High school-to-college  alliance gets high marks

Justin Little, a Colorado Mesa University college and career advisor, meets with Grand Junction High School senior Patrick Hutton, right, at Grand Junction High School. The number of District 51 high school students enrolling in CMU classes is rising.

A collaboration between Colorado Mesa University, School District 51 and Montrose County School District to get more high school graduates to attend college is working.

Both school districts saw an increase in the number of graduates attending college this year, one year after the career and college advisors started working with high school seniors.

Half of District 51's Class of 2018 is in college this year, compared to 47 percent last year. In Montrose County, 52 percent of recent graduates are in college this year compared to 44 percent last year.

Beyond the numbers, Grand Junction High School counselor Lori Plantiko said she's noticed a difference with having an extra person working with students.

Career and college advisor Justin Little meets with every GJHS senior to talk about their plans for the future. He also talks with entire classes and will meet with younger students who come see him.

Having Little working with seniors means Plantiko can focus on mental health and social and emotional skills with her students, as well as scheduling. Before, Plantiko was responsible for those things as well as helping seniors figure out their plans for the future.

"When you're so busy, you do everything but you don't do it great, so to have a little extra help means we can do everything a little better," she said. Little said while he meets with every senior at least twice, there's about 50 percent of students that he'll meet with more frequently. Roughly 25 percent of students don't need his help because they know exactly what they want to do and how to get there, and another 25 percent of students are just focused on graduating from high school.

"That middle section, those are the kids with the opportunity to go to school but maybe don't know how or need a push to get started," Little said.

Those students often don't think they can afford to go to college so they don't even try, Little said.

They don't know about financial aid or how to fill out forms to qualify for scholarships and grants.

Senior Patrick Hutton wasn't sure he even wanted to go to college.

Patrick said he met with Little about post-graduation plans after coaxing from his mom. Now he's planning to attend CMU and pursue a degree in criminal justice to become a police officer.

"I'm around that kind of life where kids end up in the system at 18 years old, and I want to help other people," Patrick said. "Having a positive role model in your life makes a positive difference and makes you want to work as hard or harder than that person."

The goal of the college and career advisor program is to get students into any kind of post-high school training, said CMU President Tim Foster, whether that's a bachelor's degree at the University of Northern Colorado or a certificate from Western Colorado Community College.

"It's our mission," Foster said. "That's the whole goal of how do we increase the college-going rate of Mesa County kids and how do you increase their achievement level?"

That mission also drives the increasing focus on concurrent enrollment, Foster said.

The number of high school students taking college courses is also increasing, from 549 students in the 2014-2015 school year to 829 students this year, a 51 percent increase.

Students who take concurrent classes can start college with credits already under their belts and a familiarity with how college classes work, Foster said.

"If you really focus on students, it is good for them to be on a college campus and get that experience," Foster said. "It's even better for a first generation student to be on campus, to realize how comfortable they are and that they're bright enough and if they work hard, they fit in."

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