CRMS spends summer giving inner-city scholars a boost
Mount Sopris is symbolic in a lot of ways for 73 high school students who just spent the last five weeks studying and getting acquainted with the outdoors through a special science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) enrichment program at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale.
It’s a distant, yet reachable destination that embodies the challenges that lie ahead for each of the participants in the High School High Scholar (HS)2 academic camp.
Founded in 2007 by Fort Worth, Texas, philanthropists and part-time Roaring Fork Valley residents Mollie and Garland Lasater, the program invites low-income, minority students from Dallas-Fort Worth and other inner-city schools to set a path toward a college education.
“These young people are all raised by parents who didn’t graduate from college, and many of them didn’t graduate high school,” notes Janis Taylor, who teaches chemistry in the (HS)2 program and is a teacher at Coal Ridge High School during the regular school year.
“If we picture the game of getting into and graduating from college as a playing field, the field for these kids isn’t just uphill. It’s rocky and thorny and sometimes truly unsafe,” Taylor said. “This program gives the students support to take some of the bumps out of the playing field.”
Earlier this month, 33 of the (HS)2 students, including several of the 22 graduating seniors who successfully completed the three-year program and graduated on Friday, split up into groups to climb Mount Sopris.
“Many of these kids have never hiked before, and to see the encouragement they get from their peers is incredible to watch,” Cindy Blachly, (HS)2 program director for CRMS, said. “They won’t let each other fail.
“As a private school with a public purpose, what we strive to do with this program is serve a different demographic and expose students from other parts of the country to rigorous academics and the outdoor opportunities we have here,” Blachly said.
In addition to the traditional Sopris hike, the students are also exposed to activities such as kayaking, rock climbing, music, blacksmithing, silversmithing and glass-making.
“It’s a great way to get away from the city and experience the mountain life,” said Christopher Mireles, one of this year’s (HS)2 graduates from San Antonio, Texas. “It’s taught me so much about myself and how we can help each other.”
investing in the future
(HS)2 was begun by the Lasaters in collaboration with the Aspen Science Center and CRMS, and for the first four years was managed by the Science Center before CRMS took over the program in 2010. The Science Center still hosts a weekly barbecue and science project showcase as part of the camp.
The program was modeled after the successful Math and Science for Minority Students (MS)2 program at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
To qualify, students must come from a traditionally underserved community including African American, Latino or Native American, come from a low-income family as determined by qualifying for free or reduced fee lunch, be the first generation in their family to set their sights on college, rank in the top 10 percent of their class academically, and have a passion for STEM learning.
Currently, the program partners with qualified students from public schools in Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio, Texas; New Orleans; Bronx and Brooklyn, New York; Fort Myers, Florida, and Denver. One private school, the Cristo Rey Institute in New York City, also participates.
The program is free of charge to the participants. Funding from the Mollie and Garland Lasater Charitable Trust and a variety of other foundation grants and individual donors covers the $21,000 cost per student to attend the three-year program starting the summer after their freshman year in high school.
“When you invest in education, you are making a difference,” Mollie Lasater says in the 2015 (HS)2 annual report. “You are turning lives around.”
The program has grown from just 12 students that first year to 65 students last summer and to 73 this year.
Between 2009 and 2014, 100 percent of the participating students have graduated and gone on to attend college at prestigious universities and colleges including Rice, Duke, MIT, Southern Methodist, Texas A&M, University of Texas, University of North Carolina, and, in Colorado, Regis and Colorado College.
“These kids come to our campus, and it’s such a mind-blowing experience for them, because it’s so different compared to where they come from,” Blachly said.
Adds Taylor, “I know from listening to the students that this program is, for many of them, the first place they have felt completely safe and loved.
“When the second- and third-year students refer to (HS)2, they will most often use the words ‘home’ and ‘family,’” she said. “Maybe a part of that is physical safety, and I’m sure a big part is emotional and intellectual safety.”
Mireles would like to study biomedical engineering, and has his eye on Duke University as he enters his senior year of high school in San Antonio.
“This is just a phenomenal program, and I could never expect to be so fully immersed in academics and have these other activities like we have here,” he said. “It’s a place where we can all talk and relate to each other and really bond. It is like a second home.”
Second-year students Osa Ibude and Christopher Green both attend Achievement First High School in Brooklyn, New York City, where they will be juniors this fall. They were recognized as high-performing students when they were freshmen, and it was recommended through their pre-collegiate program that they consider applying for (HS)2.
Ibude also considered applying for Phillips’ (MS)2 but liked the outdoor component of the CRMS program and a chance to see the Rocky Mountains.
“Socially, it’s really helped me because I get to meet different people from different cultures,” he said. “Academically, I have gotten a lot more confident in my writing and speaking abilities, which will really help me develop my science and math skills.”
Ibude is still weighing his college options but aspires to study criminology and would like to be an FBI agent someday. Green has an eye toward Georgetown University.
“I have benefited so much from the math classes and chemistry, and I know I will go back to school ahead of most of my class,” Green said. “I recommend everybody who can to come here, because it really helps you succeed and prepare for college.”
Green and Ibude will also be talking up the (HS)2 program at their neighborhood middle school as they recruit new pre-collegiate students.
Rebecca Hernandez, who will be a senior at JFK High School in Denver this fall, also just graduated from (HS)2 and credited the program with making it a realistic goal to study mechanical engineering, perhaps at Northwestern University.
“I just fell in love with the program when I first came here,” she said. “I was scared at first to come to a place where I don’t know anyone, but they really took us in and made us feel like we belong.
“There is such a sense of community here, and we’re getting the experience we need to go on to college,” said Hernandez, who would like to maybe come back to CRMS and teach in the summer program.
Jessica Garza, a 2013 (HS)2 alum, is doing just that. She graduated this spring from Southern Methodist University where she studied geology and math. She was back for the summer as a climbing instructor and alumni speaker as part of (HS)2, and will be returning to CRMS full time as a teaching fellow this fall.
“This is a pretty unique program, and a lot of the schools these kids come from are not the greatest at preparing them to apply for and enter college,” said Garza, who went to Amon Carter-Riverside High School in Fort Worth but was able to complete her senior year at CRMS.
“The teachers and staff really take care of you and make sure you’re learning what you need to learn to go to college,” she said. “I know it really opened my eyes to what was possible.”
CRMS and (HS)2 also turned her on to rock climbing, which has become one of her passions aside from her studies and career aspirations. Garza coached youth climbing teams during college, and has also done several competitions.
Blachly said the program has not been as successful in attracting Native American students but is looking for support to expand its reach into that segment of students.