School Counselors Impact Students In School, Through Life

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This week, we celebrate the work of school counselors throughout Iowa and the country during National School Counseling Week. This year’s theme, “School Counseling: Helping Students Realize Their Potential,” ties closely with the work done by Iowa College Aid through such initiatives as GEAR UP Iowa.

GEAR UP Iowa Program Coordinator Sprouse knows first-hand the impact that comes with interaction and motivation with students early in their educational career. It’s something that she learned early on as a student and a responsibility that she carries forward in her work building a college-going culture with GEAR UP Iowa students.


I went to a small elementary school where many of the teachers and other staff members had been there long enough to teach my parents as well as my siblings and me. While I appreciated that connection, it was exciting when a new guidance counselor started during my 4th grade year. She was young and energetic, and it may have been her first position as a school counselor. Her name was Mary and she was from outside of our close-knit community. I was immediately fascinated by her. Similar to our previous school counselor, Mary came into our classroom at least once a week for guidance lessons. She liked to have us do interactive and role-play activities, something I would normally dread as an introverted student. However, Mary had a way of making everyone feel comfortable and I usually looked forward to her lessons.

My parents went through a divorce when I was in second grade and I only knew two other kids in my class with divorced parents. I was a relatively quiet student in elementary school and that, combined with my split family, made me feel a little disconnected from everyone else. I don’t know if Mary knew that at the time but she didn’t treat me different either way. She was always happy to see every student and she truly cared about each and every one of us.  Thanks to Mary, I finally started feeling a little more confident and I eventually started getting involved in after school activities.

I lost touch with Mary when I started middle school in a different building and she eventually left the district. As luck would have it, our paths crossed again about 20 years later when we worked together at the same college. She knew exactly who I was and she even remembered the names of my three siblings! We both left our positions from the college within a year from each other and I didn’t keep in touch. Ironically, we ran into each other again in our current positions and I am fortunate to collaborate with her every few months.

Mary hasn’t changed much from what I remember in elementary school. She is still one of the most optimistic people I know. Mary’s caring and welcoming personality helped me through a difficult time and I give her a lot of credit for being one of my first role models. I know there are many school counselors just like Mary and I am fortunate to still have her in my life.

Personal Connection is Key for College Apps, Says Drake Professor

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College Application Month focuses on encouraging students to take the first step toward their future by completing their college application. But for many students and families the process of what makes a good application can seem a mystery.

Once students have found a school that seems a good match, completing the application and essay that goes with it can be a stressful process that, when done well, can help a student stand out from the pack. But how to do that? Drake University professor Jeff Inman serves as an interviewer and application reviewer for some of the school’s most prestigious scholarships, but even he admits that the upcoming application process his 15-year-old son will be undertaking in a few short years can be daunting.


To better help students and families gain focus on the process, he offers some advice on what makes a student’s college application stand out:

While I am always impressed with the resumes of the applying students, many of who are so busy I always wonder if they have to go without sleep to get everything done, it’s the essay that really solidifies the standouts for me. Those students who don’t just answer the question, but tell a story, really catch my eye. They don’t just talk about a fictional character they relate to or a quote they are inspired by. They find a moment in their life, an epiphany they had, or a failure they learned from and relate it to the question. To me, that shows they not only understand the essence of the question but also can make the kind of connections college demands of them. That said, typos undermine everything.


As with other educators, Inman also thinks that students who limit their college search to just one application are putting themselves at a disadvantage.

There are benefits from filling out multiple applications. There are lots of amazing schools out there where students will have a great experience, learn amazing things, and grow as people. I might be in the minority here, but I don’t feel there is one perfect school for any student. So apply to the schools you feel comfortable at, provide you the opportunities and experiences you want, and work for your family.

GEAR UP Iowa Helps Cedar Rapids Teacher Open Doors to Student Opportunities

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GEAR UP Iowa couldn’t succeed in helping schools build a college-going culture without the vital role played by GEAR UP Iowa Coordinators at each of the high schools in the 12 partner districts throughout Iowa. As part of #NationalGEARUPWeek, we highlight the work being done to connect students and families with the opportunities possible with continuing education after high school.

