A stunning 72 percent of the Payson Unified School District (PUSD) students in a six-year, federally funded Gear Up grant program plan to go to college after graduation, compared to less than 50 percent in a normal year, said Kristi Ford, the Gear Up grant coordinator.
“The numbers tell the story. After a phone call last night, 99 of my remaining 136 are going to college. Five are still undecided on location, but the rest are either enrolled or in process.
“Eight are going military, and three on missions for their church ... so ... what should be learned? If kids know the level of expectation is high, they will rise to it as long as they know they have support,” said Ford.
Typically, Payson’s college attendance and graduation rates lag the state average, but the Gear Up grant contingent are reporting college attendance rates far above the state average.
Nonetheless, the district apparently intends to abandon the program next year because it didn’t get a renewal of the federal grant. As a result, Kristi Ford will move to Utah this summer to take another job and the district has no plan to fund any program similar to Gear Up.
Not only did the Gear Up students have a plan for college, students from every level of the class received scholarships, contributing to a school record of some $1.25 million in awards for the senior class.
“As for scholarships, this year they were not just received by kids in the top 10 percent, kids with IEPs (individual education plans), kids with special gifts and special needs, kids in almost every category received help,” said Ford.
Ford said what thrilled her the most was that all the Gear Up grant students learned they could afford to pay for college because she coached them through early application to FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
“The most exciting part, though, is that with the early completion of FAFSA, kids knew they could afford college,” she said.
The road to these successes was not easy, however.
Ford started the six-year odyssey with the students in middle school. She met each child, went to the students’ homes and met with their families.
She knew every teacher they had, every grade they received and what additional help they needed.
On Ford’s Facebook page, parent Kamae Carnes had this to say about Ford:
“I still have the RCMS rulebook with your handwritten Cell # on the front,” said Carnes, “When you wrote (in) it you said ‘I will be traveling all through middle school and high school with this class, you will need my number!!!!!’ And yes — I called you many times — and thank you for believing in my child!”
Another parent, Jana Cline had this to say, “Thank you for not giving up. Thank you for pushing forward and thank you for being these kids’ mentor. They will always look back and say do you remember what Ms Ford said? Or do something that only you taught them to do. So thank you. And yes, your number is on speed dial ....” she wrote on Ford’s Facebook page.
Ford said she could not have done her work without the parents.
“Never once in the years I worked with these kids did I have an unsupportive parent,” she said. “If they know you love their child, and they know that you will go to the mat to put supports in place, parents are there!”
The other part of the success of this grant? Ford, herself. She put in hours and sacrificed to see these young people get through school.
One young man she worked with made his graduation requirements with just 15 minutes to spare.
Ford told the story in an email.
“The student was enrolled in an online class for credit recovery. He had to have the credit to graduate. He had turned in all of his work by the deadline, but the work was sub par. The online instructor stuck her neck way out and allowed me to proctor him redoing 18 lessons, six quizzes, and three tests. Over 15 hours, he completed the work with attention to detail this time, and she gave him credit,” said Ford.
What Ford did not say in the email, she sat in her room with the young man the day before graduation until 11:45 p.m. He had until midnight to get the work completed. Numerous people witnessed her dedication and hard work for this student.
Ever humble, Ford finished the story by saying, “Just one small example to prove that many PUSD (Payson Unified School District) teachers truly are invested in the kids,” she wrote.
It was true, without her fellow teachers, Ford could not have done her job.
Yet Ford gave up vacations to help students who just did not understand math or other subjects. She came in before school started and often stayed until 9 p.m.
Students could always come to Ford’s room for a snack or bottle of water. She offered a refuge from life’s challenges, a place for students to come and find a sympathetic ear or an advocate.
Ford often went to bat for students, explaining to teachers why a student might need a little extra attention or understanding.
One of Ford’s students had lost one of her parents and struggled to focus in school. Then the second parent died and the student simply froze in grief.
One of the student’s teachers came to Ford complaining the child had just given up on school and spent hours staring into space.
“Do you know what happened?” Ford asked the teacher.
But after Ford explained, the teacher immediately felt sympathy for the child. The teacher changed her approach, and the student began to flourish again.
On Ford’s Facebook page, graduate Lyndsay Popke said, “Thank you, Kristi Ford, for being my motivation when I had none. You’ve always believed in me when no one else did. You have changed my life in so many ways and I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”
In a graduation message to her Gear Up students, Ford put her heart on the page:
“We are less than 24 hours from graduation. By this same time tomorrow evening, I will have 176 children who have left my nest. I have had the privilege of watching them grow and mature for the last six years. Although part of me would like to hang on to them, most of me is so amazingly proud of their accomplishments and of what their lives mean ... not just to me, but to the wider world. These kids, like all kids, are important. They are important because they are individuals ... different in so very many ways; gifted in so very many ways; loving in so very many ways. They will be amazing bosses, businessmen and women, actors and actresses, nurses and doctors, politicians, soldiers, parents, friends and neighbors. I don’t say this because I love them, which I do: I say this because I believe in them. I see the people they can become. On this eve of their graduation, I pray that they will spread their wings and fly. I pray that they will never look back, always move forward, and reach the fullest measure of their creation. Knowing as I have always told them, that they are only limited by what they tell themselves they can accomplish. I pray, that they will see in themselves all that I see.”
In a final message about the Gear Up grant, Ford had this to say, “The purpose of the grant was to get more low-income kids attending college. I see a bigger purpose. These kids have a plan for their futures. Graduation isn’t so scary. They know they can ‘do’ college. They see continued education as a path.”
The numbers don’t lie — Ford reached the goals of the grant and showed the district another side of education.