more remarkable is the general environment of the schools involved last year: Oyler School, Aiken High School, Riverview East Academy and Shroder High School.
“A lot of my students were not even thinking about college,” says AmeriCorps volunteer Jessica Taylor, who worked at Aiken. “A lot of my students had never even been to Kentucky.”
“When you have limited resources like at Oyler and the neighborhood is unfamiliar with college, not really knowing the ins and outs,” says Hockenberry, “having someone who could actually guide us through the process and be the point of contact, it was a dream come true.”
In short, that description sums up the role of Project REACH’s school advisors.
The 11 advisors set up shop in the partner schools at the beginning of the school year and worked with staff, faculty and administrators to make college prep programming available to up to 60 juniors and seniors at each school.
The program focused on four areas: Getting students to take the SAT and ACT tests, helping students fill out federal financial aid forms, encouraging seniors to apply to multiple colleges and exploring different scholarship opportunities.
But the advisors say their jobs often went far beyond the four points.
“We sort of tailored what we did to each specific school,” says advisor Joni Bowersock, who worked with many of Oyler’s non-traditional seniors. She said that while the teachers welcomed the program with open arms, it took extracurricular effort to get the students on board.
“We went into the classrooms to get sign-ups,” she says, “but the thing that helped me the most was that some of the girls found out that I played volleyball in high school and said, ‘You need to come to a game.’ ”
After she started attending volleyball and football games, Bowersock says the students started signing up for Project REACH.
“Just seeing I was willing to come and stay for the whole game made them realize I was there for them,” she says.
As the year progressed, the advisors took students on college visits, worked with them to identify majors and careers that interested them, and brought in speakers to talk about different career options available to college graduates. Throughout it all, Barnes says the personal attention and one-on-one nature of Project REACH was a major priority.
“We wanted to provide a more intense experience and be able to follow the students,” she says.
Thompson says for her that included taking one senior to her first-year orientation at Miami University in Oxford. According to Barnes, that level of outside-the-class care was par for the course for many of the year’s advisors.
“So much of (the success) was about the personalities they brought into the schools,” she says. “Surprisingly enough, none of them were education majors. I think that’s proof you don’t have to be an education major to go into a school and make a difference.”
For Barnes, part of her second-year plans include hiring an advisor to stay in contact with this year’s students, providing support as many of them become the first in their families to attend college. Although the 2008-09 advisors finished their AmeriCorps contracts and are now pursuing different career and graduate education goals, they say the experience was a defining one.
“Probably for all of us, it made us reflect on how we want to spend our time,” says advisor Christina Black.
The Xavier graduate plans to pursue a master’s degree in women’s and gender studies at the University of Cincinnati, and says the Project REACH experience made real much of her classroom studies.
“It was like, ‘Wow, that’s where these theories come from,’ ” she says.
Barnes says Project REACH hopes to expand into two more CPS schools this year. She added that the administrators of last year’s schools are looking forward to having the program back for a second year.
“The feedback we had from students, parents and principals is great,” she says, again attributing it to the AmeriCorps workers, each of whom lived on an $11,400 stipend for the 11-month contract.
“We had these people who really wanted to make it work.” ©