Start Early, Go Far

Dean’s Future Scholars Program is having a big impact

6/23/2010 | By: Jane Tors  |

Over its 10-year history, the Dean’s Future Scholars Program has come full circle and is seeing impressive results. The one-of-a-kind, comprehensive mentoring program based in the University’s College of Education encourages young people from local at-risk settings to focus their sights on college and become the first in their families to earn a college degree.

This spring, of an initial cohort of 53 students identified in sixth grade, 46 graduated from high school. Of the remaining students, one will earn a GED this summer, another is one credit short of graduating and plans to finish next fall, and the others have moved from the area. Over the past years, 75 to 80 percent of Dean’s Future Scholars participants have graduated from high school, which far surpasses the overall graduation rate for Washoe County.

Students in the program are identified for participation in the sixth grade. As they progress through middle and high school, they spend time every week with University of Nevada students trained and paid to serve as mentors. Throughout the school year, parents are encouraged to join their children for sessions that explore the college enrollment process and resources such as financial aid and scholarships. The students also attend on-campus programs and summer academic “camps” to gain skills, confidence and familiarity with the surroundings and the university experience.

Most of the University students who are mentors were, themselves, part of the program prior to their own graduation from high school. They are trained and supervised by Leslie Anne Serra, who joined the Dean’s Future Scholars in sixth grade and was the program’s first Dean’s Future Scholars participant to graduate from the University. Since earning her bachelor’s in health ecology in December 2009, Serra is pursuing a master’s degree in educational leadership as she also helps oversee the program’s corps of mentors.

“A lot of us have experienced what they go through, and we are really passionate because of it,” Serra said. “We know mentors can have a big impact. If it wasn’t for Dean’s Future Scholars, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Summer days on campus

For many students participating in Dean’s Future Scholars, the highlight is the summer academic program at the University. Through this year’s summer program, which began June 14, 25 University students are working as paid mentors and tutors, supporting the nearly 300 middle- and high-school scholars on campus.

Over a seven-week period, Dean’s Future Scholars will host a variety of on-campus activities. On June 21, 151 high school students began high-school-level classes in math for Washoe County School District credit. About 80 middle school students will learn writing skills, school-success skills and participate in group-building recreation activities that are taught by University students. In addition, 51 of the Dean’s Future Scholars’ high-school juniors and seniors are taking six credits of college coursework and working as paid interns in offices and settings across campus. The Dean’s Future Scholars staff strives to place these students in settings that relate to what they envision as their future careers.

University faculty member Bob Edgington, who coordinates the Dean’s Future Scholars Program, says the program’s emphasis on math is intentional and does more than build skills in algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus. It builds confidence. Research shows that students who have strong math skills are much more likely to be successful in college.

“We are giving them an experience that prepares them for the rigor of college,” he said. “We also encourage them to take {advanced placement} courses in high school.”

Looking back at her experience in the summer courses and working on campus while still in high school, Serra said, “Being here and knowing where things are really helped me gain confidence about going to college.”

Elements of success

“The program began with a simple idea: before middle- and high-school students can consider teaching as a career, they must first believe that college is a possibility,” said former College of Education Dean Bill Sparkman, who founded the program in 2000.

According to Edgington, there are five elements of mentoring programs that have been identified through research as contributing to improved retention and graduation rates: frequent mentoring with trained peers, involving parents and family, math acceleration, summer college courses for students in 11th and 12th grade as a bridge from high school to college, and on-campus work, involvement and group activities.

Most mentor programs focus on one or two of these elements, but the Dean’s Future Scholars Program incorporates all five. While other universities have mentor or recruitment programs that reach out to a similar demographic, Edgington believes Dean’s Future Scholars is unique: he and his team have not found another program in the country that is as comprehensive and incorporates all five of the research-based components.

The majority of Dean’s Future Scholars participants go on to attend a community college or university, or join the military. Of the first 150 students who participated in the program, 108 went on to attend community colleges or universities.

“The model works,” said Edgington.

While an intensive effort goes into seeing these students through their high-school years, Edgington and Serra agree the challenge heightens after high-school graduation.

“Getting them through the University has proven to be more challenging,” Edgington said. “It is the independence factor… you have to do it yourself.”

Serra says getting and staying involved with campus organizations is key to retaining students in college. When Dean’s Future Scholars students are enrolled at the University, they are enrolled in the TRiO Scholars Program, a federally funded program that provides academic assistance, support services and, in some instances, financial assistance to help income-qualified students, who would be the first in their families to attend and graduate from college.

Serra also credits the emergence of multicultural sororities and fraternities, noting that many – including her own sorority, Lambda Phi Xi – place an emphasis on academic success and offer study groups.

A web of collaborators

In the past several months, even stronger ties have been forged between the Dean’s Future Scholars and Washoe County School District.

“We are looking at our own diversity initiatives at the school district,” said Dawn Huckaby, human resources coordinator for Washoe County School District. “We began asking what can we do, especially for students interested in teaching and counseling. It looked like there was an area where we could really collaborate {with Dean’s Future Scholars}.”

The result is three part-time jobs. Two Dean’s Future Scholars participants now attending the University are working part-time in the district’s human resources department and a third student works with an after-school program at a local middle school.

“Many times {college students} have to hold down a job or more than one job while they are going to school,” Huckaby said. “These opportunities allow the students to be exposed to the school district culture, to get a foot-in-the-door and network.”

After a year of employment within the district, students can apply for a diversity scholarship offered through the district and geared toward teacher candidates. If they receive the scholarship, it can help with tuition and books and, in exchange, the recipient agrees to teach within the district for two years after earning a degree.

Another important collaborator is Nevada’s GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a federally funded program designed to reach low-income students in middle school and support their preparation to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. Because the demographics for entry into both programs are the same, high-school juniors in Dean’s Future Scholars qualify for a $10,000 scholarship through GEAR UP.

Program funding is always a priority, and the Dean’s Future Scholars is made possible through the generous financial support of Phil and Jennifer Satre, Nevadaworks, USA Funds, AT&T Aspire program, Nevada’s GEAR-UP Program, Washoe County Education Alliance, Robert Thimot and Nevada Public Education Foundation.

Edgington has seen some erosion of financial support as a result of the current economic situation. New sources will need to be identified to support some aspects of the program beyond this summer.

“A lot of this is about building relationships and bonds,” Edgington said of the web of individuals and organizations involved with Dean’s Future Scholars.

With a grin he added: “It’s addictive.”


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