Phoenix Cesar Chavez High School senior Marco Mares is on a success trajectory.
Neither of his parents attended college. He had not even heard of the concept of postsecondary entrance exams until he was in eighth grade. But Marco mastered the ACT with a score high enough to earn a full academic scholarship to Arizona State University.
He plans to enroll there this fall and study public service and policy with a focus on sustainability.
Marco credits his success to a Helios Education Foundation initiative that pays for every junior in the Phoenix Union High School District to prepare for and take the ACT on a school day.
Last year more than 4,800 Phoenix Union juniors took the ACT. Helios has funded ACT testing and preparation for about 100,000 Arizona students in the past eight years.
“My parents don’t know about the ACT,” said Marco, whose father works in a gravel rock quarry. “They just trust me to get it done. All I knew was that the ACT is a really hard test. This program helped me prepare.”
Helios recently expanded its college preparation support to 17 more school districts throughout Arizona. And, in addition to the ACT funding, the new College Knowing & Going Initiative will include funds for helping students with postsecondary planning and applications and assistance with completing FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, forms.
The $5.1 million five-year initiative is expected to help 145,000 students over the next five years in 18 school districts throughout the state of Arizona.
Participating School Districts:
- Flowing Wells
- Lake Havasu
- Round Valley
Many first-generation college goers have the intelligence, drive and skills to do outstanding work in college but do not know how to handle the test preparation and complex forms and applications required to get there, said Paul Luna, Helios president and chief executive officer.
College Knowing and Going will help build a “college-going culture” for such students, he said.
Cesar Chavez High guidance counselor Tommy Navarro recalls that the mission of adults at the school used to be simply to get kids to graduate. But that began to change around the time that Helios began the ACT funding.
“Now we are helping students prepare for the four years after high school – and the four years after that,” he said. “The goal is to prepare for post-secondary education and then a career.
“It helps them make sense out of what we are doing here.”
A key supporter of College Knowing & Going is Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who is a member of the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable. The group of statewide leaders has reported at least twice that Arizona loses billions in production and sales revenues because so many young people do not live up to their academic potential.
Mayor Rothschild says many business leaders have told them they cannot find enough qualified Arizona workers to fill open jobs.
“To have Helios in our state is a great gift for us,” Rothschild said at an April 14 event to welcome College Knowing & Going to Tucson-area districts.
Luna points to a 2013 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study that shows that 68 percent of Arizona jobs will require post-secondary training by 2020.
“We believe we are changing the trajectory of Arizona with this initiative,” he said.
Luna, from Miami, Arizona, has a background that is similar to that of Marco Mares and other Arizona students who could to benefit from College Knowing & Going. His father, a miner, was determined that his son attend college -- but knew little about the process.
He recalls his father encouraging him to fill out an application when Stanford University recruited him.
“He told me it would be disrespectful not to apply after they had asked me to,” Luna recalled. “He said ‘It’s not about whether you succeed or fail, it’s about the opportunity. Please go and do your best.’ “
Luna acknowledges that he initially “struggled mightily” at Stanford -- but ultimately emerged a success.
“Stanford was the greatest opportunity I ever had,” he said. “But not everyone has a dad like I had to nudge and encourage them.”
College Knowing & Going aims to give more students that nudge and encouragement.
Marco Mares said many of his Cesar Chavez High friends who might have qualified to attend four-year universities opted for community college simply because the paperwork for places like ASU is so daunting.
He said he would have welcomed the help with applications and financial aid forms that the Helios program is now offering.
“It would have made it so much easier,” he said. “I struggled and I know there are people who aren’t doing it (the paperwork) at all.”
Phoenix Union High School District spokesman Craig Pletenik said the district tracks graduates’ college enrollment not only immediately after high school but also a few years after graduation. It is finding that many students who do not enroll immediately get to college eventually – 60 percent of the graduating class of 2013 was in post-secondary school two years after graduation, he said.
Art Garcia, who teaches English and advises the student government at Cesar Chavez High, said he encourages students who don’t think they will want to go to college to go ahead and take the ACT anyway with Helios’ help.
“I ask them ‘How do you know you won’t want to go someday?’ “he said. “Plus it’s not on a Saturday and they don’t have to pay. It’s free and on a school day.”