When children are young, parents start thinking ahead for the future. Providing opportunities so they can excel in primary education. Saving money for college.
As familiar as this scenario might to some, it’s not the norm in parts of the country and around world. In fact, this scenario is not the norm for many living in a community right down the road from Denison.
Thirty percent of students at Newark High School drop out. Thirty percent actually attend college or advanced training, and 40 percent head straight into the work force.
Laurel Kennedy, Denison’s vice president for student development and former director of the John W. Alford Center for Service Learning, said that those percentages are just not sustainable in today’s economy.
“For many years, the economy was such that it would sustain a family where no one had a college degree. That’s just not the case any longer,” Kennedy said.
According to Kennedy, some families in Newark do not feel as though higher education is necessary to succeed financially–and generally–in life. Others don’t see it as a realistic option in monetary terms.
In 2009, Denison became a partner with A Call To College, a nonprofit college access organization that is based at Newark High School. Janet Schultz, a former member of Denison’s admissions team, was tasked with creating a program to show Newark students as young as second graders that college is possible and beneficial.
To that end, Schultz, who is the director of early awareness for A Call To College—which was founded by the late Newark High School and Denison graduate and trustee Lou Mitchell ’57 along with Jane Cook McConnell ’56—worked with others to create a program called PEAK: Providing Early Awareness and Knowledge in Newark City schools.
The PEAK Program now partners with faculty, staff, and student volunteers through Denison’s Alford Center, directed by Associate Professor Lyn Robertson ’70, along with volunteers from Ohio State University at Newark and the Central Ohio Technical College. The program strives to demonstrate to Newark students in second, fourth, sixth and eighth grades that college or any sort of higher education can add to a person’s life.
Schultz spent 2008 working Denison psychology professor Sarah Hutson-Comeaux ’91, studying the need of early college intervention. What they found: “a huge need,” for both parent and student education.
“We found many didn’t know the process, were worried about financing and career connection,” Schultz said.
A huge part of the program’s early successes was a grant through the Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA program, which is a federal service program specifically designed to fight poverty. Kennedy and Schultz worked together to write grants and landed a VISTA volunteer on Denison’s campus for three years. Both Ohio State at Newark and COTC also had VISTAs, which worked part time for their college and part time for the PEAK Program. Beginning this school year, the VISTA volunteers will be phased out due to the completion of the grant funding.
“We thought the AmeriCorps program would provide the scaffolding. What we’ve been doing at Denison with our VISTA volunteer is mobilizing students to be engaged in service,” Kennedy said.
Students, staff and faculty from the three colleges, as well as A Call To College staff and volunteers, go into Newark classrooms each year to facilitate programs like the second-grade “Celebrity Reader Week,” in which Denison President Dale Knobel was a participant; the sixth-grade Kids2College curriculum; and the eighth-grade Reality Store.
Kennedy said participating in the Reality Store was one of the most moving experiences of her involvement with the PEAK Program. Schultz said that the Reality Store is an exercise to simulate real life and financial situations at age 28. Students are assigned jobs, education levels, and family situations and are forced to see how their choice of education influences the rest of their lives.
“It was cool to see the looks on their faces and that they understand in this direct sense how important it is to further education to have a comfortable life,” Kennedy said. “It’s more difficult with just a high school diploma. It’s very, very hard to do. Watching them have that moment of awareness; it’s kind of fun.”
Laura Houcque ’13, an education major, first volunteered with the PEAK Program her sophomore year as part of a class assignment. The program was eye opening for Houcque, who is the first person on her mother’s side of her family to attend college. She said her high school in Illinois was similar to Newark.
“We didn’t have much awareness,” Houcque said about her high school. “I have never really realized how important college awareness programs are.”
Houcque said that now thinks “the earlier the better” when it comes to college awareness intervention.
“It made me feel that we were really making an impact,” Houcque said.
Kennedy said making an impact–with both Denison and Newark students–was what it was all about.
“The problems of public education are something that is very accessible to our students,” Kennedy said. “All of our students have gone through education, and many have gone through the public education system. Working in schools, that’s an easy entry point for them. It’s very accessible. They can understand there are issues and jump in with both feet.”
The PEAK program also has allowed students to learn more about students at other colleges. Kennedy said the three colleges surrounding Newark represent the “full spectrum of higher education.”
“It’s not only a way to educate our students about college access issues and education issues, more generally, but also a chance for our students to work side by side with students at other institutions.”
Now, three years into the program, those involved in PEAK are seeing the fruits of their labors – both within Newark and the Denison community.
Houcque said that she couldn’t wait to get back into the Newark schools.
“The first few times we walked into the classroom, it was crazy to see how excited the kids were,” she said.