“Never is (education) all about academics,” said Kristi Ford, GEAR UP Grant coordinator and teacher. “It’s children first, subjects second.”
For the past six years, Ford has been paid by the GEAR UP Grant from the federal government to follow a class (cohort) from seventh grade through graduation. She has offered them social and emotional support, remedial and advanced courses, intervention, tutoring, and done whatever it took to keep students in school and prepared for higher education.
How it all started
Ford said she got involved when the former superintendent, Casey O’Brien, called her to help.
“Casey called and told me about the grant,” she said. “The letters stand for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. Its focus is to increase college attendance in underprivileged communities.”
Since her cohort will graduate this year, Ford had planned on this being her last year, but the Payson Unified School District’s (PUSD) board threw her a curve ball when it voted to join with Eastern Arizona College to again apply for the grant at its Nov. 12 meeting.
“This is a cut and dried decision,” said Rory Huff, PUSD board member when the vote came up.
“If there are grant monies out there, I would like to be part of that,” said board member Jim Quinlan before he voted to apply for the grant.
What’s been done
To accomplish the goals of the grant, Ford has taught classes from remedial math and English, to the fun, but challenging Academic Decathlon.
She often stays at school from zero hour, which starts at 7:20 a.m. before school until 7 p.m. after school.
She regularly holds tutoring sessions and gives remediation classes during holidays.
She has gotten to know her students inside and out by visiting each class member’s home.
She has become their advocate.
“A lot of kids call me Mom — I am their academic mom,” she said.
Just like a mom, Ford has some rules — don’t lie; follow through; don’t give up; and failure is not an option.
Ford said she would go to almost any effort for her students.
She even rousted students out of bed the day after Christmas to make up work they failed to do for their English class that caused them to fail.
The value of advocacy
But she found her advocacy efforts made the most difference.
She told the story of one student to illustrate how paying attention makes a difference.
One afternoon after school as she helped the student put together an essay, Ford noticed her struggling to remain focused.
“I asked her what was going on,” said Ford.
The student said she was still sad because of the loss of her father.
Ford sympathized with her and they finished up the essay.
Soon after the tutoring session, the student lost her mother. Nonetheless, she remained in school.
A few months later, one of the student’s teachers came to Ford and asked why this student was failing her class.
“The teacher said she would not turn in her homework and often sat staring out of the window not focusing on class,” said Ford. “I asked the teacher if she knew what was going on in this girl’s life. The teacher said, ‘No,’ so I told her. She was shocked and devastated. She said, ‘I had no idea.’” Ford said the next time she saw the teacher, the teacher told her things were going much better.
Knowing the child and their situation helps, said Ford.
“You have to know the child, their parents, home situation, siblings, where they work, and who they date,” said Ford.
Filling in the gaps
Ford is a certified teacher and spent eight years on the school board. She said this has given her a unique perspective on what students need to thrive.
She continues to make discoveries about her students.
In her cohort’s freshman year, she held a math remediation course during the October break. She discovered that what happens in a child’s life can have profound effects on their ability to understand a lesson.
“I started with kindergarten math. The students had no problem understanding the concepts. Then I moved to first grade — that was fine too. But when I reached second grade math, some of the students had gaps in their knowledge,” she said.
She went through all of the math concepts students would learn through grade six. Every year from the second grade on, students had critical gaps in their knowledge that affected their grasp of math concepts.
“So, I called their parents and asked, ‘What happened in Suzy’s second (or third, fourth, fifth, sixth) grade year?” said Ford.
The answers astonished her. She discovered that each gap in a student’s knowledge matched up to some traumatic event — a divorce, death, illness, a move or an accident.
“These kids would sit in a classroom, but they had checked out,” said Ford.
So, she patiently filled in the gaps of their knowledge — and they excelled.
“These kids were told they couldn’t do math,” she said. With a little understanding and guidance, everything changed, said Ford.
Ford said she started her cohort with 214 students, but through attrition, that has dwindled to 165, “because of the economy,” she said.
But she’s done everything she can to keep those who stayed in school from paying rent to buying groceries.
“I have one student who has little time for homework because he is basically raising his younger siblings,” she said.
This student gets up early in the morning to feed breakfast and dress his younger siblings. His single mother has already left for one of her two jobs.
After he finishes school, he goes to his job where he works until 11 p.m. Then he comes home and puts everyone to bed.
“He has no time for homework,” she said.
But she’s supported him and kept him in school. He will finish this year.
Ford said she will find out this year how many students in her cohort will graduate. She has no idea how many will go to college.
Already, the story the data tells says her students have some of the highest math scores and they have an 88 percent pass rate on reading. She truly believes good schools reflect the values and value of the community.
“The quality of our schools determines the quality of our town,” she said.
Hopefully PUSD receives the GEAR UP Grant again and Ford decides to help another class complete their education prepared to go beyond high school.