Priscila Cantu is halfway through her freshman year at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UT-RGV). Getting into college was one of her high school goals, and while she was striving to reach it, she made it the goal of her classmates as well.
Through Premier High School of Palmview’s Go-Center, a peer mentoring program where a group of students are trained to help their fellow students apply for college, Priscila and several other students helped their classmates complete college applications, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and scholarships. Of the 43 students in her class, all of them were accepted to a college. Currently, 30 of them are enrolled in college.
“At times it was hard to give up my time because I also had to concentrate on school, but I learned to balance school and mentoring. It made me happy because I got to help some of my classmates prepare to go to college. Someday, I want to start my own business, and the program has helped me build my own communication skills and gain confidence,” said Priscila.
College acceptance is a priority at ResponsiveEd’s Premier High School of Palmview, but completing applications is a challenge when 95% of the students are English Language Learners (ELL) who struggle with the application process. As the first members of their families to apply to college, many of the students depend on the school for help to correctly fill out the paperwork.
Eleazar Cantu, the school’s College Readiness Specialist, knew he could not oversee each student with the detail they needed, so he looked for programs that could help his students pursue college. In 2009, his school was selected to receive help from college mentors through University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UT-RGV). In 2011, the school was once again selected to receive help from UT-RGV’s new G-Force college counseling program.
As the teacher in charge of coordinating the program, Mr. Cantu decided to send six of his seniors to get trained in the college admissions process at UT-RGV and then bring them back to support the rest of the senior class. When the G-Force program ended, he was able to continue his own peer mentoring program called the Go-Center.
“Overseeing the schools college readiness program with the help of the College Start Program and G-Force helped me become more aware of how to encourage students to become more interested in college and college opportunities. Today I continue working with some of the methods that were used by these programs,” said Mr. Cantu.
Sophomore Maria Garza, one of Mr. Cantu’s mentors this year, wanted to be part of the program because she wanted to learn more about college.
“I’ve learned about scholarships, how to apply to college and the various classes that are available. I now know how to access the system and how to apply for scholarships. Most of my classmates want to go to college, but they just don’t know the steps,” said Maria.
With checklists, the mentors hold their classmates accountable, making sure they have all taken the PSAT, SAT and ACT. When the college admissions season starts, they keep each other on track filling out applications, submitting paper work, completing FAFSA applications and applying for scholarships. The students even look over tax statements to make sure everything is filled out correctly. By the end of the process, every single graduating senior will have been accepted to college which is a district and high school expectation.
Senior Anahi Montelongo believes one of the benefits of the program is that students are more at ease asking their peers questions.
“I know how I felt when I didn’t know anything about the college admissions process. As a mentor, I am better able to help other students. They open up more freely to classmates because they are too shy to ask a teacher. My advice is for them not to be afraid to ask questions even when they think they are dumb. You don’t want to make any mistakes,” said Anahi.
Campus director, Selma Femat said the leadership of the college readiness specialist and willingness of students to help each other is part of the school’s family dynamic.
“Most of our students will be the first in their families to attend college, and there is a tremendous sense that we all need to come together to help each other. All of the staff help students when needed, but this program would not be possible without Mr. Cantu who is one of the most driven and self-motivated young men I know,” said Ms. Femat.
The success of each student is confirmed in Premier High School of Palmview’s performance. The school ranked in Texas’ top 20 preforming alternative accountability charter schools in 2014-15.
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