ASPIRE volunteers help Sisters youths discover their post-graduation path. photo by Charlie Kanzig
ASPIRE volunteers help Sisters youths discover their post-graduation path. photo by Charlie Kanzig

Navigating the curvy and bumpy road of planning for life after high school is not something students are expected to do alone. For seniors, looking to "next year" is the first time they don't have a clear picture of the future. Fourth-graders go to fifth grade. Eighth-graders go to high school. But for seniors, the next step may be anything but clear.

That is where the ASPIRE program comes into play at Sisters High School. Led by coordinator Rick Kroytz and his band of volunteers, seniors and juniors have the opportunity for one-on-one mentoring related to post-high-school plans.

There are currently over 140 ASPIRE sites in Oregon, and Kroytz is doing all he can to meet the mission of the program, which is to help students explore education and training options beyond high school, develop a plan for post-high-school, receive assistance with essays and applications, help students meet deadlines, access resources about college choices, and receive direction to scholarship and other financial aid resources.

ASPIRE is associated with the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission and the Office of Student Access and Completion (OSAC) based in Eugene, which helps coordinate state-wide scholarship opportunities for high school graduates in Oregon.

Kroytz, in his third year at the helm, provides training for adult volunteers (ASPIRE mentors) in order for them to more effectively provide guidance toward college, technical/vocational training, career readiness, and more so that every graduate leaves with a plan for post-high-school life.

There are currently 34 mentors trained and working with juniors and seniors this year, which is a very healthy number compared to other ASPIRE programs in Oregon, but Kroytz is actually recruiting for more.

"The more one-on-one time we can get for students, the better," he said. "We sincerely could use more volunteer mentors."

In addition to the mentors, Sisters High School contracts with college consultant Theresa Wadden who meets with students and their parents, namely regarding four-year college admission, which can be a bit daunting, especially for students and parents unfamiliar with the process.

"Though we serve all students, we have a special focus on students who are the first in their families to attend college," said Kroytz. "To clarify, we use the word 'college' to cover any post-high-school training."

In addition to mentoring, the ASPIRE program hosts college planning nights and financial aid seminars for students and parents during the year. Earlier this fall, Kroytz took about 50 students to the Central Oregon College Fair for them to gain exposure to higher education.

Helping students choose a college path is important work, but then the challenge becomes figuring out how to pay for it. This is why Kroytz hosts a financial aid night each fall and works closely with the local non-profit group GRO (Graduate Resource Organization).

Last year GRO awarded 87 separate scholarships to forty members of the Sisters High School class of 2017. All of the scholarships come from local sources, thanks to the generous people and businesses of Sisters.

Kroytz, along with members of GRO, facilitate the application, selection, and disbursement of these scholarships. One of GRO's aims is to provide a scholarship to every student who applies.

Scholarships are available for every post-high-school educational option under the sun - from four-year colleges to one- and two-year technical and vocational schools.

One goal this year for ASPIRE and GRO is to help ensure that students and their families understand that the two programs are meant to serve all students.

"We sometimes hear that there is a belief that ASPIRE and GRO are focused on four-year colleges, which is not the case whatsoever," said Kroytz. "ASPIRE helps advise students on any and all career and educational interests, from military service to higher education."

He went on, "The confusion may stem from the fact that applying to four-year colleges tends to require more steps than other options."

Kroytz wants to make sure all families are aware of the Oregon Promise, which was established by the legislature in 2015, which offers tuition at any of Oregon's community colleges for qualified students.

"The Oregon Promise is really helping kids access college," he said. "Its popularity has caused Oregon's lawmakers to have to make some temporary adjustments to how to prioritize recipients from the qualified pool, which includes being an Oregon High School graduate with a minimum of a 2.5 grade point average."

To apply for the Oregon Promise, students must file a free application for student aid (FAFSA) and complete an application on the OSAC portal. The application period is open, according to Kroytz.

Links to learn more about ASPIRE and GRO links are on the Sisters High School website. Kroytz can be reached at 541-549-4045 or at rick.kroytz@sisters.k12.or.us.