There are several strategies and programs they have implemented from “experience trips” to “No Excuses University.”
“College bound starts when they come into kindergarten,” said Cunningham when explaining that it seems hard to imagine for most people.
She went on to comment that the beginning of their school careers is imperative though.
“In Kindergarten, it’s important the courses they take,” Cunningham said. “The better their elementary and junior high experiences are, the better the preparation and the better their experiences are, they are more likely to be ready to take on those college entrance exams and be somebody that the colleges are looking for.”
And beginnings are also taken seriously for the teachers who start their careers at Taft ISD.
“We took all of our new teachers on a bus tour around Taft a few weeks ago to help them see where everybody lives; to help them have a better understanding of where these kids are coming from.” Cunningham said.
Cunningham spoke on the incredibly sad truth about the lower attendance rates during winter months, due to a lack of clothing for example. “It all starts with awareness,” Cunningham said. “Knowing your kids and knowing what they are dealing with, understanding their background.”
One of the initiatives used is the three experience trips. This is the strategy used by the school to help the student in taking part of a career-type of day — but one that is very hands-on and approachable as well as educational.
Cunningham mentioned that they too take bus tours to check out the neighborhoods, and then they might go to a museum for example. That way, they can witness what museum employees do and what goes into their jobs. Each student goes on three experience trips per year at every grade level.
A great program that was implemented is the dual-credit program, run by the college career advisor Roxanne Aguirre, which has made a lasting impression.
“I’m excited. I worked at a collegiate level for many years,” Aguirre said. “Working at this level is very personal for me. Every time a student walks across the stage, I walk with them.”
Due to unforeseen circumstances, she didn’t get to walk across the stage, although she did graduate at both the bachelor and master’s level. “There is no excuse for them to become a model citizen,” Aguirre said. “I came from a family that was not wealthy, and I always said I would return what was done for me; to go to college and be debt free, and I want to help other students do the same.”
The new sophomore class of 2014 will have the opportunity to take enough dual-credit classes to graduate with an associate’s degree. Regarding the students who wish to take advantage of all of those classes being offered, Cunningham reminds them, “That means there is a huge incentive to finish it (bachelor’s degree).”
The readiness for classes has already been implemented as they found a way through local funds and the IMA money to offer a laptop to every dual credit student. “That’s part of how we structure things. We think what would we want for our kids and we do it,” Cunningham said with a smile.
And what’s more is that the student can keep the laptop for a $1 if they graduate, as a “congratulations gift” from Taft ISD.
There are currently 115 students taking dual credit courses, (there was only 17 students 2 years ago) and are starting their dual-credit classes already. The deadline for Apply Texas (a financial document for college) is Dec. 1. Aguirre explained that 100 percent of the dual-credit students applied by Oct. 23 last year. The goal this year is Oct. 17.
Taft ISD has also been recognized by Governor Rick Perry at National Signing Day (the day high school kids go to college campuses to check them out) for having 100 percent of students accepted as part of No Excuses University.
This university doesn’t usually take all three campuses of a district, but Taft was considered special.
“It was really good,” Cunningham said of National Signing Day. “We had lots of positive feedback.”
Another initiative is through the power of symbolism as taught from No Excuses University. Through No Excuses University, teachers and administration will go through trainings, organizing powerful symbolism committees, such as messages of, “It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when.’”
She explained that the program is about fast-forwarding conversations with parents, for instance, about how to pay for college, etc. Other small messages are taught through initiatives, such as having kindergartners write to college students and “encourage them to stay there,” Cunningham said.
“It’s a small town culture with rural poverty and it’s hard to assimilate,” Cunningham said. “It’s important to get messages from members of your home town.”
Taft ISD may be tiny, when compared to large cities, but Cunningham, other administrators, faculty and students believe they can compete with the biggest of them when it comes to the heart and effort put towards their “college culture.”