UD students work with high schoolers in a special summer program.

Learning, leading, succeeding

UD undergrads help Newark High students ASPIRE to college


3:07 p.m., June 25, 2013--Students in this summer’s Public Policy and Leadership in Education independent study course at the University of Delaware were assigned a very important and ambitious project

Nine rising seniors in Newark High School’s (NHS) ASPIRE program are hoping to go to college. While they have been getting good grades in school, each of them is facing daunting obstacles: language barriers, financial concerns, lack of family support and even fear – are they really college material?

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UD students Camille Fontenelle, an elementary teacher education major, Saisri Gajjala, a biomedical engineering major and leadership minor, and English education majors Kevin Nai, Megan Hallett and Tatiana Burgess developed a summer session to help the NHS students take critical steps in completing college and scholarship applications.

Building on a program implemented last year, they are investigating how to implement a model to improve college access and completion rates in the U.S. The program was created in partnership with Johnson and Johnson’s Bridge to Employment initiative. 

Melva Ware, associate director in UD’s Delaware Center for Teacher Education and program adviser, explained, “This program has helped our students develop valuable skills in leadership and research. Additionally, the activities provide opportunities for pre-service teachers to hone culturally responsive interaction styles and practices. The high school students benefit from interactions on the campus and by building relationships with undergraduates who are successful students and near peer role models."

Working on this initiative has been challenging but very rewarding, said Nai. “This is the second year I’ve mentored with these students,” he said. “Last year we taught them time management and study skills. They really took it to heart, and their grades improved. This summer, we are helping them write college essays, complete the common application and apply for scholarships.”


In addition to mentoring, the UD students met with Delaware legislators, school officials, the corporate community and parents to determine what was needed to institutionalize the programs and what features were lacking that would make them more sustainable.

Latisha Bracey, legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), explained how to obtain financial support. “Legislators will only allocate money if you can prove your program is a success. You need to show that parents support it, that the schools appreciate it and that it achieves specific, measurable goals. Invite legislators to your program – let them talk to the kids, talk to the parents and demonstrate what makes your program special. ”

“It’s also important that the program is well thought out and easy to implement,” said Curtis Bedford, NHS principal. “I have dozens of things going on at once. I’m open to new ideas, but for me to consider implementing a new program, you need to show me how it works, who will be involved and why it’s better than what I have.”


Fortunately, the NHS students' summer experiences at UD and in the Bridge to Employment program meet those criteria. Although these teens come from challenging circumstances -- families with limited English, family members with substance abuse issues and potential homelessness -- they have maintained strong grade point averages in high school (two students have 4.0 averages) and are dedicated to creating a better future for themselves.

Hallett said she was very excited to be participating in this course. “Despite lack of experience in their families, these students have learned to be self-advocates – they are really committed to getting into college,” she said. “Many of them have already received scholarships and now they have the skills and the confidence to succeed. We played a part in helping them to reach their potential and it’s a great feeling.” 

In August, the UD students will present their findings at the undergraduate research symposium. They will demonstrate the pre- and post-experience outcomes of their intervention, explain the merits and limitations of their model, propose how to improve college completion rates in the U.S., outline the institutional options under consideration and explain how these are influenced by market dynamics and public policy.

Most importantly, by the spring of 2014, the acceptance letters should begin to arrive, and then they will know that their hard work has paid off. 

Program partners

ASPIRE was established in 1991 to recruit more students from underrepresented groups into teacher education. For the past six years, ASPIRE has partnered with the Bridge to Employment (BTE) program which is supported by Johnson and Johnson.

On Track for Success was developed by ASPIRE as the college preparation component of BTE.

The Public Policy and Leadership in Education independent study course was created as a joint initiative between the Delaware Center for Teacher Education and the School of Public Policy and Administration, with support from the Office of Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning

Article by Alison Burris

Photos by Evan Krape

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