By Laura Frazier
Two years ago, Roosevelt High School senior Alexandria Carter had no plans to attend college.
“I didn’t think school was for me,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I could do it ’cause no one told me I could.”
As graduation approaches and seven of 10 Roosevelt graduates head to colleges, Carter is happy to be among them.
Carter isn’t alone. The number of Roosevelt students enrolling in college has increased 26 percent in the past two years, thanks to a federal grant that allowed the school to hire a full-time liaison between the high school and colleges.
Angela Nusom was hired as the college and career transitions manager after Roosevelt was deemed one of Oregon’s worst-performing schools in a federal government report card. The grant pays half Nusom’s salary, with Portland Public Schools picking up the rest.
Though Roosevelt had counselors who helped students prepare for college, Nusom’s role is more focused on making connections between the high school and higher education.
“I really think of myself as more of a bridge builder,” Nusom says. “What didn’t exist was the linkage between all the different things.”
Principal Charlene Williams says the grant gave the school resources to hire Nusom, who could help build a college-ready culture at Roosevelt.
“This campus has embraced the fact that if we’re really going to do justice by our kids we need to give them real preparation so they are ready,” Williams says.
Once hired, Nusom started looking for universities willing to partner with the high school.
Western Oregon University in Monmouth has been the most responsive to Nusom’s outreach efforts. Last year, students from Roosevelt who were going to WOU met frequently to discuss the transition to college. This year, the students returned from WOU once a month to meet with the Roosevelt seniors who will follow them next year.
Also, Will Saguil, a volunteer AmeriCorps member from WOU, has been coming to the school once a week to mentor the 2012 Roosevelt grads headed to the college. That type of personalized attention matters, he says, at a diverse school like Roosevelt.
“It’s a big challenge to overcome being first-generation or low-income,” he says. “A lot of these kids don’t have friends or family support. Trying to support them and help them find resources to afford college is really important.”
Carter, who will attend WOU in the fall, says the mentoring was instrumental in helping her prepare for the next step.
“Other people keep me engaged and motivated to actually do it,” she says. “They’re in the same position, and I’m not alone. It helps me a lot.”
Karen Marrongelle, assistant vice chancellor for academic standards and collaborations at the Oregon University System, says the WOU/ Roosevelt mentoring program is unique in Oregon, as well as critical.
“When a peer group goes off to college and comes back and talks about the positive experiences they are having in college, that all feeds into a college-going culture,” she says. “It’s a great model that could be replicated in many other places.”
Nusom hopes the mentoring program also will help keep students from dropping out of college.
So far, all 12 members of the Roosevelt class of 2011 who chose WOU have stayed.
Rob Findtner, WOU’s director of admissions, says the program is a good fit, though it is hard in the first year to tell how it will affect retention in the long run.
Nusom also has helped the high school reach out to Portland Community College through a program called Future Connect. Students in the program meet frequently, and are advised and tracked as a Roosevelt group once they enroll, as well as helped with scholarships.
“We can chase down the ones who are falling off and celebrate the ones who are doing great,” she says.
Roosevelt students at PCC show about a 20 percent higher retention rate than the community college’s overall retention rate, Nusom says.
In addition to PCC and WOU, Nusom says she has connected with the University of Portland, Concordia, Lewis and Clark and Marylhurst and is working on building relationships with Portland State and Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Williams says the programs encourage students to go to college, but also help kids who don’t choose college.
Roosevelt graduate Darian Lucas considered WOU, but decided to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He says meeting with counselors helped him make his choice.
“I just told them what my aspirations were,” Lucas says. “They showed me all the things I needed to know about.”
With the federal grant set to expire at the end of the 2013 school year, Williams says the school is applying for other grants to keep Nusom’s position.
Williams hopes Roosevelt’s program will encourage students to return to North Portland after graduating college. Nusom says she hopes that the North Portland neighborhood will rally to save the program. She says the program is about more than Roosevelt.
“We are trying to shift a community,” Nusom says.