Education group receives grant to support college-bound high schoolers

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A West County education group has received $384,000 from a foundation to increase financial aid advising and expand support for high school seniors thinking about going to college.

“It’s not feasible for students to get all the college access information they need from our counselors,” said Robert Bunce, the program director of the West Contra Costa County Public Education Fund, also known as The Ed. Fund. “To really get all of the information their families need to get them to college they need the assistance of the nonprofits that work in our schools.”

To help increase and align services available for public high school students wishing to apply for college, and to increase the partnerships between organizations in the community and local schools, in 2011 The Ed. Fund created the West County College Access Network, a collaborative effort between more than 25 community organizations.

A little less than half of the grant money is earmarked for the WCCAN to focus on increasing the percentage of students who fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, create college and career centers and establish “college-going collaborative teams” at these high schools, Bunce said.

The network hopes to increase FAFSA completion rates by at least 20 percent by next March, according to a presentation given to the School Board last Wednesday.

The remaining money will be used to provide additional scholarships for West Contra Costa public high school seniors headed to college, Bunce said.

“The grant is going to give us a very specific strategy to remove one of the major barriers, and one of the major barriers for our students is financial,” said School Board member Madeline Kronenberg. “One of the first things that is going to happen is we’re going to make sure our students know they financially can go to school. In order to do that they have to fill out the forms.”

The Ed. Fund is one of five organizations to receive this type of funding directed at FAFSA and financial aid advising, which is a new strategy from the College Access Foundation, Bunce said.

“Helping more low-income students complete the FAFSA and expanding access to financial aid advising are key components of this work, and our grant to the West Contra Costa Educational Fund is part of this effort,” said Foundation spokesman Andy Pino.

After $40 million in state cuts in the last six years, Kronenberg said the District is aware of the aggressive need for outside funding.

“We’re very committed to looking at barriers, understanding what the barriers are and then finding creative solutions to eliminate them,” she said. “And also understanding that those solutions don’t exist right now within the funding we get from the state of California, that all of our solutions have to come from outside sources because our funding is so bare bones that it doesn’t allow us to provide the services that our kids need.”

Richmond High School is the only site that has a full-time college and career center, Bunce said, but the goal is to establish two more by early next year.

The center at Richmond High works with four organizations: College is Real, Plan of Action for Challenging Times, and UC Berkeley’s Upward Bound and Early Academic Outreach Program. Upward Bound at Mills College will soon have a presence.

“All of the organizations overlap, but they are all also unique,” College and Career Center Coordinator Krista Jann said. “No matter what grade you come in, one agency will take you in.”

Jann said the center provides college application help, helps with fee waivers for the SATs and ACTs, assists students in their scholarship searches, and is a place where students can just hang out and do homework in a positive environment.

Last year, she said, Richmond High School students won more scholarships from The Ed. Fund than any other school in the district.

The College Access Foundation grant was awarded for one year, but Bunce said the Foundation typically supports organizations for multiple years.

In just a year with the separately grant-funded West County College Access Network in place, Bunce said The Ed. Fund has see the number of students apply for WCCAN scholarships jump from about 65 to more than 300.

“The benefits of working together have really helped more students gain access to services,” he said. “I expect that next year we’ll have even greater success.”

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