What began as just an excuse to get out of class, started one former Evergreen Junior High School student on her path toward a college degree.
While Jessica Puryer, 20, was a student at Evergreen she viewed the school’s visit to Montana State University as just a way to get out of class. Little did she know that it was going to change her life.
“It started as just an excuse to get out of class, but after the first visit I knew it was something I was going to do. It didn’t matter if I had the money or not. I knew it was possible and I was definitely going to go,” said Puryer.
Evergreen Post Secondary Planning Coordinator Laurel Ekern made sure she did go. Ekern helped Puryer secure a $10,000 scholarship and a full grant, helping pave the way for Puryer, who is scheduled to graduate from Montana State University this fall with a two-year medical assistant degree.
“It’s a huge accomplishment. I’ll be the first in my family that has done it. My dad is extremely proud. He didn’t expect this at all. He’s absolutely ecstatic about it,” the 2011 Glacier graduate said about graduating from college.
Puryer is one of many success stories of Evergreen’s post-secondary planning program, which was started in 1999 with a GEAR UP grant. Nearly 78 percent of Puryer’s 2011 Evergreen classmates went on to college, 84 percent if you include trade programs and schools and 92 percent if you include military.
“That absolutely blows most schools in the state out of the water,” Ekern said of the 2011 graduating statistics (according to the National Center for Higher Education Management, only 60.5 percent of Montana high school graduates went directly to college in 2010.)
“What this program really does is make the students set goals for their future and then connects them with the resources and support to achieve those goals,” said Ekern, who is in her sixth year at Evergreen.
These resources include job shadowing, career luncheons, scholarships sessions, financial aid sessions and college visits. Ekern said that it’s critical to get the students on the campus.
“Often students have a preconceived notion about what college is, to get them on a campus and have them experience the environment and participate in real college activities can really open their eyes to exactly what college is like,” Ekern said.
While some students are excited and eager to go to college, some students are anxious and scared. These visits alleviates the fear of many of the students. Evergreen eighth-grader Ashley Denby was one of these students before her visit to the University of Montana this year.
“I was really, really scared about going to college, but after the visit I knew it was something I could do. It made me want to go to college and made me want to be prepared for when I do go,” Denby said.
Approximately 180 Evergreen students or Evergreen graduates visited a college campus through the program this year. The seventh-graders will visit Flathead Valley Community College, the eighth-graders visited the University of Montana and Missoula College. The high school students went on a two-day visit to MSU and Gallatin College.
During the visit to MSU, Puryer and two other Evergreen graduates attending MSU spoke to them about college life, finding their niche in college and how to prepare for it.
Wanting to go to college is just the first step, it takes a lot of work to get there, Ekern said.
“Getting to college isn’t as easy as just saying ‘I’m going to college, it’s a lengthy process,” Ekern said. “They need to know how to apply, they need to take entrance exams and they need to secure funding. There is a lot of work that goes into getting to college.”
Puryer said once she decided she wanted to go to college, it was Ekern that showed her how.
“She sat down with me and showed me all the different scholarships and helped me apply. I knew nothing about financial aid and she helped me get a grant,” Puryer said. “She (Ekern) will go to any extent to help a kid.” Puryer added.
“They have the drive and they have the desire and now it is up to us to help them develop a plan to achieve their goals,” Ekern said.
Evergreen Junior High School counselor Cynthia Thomas works with the students to develop their four-year plan. She said having a plan is essential for making the dream a reality.
“The majority of our eighth-graders know what college they want to attend and have a rough idea of what they want to study,” Thomas said. “For most of our students college isn’t this mystic idea; it’s something concrete and they have a plan to get there.”
Ekern understands that college isn’t for every student. The program also directs students toward trade schools and the military.
“We understand that one size doesn’t fit all. We’re here to guide the students. We help them discover what their passion is and give them the resources to pursue it,” Ekern said.
The post secondary has seen a lot of success lately — 95.4 percent of Evergreen students plan to pursue education after high school —, but Ekern said this success took time and a lot work to reach. The work began by making Evergreen a college-aware campus. They did this by making sure their was dialogue between the students and their parents about college. The teachers and school staff also became involved in the students’ future.
“When the students started hearing their teachers start talking about them going to college, it made them feel like the teachers believed in their ability to go to college,” Ekern said. “But this shift in focus didn’t take place until the students were being addressed about college at home and at school.”
Even after working at the school for six years, Ekern still enjoys watching her students pursue their college dreams, especially the students who had no plans on going to college when they started.
“It’s beautiful. I love to be surprised. It’s absolutely incredible to see them achieve the things that you had hoped for them,” Ekern said.
The post secondary planning program began in 1999 with a GEAR UP grant. Evergreen didn’t qualify for the grant in 2011 because their CRT scores were too high to demonstrate the need for the grant. In June of 2011, the Evergreen school board saw the need for the program and voted to keep it, but they had to scale back the program. The program is operating on just a little more than one-third of the funds it once had. The program used to have a four-person staff that allowed them to keep contact with the students for the entirety of their high school career. Now, Ekern monitors the future of 550 students mainly by herself. She spends four days a week at the junior high and one day a week at either Glacier or Flathead High School.
“It would be the biggest blessing in the whole wide world,” Ekern said about getting the funds from the grant again.