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CRMS summer program helps underserved kids realize the college dream

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Tucked out of sight of the more visited parts of Carbondale is the lush, meticulously maintained campus of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. One might suspect that it lies dormant during the summer months, awaiting the turning of the leaves, but that is hardly the case. In fact, it is a bustling hive of academia for a few dozen grateful and hardworking students visiting from underserved urban communities.

Since its inception in 2007, the HS Squared (High School, High Scholar) program has helped hundreds of minority high school students achieve their dreams of college acceptance and, ultimately, professional success. The program now accommodates 25 students per grade level (freshmen, sophomores, and juniors). To qualify, students must demonstrate academic excellence in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, be first generation college candidates, be a part of underrepresented minorities in those subjects (African American, Latino, or Native American) and qualify for reduced or free lunch programs. Students are accepted into HS Squared during their freshman year and complete five weeks of the program at CRMS for three years in a row — until they are entering their senior year. Currently, most participating students are from Fort Worth, Denver, New York, and New Orleans, cities where the program has developed a strong pipeline into local schools. There are plans to expand to new locations.

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“I think the mission of the program – bringing in super motivated kids and giving them an experience they can’t get at home – is pretty special,” said Aspen High School science teacher Brent Mailo, who has taught chemistry at HS Squared for five years. He emphasized the high quality of educational instruction and the supportive academic environment students embrace. “A lot of the science they do at home is ‘worksheet’ science; here, they’re a part of the action. Creating an experience is much more memorable and powerful than watching a teacher or a YouTube video. When they’re involved, they’re actually doing science. It’s pretty impactful,” he said.

About 70 to 80 percent of teachers return every summer. In addition to regular staff, students receive instruction and guidance from a variety of experts. In the classroom next to Mailo’s, Andrew Brightman, Associate Professor of Engineering Practice at Purdue University, was visiting along with his team. He had designed a lab for first year students to create filters using raw materials in the hopes of turning muddy river water into a potable beverage. According to Director Cindy Blachly, HS Squared is the only high school program Purdue travels to.

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In addition to honing their understanding of STEM subjects, the program offers invaluable college counseling services. Beginning their freshman year, students are coached through the college application process. They receive SAT and ACT instruction, as well as highly personalized, one-on-one attention to develop their essays and resumes, improve their interview skills, complete the “common app,” and learn the ins and outs of securing financial aid. By living in the dorms, they also get a taste for life away from home and learn how to be self-sufficient.

“My goal is to have them start their senior year totally dialed in for the college process,” said Betsy Bingham-Johns, the program’s College Counselor. “The kids are such an inspiration. They come into the process willing to conquer it and put 100 percent into making their futures happen… They really want to improve their options and get a really good education to make a difference. It’s life changing for them,” she said.

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Nick Favoloro, a Resident Advisor who lives in the dorms with the students and helps with college counseling, highlighted the thorough consideration given to each student. “We give them as much individualized support as possible,” he said. Each student is workshopped in a group session, where they are encouraged to identify their strengths and even devise a single catch phrase that encapsulates their essence. “We really hope the students take ownership of their strengths and are able to promote them throughout the college application process,” he said.

The results speak for themselves. In recent years, HS Squared students have attained a 100 percent college acceptance rate. More impressively, they are experiencing a nearly 100 percent college graduation rate. That number is truly remarkable, as some studies show that college retention rates are as low as 10 percent for students in the same demographic.

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In addition to rigorous classroom time, students are able to participate in a variety of physical education opportunities that the Roaring Fork Valley is perhaps best known for. They kayak, raft, rock climb, hike, and mountain bike — experiences that are virtually unattainable to their peers at home and sometimes develop into side passions for them.

“The environment here is completely different from my home school,” said Edriana Cofer of Forth Worth, Texas.

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All students interviewed by The Sopris Sun identified the strong sense of community and mutual encouragement as the most beneficial quality of the program.

“It is a motivator,” said Leo Barrera. “Every year, I get to see there are other students of color pushing and driving themselves to go to college and pursue professional careers. It’s the communal vibe. You can be yourself and not be under a persona you might be back at home. You will be accepted with open arms,” he said.

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Third-year student Harlen Nolasco of the Bronx, New York, echoed that sentiment. “You make lifelong friendships,” he said of his peers at CRMS.

HS Squared has a budget of about $525,000, according to Blachly, most of which is raised by donations from private individuals. All student expenses from travel to room and board are covered by the program. The students are there to focus on maximizing their potential and helping their peers do the same.

“Community is a really big factor,” said Heaven Adams of New Orleans. “I felt really welcome my first year. Going back home, I felt a little depressed. I wanted to come back so bad.”

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