Sarah Bernhard addresses families at a recent GEAR UP Iowa Family Night at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids

Sarah Bernhard brings a long career of educational experience to her role as GEAR UP Iowa Coordinator at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, IA. Key to her passion for the program, she says, is how important it is to help students and families how higher education can help students position themselves for future success in both their career and life. She shares her thoughts on working with GEAR UP Iowa:

Having spent 20 years as a classroom teacher in Alternative Education, I know first hand the obstacles many students face when it comes to college readiness and preparation. So when the occasion came about to become a GEAR UP Iowa Coordinator, I knew this would be the perfect role for me to continue to support students but more importantly, to help break down those barriers and obstacles by creating numerous academic supports and opportunities.  GEAR UP Iowa truly represents the ideal that ALL students deserve the chance to continue their education after graduation. GEAR UP Iowa creates a support system, develops a path of career exploration, bridges the gap between teacher, student, and family communication, but most importantly it creates a culture of success beyond the classroom. I hope that over the next four years I am able to open the doors of opportunities for my 400 students and motivate them to see their dreams and aspirations come into fruition.

Families, Educators Will Get Smart About Money at July Jump$tart Conference

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With the increase in financial literacy education’s presence in classrooms around Iowa, it’s more important than ever the educators find ways to work with students on a wide variety of financial literacy topics. Over the last 16 years, Iowa Jump$tart has helped teach and support Iowans, helping them embrace financial literacy.Ben-Easter-9302-2

The group’s annual conference, taking place July 22 in Ankeny, IA, targets educators looking for the latest information and materials available to help them teach financial literacy, while providing a forum for teacher collaboration and discussion. Speakers at this year’s conference will highlight and motivate audiences on such subjects as financial education, personal finance and financial planning all with an eye toward making Iowa students more fluent in the financial literacy.

Keynote speaker Mitch Matthews will help audience members deal with the worry and stress that blocks creativity and focus, while breakout sessions will delve into a variety of financial literacy subjects including responsible educational borrowing, tips for first-generation families paying for college and ways to make kids more money savvy at an early age. For the first time, the Jump$tart conference will also offer attendees a chance to meet with a financial planner in a one-on-one session to talk about how to put plans into personal action.

As a further benefit to teachers, those who attended the Iowa Financial Literacy Summit in Des Moines this past May can receive teacher credit by registering and attending the Iowa Jump$tart Conference. Teachers can also enter to win a sponsorship to the national Jump$tart conference in November while at the Iowa conference.

A variety of exhibitors will also be on-hand during the conference, including the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Iowa State Extension and Outreach, TS Institute, Next Gen Personal Finance, Wells Fargo and many more.

Find out more and register for the 2016 Iowa Jump$tart Conference by visiting IowaJump$

Cedar Rapids Teacher Works To Impact Students for Generations

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Iowa College Aid and programs such as GEAR UP Iowa work to help students prepare for an educational future after high school through college or other forms of study. For teachers such as Tara Brokovich, the impact of education can, and should, last for generations.

Serving as GEAR UP Iowa Coach and Special Education Teacher at Wilson Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Brokovich has organized meetings to help students prepare for the transition to high school, as well as overseen college campus visits to encourage students to have a college-going midset. The work serves her belief that teachers should help students engage beyond the classroom, teaching them more than just what they need to succeed in school and in life, but in the lives of all those they touch.

Brokovich’s words of wisdom serve as an apt conclusion to Teacher Appreciation Week, encompassing the holistic approach to teaching students to be part of the world, not just students:


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

The terms “leader” and “people” can easily be replaced with “teacher” and “students.” This quote fuels my passion to give students an education in and outside of the classroom that will pass down through generations. For example, I take my students on field trips which demonstrate the impact of what they are currently learning and how that transfers to the professional world.  This year, I took my writing classes to our local TV station to see the importance of writing in media. Through GEAR UP Iowa, I arranged for recipients to experience college life through visits.  As the sponsor of Service Club, my students are able to practice volunteerism and realize the significance in the community and for themselves.  Finally, as a coach, I am able to teach my student athletes life lessons they will carry forever.

