During this week’s National GEAR UP Week celebration, our GEAR UP Iowa facilitators are reflecting on what motivates them in working with schools around Iowa and recognizing the work being done by staff and students to build a college-going culture at schools in the 12 school districts participating in GEAR UP Iowa. Today, Facilitator Denise Riley discusses her background and the work being done in Sioux City, Ottumwa and Cedar Rapids.
My passion for helping students on their paths to success has always been a part of me, having worked throughout my life to help people, especially young people, who may not believe in themselves. It’s what led me to pursuing a degree in Child, Adult and Family services, focusing on youth. After completing an internship with Juvenile Court Services and graduating college, I worked for a workforce program that supported students with education and career goals. As I’ve transitioned into my role as a GEAR UP Iowa Facilitator, my objective remains the same: To encourage and support students and offer the tools they need to realize they can accomplish their goals.
My favorite part of my job is connecting with people who share a similar passion. Our mission is to advocate for and support Iowa students as they explore, finance and complete educational opportunities beyond high school and that’s what the staff at Iowa College Aid is truly dedicated to achieving. I’m also fortunate enough to travel the state and connect with people working hard each day in our school districts and communities to help students be successful.
Sioux City Community School District is one of the districts I serve. We are fortunate to have two full time GEAR UP Iowa staff at the district level; Amber Kilburn, the GEAR UP Iowa Coordinator and Amy Laboranti, the GEAR UP Iowa Coach. Amber and Amy are very enthusiastic about GEAR UP Iowa and come up with great ideas to help the students and families in the Sioux City community. As the GEAR UP Iowa Coordinator for Sioux City, Amber oversees all aspects of the grant within the district and plans activities and events, such as family nights and college visits. Amy works within each of the three middle schools, building relationships with students and offering tutoring and mentoring.
Something I’m really excited about in Sioux City this year is their new “College Corner,” a space dedicated to GEAR UP Iowa where students can congregate for tutoring and mentoring groups and feel encouraged that college is a possibility for them after high school.
In Ottumwa, Megan Wetrich, a counselor at Evans Middle School, oversees the grant and continues to move GEAR UP Iowa forward in their community. Evans also has a new GEAR UP Iowa Coach, Victoria Swanstrom who will be providing lessons on college and career readiness and financial literacy and will offer tutoring and mentoring to students who could benefit from the extra support.
One thing I love about Ottumwa is the focus they give to career exploration. Coming from a background in workforce development, I understand the importance of exposing young people to careers at an early age in order to help them make choices for their education and career after high school. Ottumwa’s students participate in “Students at Work” where they get the chance to tour a local business and gain insight from professionals about their job duties. Students also attend a Career Exploration Day at Indian Hills Community College where they get to participate in hands-on activities to learn about STEM related careers.
I will also be working with Cedar Rapids school district this year. Cedar Rapids will be a new district for me, but I’m excited to meet everyone that is working hard to support GEAR UP Iowa and our efforts. Tara Troester, the Curriculum Facilitator for Career & Technical Education, has taken on the lead for GEAR UP Iowa in Cedar Rapids in addition to the many other hats she wears for the district. Each of the three middle schools also has a building coordinator to organize activities and services to students at each school. Tara Brokovich is at Wilson, Judd Malcolm is at Roosevelt and Kristin Mangrich is at McKinley.
At McKinley Middle School, GEAR UP Iowa is helping support and grow the robotics club. Students will compete in scrimmages, develop public speaking skills and gain exposure to careers in robotics, automation and android applications.
All of these people, plus the many that have gone unmentioned, are what keeps me motivated and energized to continue the work that I do. With all of us working together to reach our common goal of student success, we can have a greater impact on the outcome of our students and all of our futures.