GYPSUM, Colorado - "Before Upward Bound, I didn't really have goals or think about how to achieve them," said Emma Niswonger, a senior at Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum. "After I got involved, I was inspired to write down my goals and report in on my progress."
Fortunately for Niswonger, and many students like her, the federally funded Upward Bound program will continue to change lives in Lake and Eagle counties for another five years, thanks to a renewed $1.31 million TRIO grant.
Upward Bound is a federally funded TRIO program under the U.S. Department of Education umbrella. TRIO programs include Student Support Services, Upward Bound, Math-Science Upward Bound and Veterans Upward Bound.
Locally administered by Colorado Mountain College, Upward Bound is designed to empower disadvantaged students to finish high school and succeed in college. The program helps students explore career options, apply to colleges and secure financial aid.
As state and federal budgets tighten, grants are increasingly more difficult to acquire and retain, even for efforts that have proven to be successful. Nationally, 171 Upward Bound programs were defunded during the most recent round of grant applications.
Colorado Mountain College not only weathered the federal cuts through the re-funded grant, but also received an additional $1.25 million grant to extend new Upward Bound services to students in western Garfield County. According to Mark McCabe, assistant vice president of student affairs for the college, CMC's funding for Upward Bound was extended because the existing program has clearly demonstrated "measurable and significant gains" in student achievement during its first five years.
Debi Martinez-Brun, Colorado Mountain College's Upward Bound director for Lake and Eagle counties, said that 85 percent of local program participants in the first five-year grant period graduated from high school, surpassing the statewide on-time graduation rate of 75 percent.
These measurable strides made by students in Lake and Eagle counties helped tip the balance for the college to secure the second grant of $1.25 million to expand services into Garfield County over the next five years. Under the direction of Krisan Crow, newly appointed Upward Bound director for western Garfield County, the program will now reach an additional 60 students through Colorado Mountain College's campus in Rifle.
Dropping out to following through
During the 2010-11 school year, 12,744 youth in Colorado dropped out of high school, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Not surprisingly, the dropout rate was highest among students with disadvantaged backgrounds. Upward Bound seeks out these students when they're entering ninth or 10th grade and helps shift their trajectories toward positive achievement, with dramatic results.
Current Upward Bound students and graduates of the program cite two key factors as central to their success: strong mentors and being held accountable for their own actions and achievements.
"Debi (Martinez-Brun) really gets to know everyone and calls to see how we're doing," said Eagle Valley senior Niswonger. "You have so much support, and you're expected to try your hardest, to find help when you need it."
Refugio Loera, a senior at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards, also expressed gratitude to Martinez-Brun for teaching him the importance of teamwork, perseverance and kindness.
"Although my goals may be hard to achieve, I should not give up," he said. " I should try everything in my power to accomplish them, because nothing is impossible."
Jose Marin Garcia, once an at-risk student, is now working toward a degree in computer science at Colorado Mesa University.
"My classes are good," he said, "a bit difficult, but I know where to seek out help, thanks to Upward Bound."
Crucial for first-generation students
For many disadvantaged students, the cost of college creates a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. And it doesn't help that most first-generation students - students whose family members have not completed a four-year college degree - have no model for seeking scholarships, taking the ACT test or researching and applying to colleges. Upward Bound helps to bridge the gap.
In addition to tutoring in core subjects, Upward Bound introduces students to the campus experience through college field trips, and guides them through the labyrinth of financial aid opportunities. The program also provides an academic immersion experience at the Summer Academy, an intensive six-week program where students learn subject material and develop study habits.
"Upward Bound opens doors," said Sara Niswonger, whose daughter, Emma, and son, Cody, are both involved in the program. "They've learned about colleges and scholarships. And the program has really pushed them. This year, my daughter got her first academic letter, for an overall 3.75 GPA. And my son, who is only a sophomore, told his sister after a college trip that he thinks he wants to get a master's."
Who is eligible?
Upward Bound is open to students in the ninth or 10th grade who are U.S. citizens or have permanent residency. Applicants must meet low-income guidelines, and neither parent (or guardian) can have completed a four-year college degree.
"These are students who want to further their education," said Martinez-Brun. "Their determination and sincere interest in pursuing academic success is inspiring. And for me, personally, it's rewarding to collaborate with parents, the school district staff and the community to help these deserving students achieve their goals."
Tutor Mikayla Curtis, who volunteers Thursday afternoons with Upward Bound, also finds the work fulfilling.
"These are smart students, but some lack study skills and organization," she said. "Or, they just need help discovering what they're really interested in or getting over an academic hurdle. This program is great, because in the end, they have to be accountable for their own motivation and achievement."
McCabe, Colorado Mountain College's assistant vice president of student affairs, couldn't agree more. He summed up the power of the program simply: "We're teaching people how to fish."
For more information or to refer a student to Upward Bound, contact Martinez-Brun at 970-569-2948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Debra Crawford is public information officer for Colorado Mountain College.