Ft. Dodge Teacher, GEAR UP Iowa Connect Students With STEM

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GEAR UP Iowa, Iowa College Aid’s program that works with schools in 12 Iowa districts to help encourage college attainment, follows a group of students from middle school all the way through the first year of college. As the current GEAR UP Iowa cohort finishes their second year of the program and prepares for the transition from middle school to high school, it’s important to remember the impact that the teachers and staff at GEAR UP Iowa schools make on students.

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Ft. Dodge Middle School teacher John Newman reflects on the experience of working with GEAR UP Iowa students and the additional educational opportunities the program helped fund.


At Ft. Dodge, Newman used GEAR UP Iowa funds to develop a summer program focused on hands-on STEM activities for students, including constructing water rocket launchers and cardboard furniture. They also used 3-D computer modeling and experimented with electric wiring to make a bug.  Students also had the opportunity to visit the Science Center of Iowa. At the end of each day, students were given time to reflect on what they had learned and how they will apply their knowledge in the future.

Newman’s reflections on his experience reflects the passion that we celebrate this week in Iowa’s teachers, a passion for learning and engaging students.


It has been absolutely amazing working with 8th grade students and helping them realize the power of an education thanks to the GEAR UP Iowa program. Talking to middle school students about the possibility of going to college and providing them with a college experience has really helped create a “college going” culture in our school.

Whether offering tutoring sessions to help provide that extra support to help students meet the demands of the classroom or engaging students in active learning practices via the summer camp I organized, GEAR UP Iowa has certainly changed the way I engage with students. I’ve integrated what I call “college talk” into my lessons by helping students dig deeper into their thinking and helping them make connection of their learning to world outside of school.

So many of our students are told that college isn’t an option for them or they have no idea how they can get there. Working with my students and the GEAR UP Iowa program was truly rewarding for me as an educator. Hearing students at the middle school level talking to their peers about what college they want to go to just fills you up with pride and hope for the next generation.

#GEARUPWorks Thanks To Strong Staff, Parent Engagement in Denison, Storm Lake and Perry

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While National GEAR UP Week draws to a conclusion, the work of GEAR UP Iowa facilitators throughout the state continues. Working closely with schools, students and families, GEAR UP Iowa serves as a critical tool to increasing college enrollment and completion by 2020. Though Iowa stands as the nation’s leader in high school graduation, Iowa’s continued success and growth relies on encouraging students to continue their education beyond high school. Doing so not only gives students the skills to serve a growing economy, but to personally thrive within it.

GEAR UP Iowa Facilitator Flow Slowing works with students in Perry, Denison and Storm Lake, Iowa. As a Latina, she appreciates not only the efforts required to increase education after high school for all students, but also the unique difficulties that face Latinos as they frequently face additional cultural challenges as first-generation students. Armed with engaged teacher and parent teams in her districts, Slowing believes that GEAR UP Iowa’s work with students in these districts will make a positive impact not only on student lives but also on the health of their communities. She shares her experiences from her first year of work with Perry, Dennison and Storm Lake:

As a GEAR UP Iowa facilitator, I have had the privilege of working with Denison, Perry and Storm Lake school districts.  These districts are striving to create inclusive learning environments in their schools to better serve a diverse group of students. I am very passionate about working with underrepresented students and their families, particularly with Latinos. My daily work is informed by the importance of cultural responsive services to promote higher education among immigrant students and their families.

Immigrant students bring both opportunities and challenges to schools and communities. GEAR UP Iowa program is supporting these schools in creating a college going culture among their students, families and communities.

