Montgomery College student council chair Gabriela Rodriguez said access to college should not rely on luck.
“[Education] is essential, because it is something that no one can take from you,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez spoke at a press conference Thursday, introducing a new program, created in partnership between Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College and the Universities at Shady Grove, that hopes to provide a pathway to college completion for students who normally are underrepresented in college, such as low income, black, Hispanic and first-generation college students.
Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success, or ACES, will identify at-risk students as they enter high school, and then provide them with a personal electronic college preparation program, college preparations classes and workshops, summer programs, tutoring, mentoring, assistance applying to college scholarships and applications college site visits and more.
Rodriguez, a 2006 Kennedy High graduate of Silver Spring and first-generation college student, said she thinks the program will keep more students in high school, and push more into college.
She moved to the United States with her family from her home country of El Salvador in 2002.
“Immigrant families, when they come here, they are focused on working,” she said. “They don’t know the process and how to apply for financial aid. This program will grab them by the hand.”
Next year, the program will be offered to about 1,920 students total — about 240 students each in eight Montgomery high schools, including Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, Gaithersburg, John F. Kennedy, Northwood, Rockville, Watkins Mill and Wheaton. It is expected to expand.
“This is about opening up the vision — the horizons — that kids have as they look out into the future,” Montgomery schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said. “... As kids look around, I think they will see the boundaries — the horizons — are limitless.”
Argelia Rodriguez, the president and CEO of the District of Columbia College Access Program, said the key to seeing students go to college — and graduate — is a long-term commitment to their success.
“It is sitting down with the kids over and over and over again until they get it,” she said. “You have to convince the student how important it is.”
The Washington-based program serves about 17,000 high school students and 6,000 college students annually.
By the time that the CAP students are in senior year, they are attending 100 hours of counseling in one school year.
Argelia Rodriguez believes that her program attributed to the increase in graduating students in the district who go to college — the percentage has increased from about 30 percent to about 60 percent in the time since the program began, she said.
A critical part of the program is involving parents in the process, she said.
“We would not have had the success we did if we had not brought the whole family along,” she said.
Starr; Stewart Edelstein, the executive director of Universities at Shady Grove; and DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College, began talking last school year about what kind of a program students needed, Pollard said.
This spring, a committee of school, college and campus officials met to develop the program, which will be funded by all three organizations.
Budget details are not yet finalized, said Elizabeth Homan, Montgomery College spokeswoman.
The college will hire eight coaches, one program director and one readiness coordinator for the program, she said.
The organizations also will set up scholarship funds for students and funds will be raised through private and corporate doners. An anonymous donor at the Community Foundation for Montgomery County gave $10,000 for the program, and officials say they hope others will continue to donate.
Montgomery College is the “linchpin” between high school and a bachelor’s degree, Pollard said.
“[This is] how to ensure more of our community’s children obtain success and their baccalaureate degrees,” Pollard said.
Nancy Leopold, executive director of CollegeTracks, said that this is a great first step for the county.
CollegeTracks is a Bethesda-based organization that helps students in Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Wheaton high schools apply and attend college; last year the program served 595 high school students and 120 college students.
Of the 330 seniors helped, 99 percent were admitted to at least one college or tech school, Leopold said.
The programs will work side by side in Wheaton High next year, she said.
“The number of slots for ACES kids is far smaller than the students who need college access services,” Leopold said, “so we are excited to work side by side with them and we think that it will actually make the enrollment process at Montgomery College a bit more student-friendly.”
Argelia Rodriguez said that to prove ACES is successful — and to raise funds for the program — it will be important for the school system to use data and hard numbers to track the success of the students, and the counselors, or coaches, who are helping them.
“You have to have tangible goals that are set, met and evaluated,” she said. “Because otherwise you will end up with anecdotal evidence only.”
Students’ needs are increasing, Pollard said. The number of Montgomery College students requesting financial aid increased by 80 percent during the past five years, she said.
“We need to give them the opportunity to reach their potential,” said Edelstein, who came up with the initial idea for the collaboration.
The county’s economy relies on it, Edelstein said.
“This is not just a social issue,” he said. “It is an economic imperative.”