03: In the Sticks
Jason has been working on a series of stories looking at uneven outcomes across Colorado, from Hispanic males to, now, rural students.
He was intentional in picking Fowler, focusing on the Eastern Plains community rather than other college success stories in the state’s ritzier rural spaces. And for Gonzales, it was important to spotlight what a rural Colorado community can have to offer even if it doesn’t have the advantage of tourism.
“I think rural Colorado is often talked about from sort of a deficit: the things that they don’t have,” Gonzales said, but “if you look at the numbers, you see that there are some who are able to do really great work with their students to get them wherever they want to be.”
The Eastern Plains does face challenges that many rural regions share, including a lack of proximity to essential services or a nearby 4-year university.
But one of its strengths is a community ethos of college-going, Gonzales says. In 1916, Mathias Hermes created a scholarship to help Fowler students cover college living expenses — and the $100/month scholarship is still awarded to two recipients a century later.
That cultural appreciation is difficult to pinpoint, though. “It just sort of is built into the community,’ Gonzales says. “Most researchers would say that’s extremely hard to replicate.”
The answer to Fowler’s success becomes a bit clearer when you mine down to the school itself, which has focused on creating an expectation of college attendance rather than merely focusing on its K-12 mission.
That emphasis begins with the principal but is really honed in by Donna and Mike Aragon, a husband-and-wife pair who worked in higher education themselves before returning to Fowler to raise their family.
Over the last two decades, Donna, the guidance director, and Mike, the IT director, have worked together to coordinate students’ plans and teach a senior seminar to prepare students for what college is like.
Their instruction includes more than just filling out the FAFSA, with lessons on budgeting for the hidden costs that might come up on campus. The school requires students to submit weekly job or school applications, then announces at graduation the thousands of scholarship dollars their students were awarded.
“In rural Colorado, you really don’t have many counselors. In some districts, you might have none,” Gonzales says, so having two in a district with just over 100 total high schoolers “is a huge asset.”
It’s not uncommon in rural areas for counselors to see individual case loads of 500 or more students. Some in Colorado have never even attended college themselves, Gonzales says, possibly limiting the advice they can give students.
His story really underscores the difference a good advisor can make, and I plan on writing more about the ways rural colleges and high schools are using counselors, coaches, and other guidance professionals.