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Fourth in a series of stories reprinted from the Fall 2019 Inclusion magazine.

WATERLOO — In 2018, high school graduation rates hit an all-time high, with 84.24 percent of students at Waterloo’s three high schools graduating in four years.

This results from targeted efforts, including initiatives that serve students who are statistically more likely to drop out before graduation, says Andrea Atuhairwe, counselor at George Washington Carver Academy.

“When students see the tangible benefits, they’re motivated to continue taking that next step,” she says.

“Discover the Dream” is one such long-term program that helps identify those steps.

The initiative partners the Waterloo Community Schools with the University of Northern Iowa, says Gwenne Berry. The program emphasizes leadership, academic achievement and college planning, through programming, relationship building and targeted activities, beginning as participants start middle school.

The age is a critical time in a child’s educational development, explains Berry, UNI chief diversity officer. During the middle school years, students from some racial and ethnic backgrounds and lower income families fail to do the crucial preparation necessary for college entrance.

“Once students get to middle school, they need to have constant guidance and touchpoints to keep them on course,” Berry explains. “All students need that, but ... middle school is where students from higher risk backgrounds really fall off.”

It’s not a lack of aptitude or ability, according to the Iowa Department of Education. Instead, several factors, such as transportation, economic woes, housing and health, can cause students to miss school, fall behind and in some cases, drop out.

Discover the Dream starts as a student’s fifth-grade year draws to a close. At that time, school administrators, teachers and counselors nominate emerging leaders and help them apply.

Potential candidates must demonstrate leadership aptitude, academic promise and a desire to succeed.

Eligibility is also based on economic need and racial or ethnic heritage, with special attention to those who could be the first from their families to attend college. Current participants are white, African American, Latino and Asian American.

A group of 24 ascending sixth-graders are chosen, and sessions take place at the UNI Center for Urban Education.

“There are no surprises; there are expectations,” says Robert Smith, UNI-CUE executive director. “There is a contract students sign, and parents sign the contract, too. Parents are going to be with that student longer than we are, so their commitment is important. This only works if the parent gets the big picture.”

The program begins with an intensive four-week summer Leadership Academy for ascending sixth-graders. The academy is a precursor to UNI-CUE’s Educational Talent Search program.

Each week of Leadership Academy focuses on classroom instruction and experiential learning activities. Students explore a variety of topics, such as local history and government, civic engagement, and anti-bullying.

More traditional classroom experiences emphasize math, reading, writing, art and conversational Spanish. Students also visit area colleges and universities, museums and other area locations.

As a capstone for Leadership Academy, the university hosts a graduation banquet and ceremony for students and families in the UNI Commons.

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Participants move on to Educational Talent Search and remain in that program through high school graduation. Talent search offers tutoring, study skills and college preparatory workshops. Students also receive assistance with testing and college applications and fees, campus tours, career counseling and scholarship and financial aid guidance.

Through Discover the Dream, participants are paired with UNI mentors, who host them on campus at least twice per semester.

While the program focuses on the student, the benefits of Discover the Dream touch the whole family, says Atuhairwe.

“I wish this program had been around when I was young,” she says. “It’s a way to really help parents see the connections and help them see a college education as possible for their child. I love that UNI affords this opportunity to middle school students.”

For students who participate in Discover the Dream through high school graduation and meet the requirements for admission to UNI, there is the promise of four years of free tuition.

That may make the enterprise seem like a long-term recruitment tool for UNI, says Berry.

“If it’s a pipeline for UNI, that’s wonderful; we’re growing our own,” she says. “It would be great to create a steady pipeline of students who want to attend UNI.”

Smith, too, would appreciate that outcome. However, he believes Discover the Dream is about UNI’s vision to encourage lifelong learning.

“A lot of these kids may not go to UNI,” Smith explains. “Many do try to further their education. If that’s Hawkeye Community College or somewhere else, that’s great. We’ve succeeded. We’ve improved this community.”

Discover the Dream also fulfills UNI-CUE’s mission to provide access to opportunities some students don’t normally have, Smith adds.

Berry agrees. One of the many successes to come from Discover the Dream is that 17 of the original 24 students remain in the program.

“If a young person stays with this program, we’re creating educated citizens, which in turn strengthens the economic powerhouse for our community,” says Berry. “That’s a tall order. We’re changing the culture of poverty and lack of access to education.”

As a school counselor, Atuhairwe monitors participants’ academic performance and communicates with parents to ensure students attend program activities and events.

It’s a commitment that requires engagement of the whole family, she says.

“I feel most of the parents are gung-ho,” she says. “They keep their children motivated. Siblings do, too.”

Using UNI-CUE’s downtown location as a central meeting point helps with carpooling and scheduling, Atuhairwe explains.

“Discover the Dream gives the students a sense of leadership — they get to do different, fun things, like awesome field trips,” says Atuhairwe. “There’s bragging rights; they’re participating in a select program.”

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