Program Profile: Ontario-Montclair Promise Scholars

October 26, 2015
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By Liz Glaser - Graduate Research Assistant 

Fast Facts

Name: Ontario-Montclair Promise Scholars

Location: Ontario-Montclair, California

Students Served: 7,300

Universal Program: Yes

Program Age: 5 years

One important aspect of early awareness is minimizing cost barriers to low-income students, and one way to achieve that is establishing promise programs. Promise programs typically provide tuition assistance for all students in a particular school or district to increase college completion. East of Los Angeles, the Ontario-Montclair School District (OMSD) and Chaffey Joint Union High School District (CJUHSD) offers a large promise-style program for about 23,000 K-8 students and 9,000 high school students. The program currently directly serves about 7,300 students and is in the process of scaling up. Because the Ontario-Montclair Promise Scholars (OMPS) serves such a large population, they do things a little differently in order to make the biggest impact. Leslie Sorensen, their director, caught me up on the history and impact of the program, which I'm happy to share today.

In order for OMPS to be most effective, they begin early. In fifth grade, every student in the district attends a field trip to a community college in the area. This serves as the first introduction for many students about what postsecondary education can look like.  Every child is given a t-shirt with the college promise emblazoned on it, and they tour the school and meet current students. These trips kick off their three pronged curriculum, which stays present through high school. This approach demonstrates to every student in OMSD that 1) there is a spot at college waiting for them, 2) the promise scholars will help students complete their FAFSA or DREAM applications, and 3) the promise scholars will stay with them as they progress through high school. Though the program is only built through high school, the relationships and skills last much longer. By engaging over 200 volunteers, college students, and community members annually, the promise scholars demonstrate that there are plenty of adults interested in the success of the students in their community.

Curriculum for the promise extends from fifth grade to 12th grade, though it hasn’t been implemented in every grade quite yet because the program is relatively new. Sorensen explained that as of now they have points of programming at critical times to really get the message across. For instance, in sixth grade, community leaders visit classrooms to discuss why having a college degree can help them join the workforce; in eighth grade, they bring in first generation college students to explain the realities of higher education; in 11th grade, they deliver an assessment to every student in math and English to determine if they need to take remedial courses prior to graduation, instead of waiting until college. Each of these key elements is targeted at students when they’re most attentive to these activities, and it has helped the OMPS gain traction and success with students. Their programming culminates with FAFSA and DREAM application campaigns, pushing the completion rate to 54% from its original starting point at roughly 37%. FAFSA and DREAM applications are a big driver at OMPS, especially because a majority of their students are on free-or-reduced meals, so their access to federal aid is important.

An approach like this is intended to do two things: actually increase college-going rates in the district, and contribute to a shift in the community overall. OMPS is doing both. Because of the three-pronged approach, students have a group they can safely ask questions to, get help from, and feel supported by as they grow in school.  As program staffers, AmeriCorps volunteers, and community members donate their time and energy to the promise, students get comfortable with building support networks and finding the right resources for success. Parents also benefit from this approach by gaining the appropriate resources to support their students and change the culture. Sorensen told me that the district is comprised of about 94 percent students who will be the first in their families to attend college; many activities initiated by the OMPS are designed to make college conversations easier for students and parents alike.

Because this promise is on such a large scale, its effects can be seen in a variety of places. Sorensen says that “the conversation is changing” and she’s noticing a big cultural shift in the district. Because the promise doesn’t offer full-tuition but does offer scholarships, the team has a diversified funding stream that really benefits from dedicated smaller donors throughout the community. The Promise Scholarship is nominal and fluctuates based on the capacity of the Foundation, but it is universal, so it is given to every student who goes on to a partner college. The Foundation fund-raises in creative ways to have a big impact. With fundraising events throughout the year and partnerships with United Way and various corporate sponsors, Sorensen has noticed the entire community involving themselves any way they can. Because community leaders actively speak about college and its importance with these students in a variety of settings, students are more comfortable openly discussing their college plans and questions. I asked Sorensen about how she felt the community changing, and she had plenty of anecdotes and a general sense that a community shift is happening.

The college promise has been an NCAN member for three years and has been working longer, but it has not been around long enough to have a college cohort yet. They’re excited to expand the number of students served each year, and this year’s graduating class will be the first promise class to attend college, so looking at their progress is highly anticipated. Because the “early” part of early awareness is heavily emphasized with this program, college-going really sinks into the psyches of students from a young age. Recently, a student was out with his family wearing one of the college promise t-shirts – they’re bright blue – and a volunteer stopped and asked about it. His answer represents the change in attitude that has percolated since OMPS was established in the district; he smiled brightly and exclaimed “It means I’m going to college!”

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