At Perry Middle School, counselor Jody Schuttler manages the GEAR UP grant with the great support of Principal Shaun Kruger. Both are very committed to their students and are always thinking about innovative ways to engage students and families. Some of the services that GEAR UP Iowa students received during the first year include:

  • Tutoring and mentoring
  • Enrichment activities: Students who had 90% of homework completion participated in an Adventure Learning Trip that focused on developing communication, problem solving and cooperation skills.
  • College and Career exploration: Around 150 students participated in a field trip to DMACC Center in Perry. They spent time doing hands-on activities in the fields of welding, health occupations, criminal justice and computer programming.
  • Family engagement: During parent teacher conferences, parents and students received information about the GEAR UP Iowa program and scholarships. In addition, 10 Latino families participated in Juntos “Together for a better education” , a series of workshops that promote high school graduation and postsecondary education among Latino families.

Denison’s fantastic GEAR UP Iowa team includes Director of Secondary School Improvement Scott Moran, Director of Elementary School Improvement Heather Lagerfel and Denison Middle School 8th grade teacher Maggie Gorman, who also serves as the school’s GEAR UP Iowa coordinator. This group meets regularly to discuss data on student academic performance and to ensure that GEAR UP Iowa activities address the students’ academic needs. During the first year they offered the following services:

  • After School Tutoring: Students were identified based on their academic needs and proficiency. The schools offered math and reading tutoring as well as homework help. Around 30 GEAR UP Iowa students were mentored by high school seniors in the Cadet Program. Mentors helped with homework and provided a nurturing relationship as role models.
  • Enrichment program: The GEAR UP Iowa team at Denison Middle Scholl created two after-school clubs. The Engineer Club focused on the fields of electrical, mechanical, civil, and computer engineer while the Earth Club focused on agriculture, gardening and conservation.
  • Family Orientation Night: GEAR UP Iowa students and families learned about the GEAR UP Iowa program and its benefits. Students received special certificates for their involvement. Separate meetings were held in English and Spanish to accommodate families.
  • Denison also acquired National Clearinghouse Tracking Analysis to track students’ educational attainment after high school graduation.

For the upcoming year, Denison is planning to continue their tutoring, enrichment and mentoring program, as well as activities for college exploration and family financial awareness.

Storm Lake Middle School Principal Jay Slight oversees the GEAR UP Iowa grants at his school. He is very committed to serve a diverse group of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and believes in the importance of professional development to increase student academic achievement. We are also fortunate to have an enthusiastic group of teachers and counselors who share the GEAR UP Iowa goals.

These are some of the services that GEAR UP Iowa students at Storm Lake Middle School received during the first year.

  • Support programs: Selected students participated in AVID classes to increase student achievement and interest on higher education.
  • Tutoring: Students received after-school reading and math programs, interventions during the school day and lunch “study table” in order to increase their proficiency in math and reading.
  • Mentoring: Twenty students were mentored through the “Team Mates” program, which featured many college student mentors.
  • College Exploration: Students visited Buena Vista University and had the opportunity to learn about college requirements, scholarships and financial aid while touring the campus.
  • Family Engagement: Students and families learned about the GEAR UP Iowa program and had the opportunity to learn more about Iowa State University. An ISU admission counselor shared information about college requirements and the importance on getting good grades in school and participating in extracurricular activities.

Storm Lake parents have also stepped up to offer support. Two Storm Lake Middle School parents (Emilia Marroquin, who serves as Outreach Coordinator at Head Start, and Nichole Kleepsies, County Youth Education Coordinator at ISU Extension & Outreach) have helped create a GEAR UP Iowa parent group in Storm Lake to grow with GEAR UP Iowa students as they progress through school.

Each of these communities allow me to further understand both strengths and barriers among underrepresented students as they strive to graduate from high school and continue with postsecondary education. The GEAR UP Iowa program is sending a powerful message to students, letting them know that we, as a country, believe in their potential to pursue postsecondary education and will be there to support them academically and financially through this journey. The GEAR UP Iowa program is providing services and scholarships to increase educational attainment among minority students, but most important the program presents open opportunities and brings hope.