Students and parents in several communities from the Coastal Bend Region received a 12-year dose of “college readiness,” thanks to two GEAR UP grants that the U.S. Department of Education awarded to the Texas Education Agency.
The grants spawned partnerships from 2000 to 2012 consisting of school districts, colleges and universities, principally Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi and a host of supporting organizations. The acronym, “GEAR UP” was an apt metaphor for the main goal of the two six-year partnerships: to prepare middle and high school students to graduate prepared to succeed in higher education. “GEAR UP” stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.
The Alice ISD administrators had the vision to pool GEAR UP funds and Title I funds to create a PK-12 college readiness model that led to a novel achievement: harnessing the engagement of fathers and father figures in the college readiness, not just of their own children, respectively, but of all students through a “community of fathers.”
Fathers Active in Communities and Education (FACE) was the GEAR UP partner responsible for the father/student component of Alice’s PK-12 college readiness model.
Due to this model, unique not just in the Coastal Bend but nationally, the college readiness pipeline began during the elementary years instead of during middle school.
Kristopher Rodriguez, the child of a single mom, Marivel Dorsey, was among the hundreds of Alice ISD elementary school students who began to attend the FACE programs with their fathers and father figures. Kristopher’s grandfather, Jose Rodriguez, though a devoted grandpa, was initially skeptical about joining his grandson to attend a program for fathers at Salazar Elementary, one of the district’s six PK-5 campuses.
But after folding and flying a paper airplane with Kristopher and some 50 other fathers and their kids, Jose found himself speeding down a new runway as a father figure.
“While my grandpa had been involved in my life, it was my mom and my grandmother (Alicia Rodriguez) who had been more involved in my schoolwork,” Kristopher said.
Kristopher expressed to his mom and grandparents a desire to become a singer when he was a little boy. Not surprisingly, he joined band and choir as he passed from Salazar to Memorial Intermediate to William Adams Middle School, and finally to Alice High School.
As Kristopher progressed through the education pipeline, the Title I-sponsored FACE father/student programs gave way to the GEAR UP-funded FACE father/student programs, beginning at William Adams MS.
Kristopher’s interest in music blossomed through band and choir (school and Corpus Christi Cathedral), while Jose’s engagement in Kristopher’s education blossomed through the FACE programs, especially with the inauguration of the FACE Father/ Student Leadership Team in April 2009.
According to an interview in March 2015, Kristopher stated that José used his experience and growing knowledge about college readiness to challenge Kristopher to excel and to keep working on his university goals.
Soon, what had once been a paper plane experience in a school yard became jetliner experiences when Kristopher and Jose became FACE Leadership Team speakers and presenters at regional, state, and national GEAR UP conferences in Washington DC, Las Vegas, Orlando and San Francisco.
Kristopher’s and Jose’s PK-12 “college readiness” journeys began a turn through the limelight during Kristopher’s high school years. Kristopher qualified for and participated in UIL Regional and All State Choirs. The wings of his talent spread through band or choir performances in Carnegie Hall, at the White House, and across before the Pope in Rome.
In July 2011, the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP) awarded Jose one of only 5 National GEAR UP Parent Leadership Awards (San Francisco); a year later, NCCEP selected Kristopher first runner-up in the National GEAR UP Youth of the Year Competition (Washington, DC), which included a $1,000 scholarship. Jose’s and Kristopher’s national GEAR UP awards were due to the Alice ISD Title I / FACE / GEAR UP Partnership experiences going back to Kristopher’s years at Salazar Elementary.
Kristopher graduated from Alice High School in 2014. He enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) the following fall.
Kristopher’s growth as a university music education major can be summarized with one statement: From May 17 to May 28, 2017, Kristopher was a member of the Stephen F. Austin State University Choir that flew to Europe for the Northern Germany and Prague Performance Tour.
During his high school and GEAR UP / FACE years he had expanded his horizons to a national stage and, briefly at the Vatican, his recent 11-day tour expanded his educational and cultural horizons to the spheres of the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
On Sunday, May 21, Kristopher’s group sang an afternoon concert on the steps of Bach’s gravesite at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. Martin Luther preached at
the church in 1539; Bach served as the church’s choir director from 1723 until his death in 1750.
The concert at Bach’s grave proved to be one of Kristopher’s two most memorable experiences of the entire tour.
“I was in awe...the experience breathtaking,” Kristopher said.
On Friday, May 26, Kristopher was in Prague where he walked the grounds of the Estate Theater, the place where Mozart conducted the world premiere of Don Giovanni, the master’s most famous opera.
The second of Kristopher’s most memorable experiences, however, took place at the majestic St. Thomas Church in Prague. The SFA Choir performed a concert of appreciation dedicated to Dr. Timothy King, SFA Director of Choral Activities and Regents Professor of Music. Dr. King had announced plans of his retirement and the performance would be his last as leader of the SFA Choir. He was responsible for the coordination of the tour and for years had seen to all matters pertaining to the SFA music department and the welfare of its students.
According to Kristopher, the concert in honor of Dr. King was, understandably, very heartfelt.
“Everyone was crying while singing the song, putting their all into the performance,” recounted Kristopher. “Members of the audience, both American and German, said it was the best performance they had ever witnessed because of the level of emotion.”
In addition to Leipzig and Prague, the SFA Choir toured and/or performed at the Church of St. Severus, Erfurt; Wittenberg, Martin Luther’s hometown where he started the Protestant Reformation in 1519; Berlin, Germany’s capital; the palaces of Potsdam; and Dresden.
As Kristopher’s tour progressed, he recognized that communities, both large and small, cultivate classical music and opera and make it accessible to everyone through free concerts.
The Germans’ attention to the environment was close to home for Kristopher, at least the country’s commitment to renewable energy. The pervasive presence of wind turbines in the German landscape reminded Kristopher of his first experiences on the FACE Father / Student Leadership Team: the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first wind farm in South Texas and the subsequent planning and coordination of regional wind energy projects serving the GEAR UP districts.
“From my room on the 32nd floor of the hotel room in Berlin,” said Kristopher, “I could see wind turbines in the distance.”
The German concern for the environment is also focused on their trees and the cultivation of urban green spaces.
In Berlin, for example, Kristopher learned that “...every tree in the city is tagged, every zone has a gardener responsible for every tree; he checks and reports problems to the city. Tree owners need a permit to remove a tree and are required to plant two trees for every tree that is removed.”
The city maintains vast “green” areas and a network of lakes connected by canals. People walk or bike to get around their communities.
All told, Kristopher’s cultural experiences in Germany and the Czech Republic reframed the future of his university education.
“Being in a place where great composers lived,” Kristopher explained, “made me think about studying abroad for my master’s degree; I would want to bring more of that cultural background back to the US.”
Kristopher’s mom and grandparents are very proud of his achievements. They are grateful for all of the college readiness programs and the many dedicated educators through the years who laid the foundation for Kristopher’s current achievements at Stephen F. Austin State University and Europe.
Indeed, young adults like Kristopher are gradually maturing from being “GEARed UP,” to being in the driver’s seat of their vocations in the communities they are destined to serve.