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Montgomery County education leaders aim to boost college enrollment of minorities

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Nadia Salazar Sandi’s parents made it clear to their daughter that she was going to go to college. But it wasn’t an easy road for Salazar Sandi, who came to the United States more than a decade ago from Bolivia.

Though both of her parents graduated from college, they earned their degrees in South America. So navigating financial-aid forms, college application letters and the university system in the United States was a challenge for the entire family as Salazar Sandi worked to graduate from Albert Einstein High School in Montgomery County.

“My parents didn’t know how to help,” Salazar Sandi said. “I pretty much had to do everything on my own.”

But soon, students like Salazar Sandi won’t have to navigate the path to college alone. Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College and the Universities at Shady Grove have teamed up for a program that works to shepherd students who typically don’t get into or graduate from college.

The Universities at Shady Grove is a “campus community” in Rockville where students can transfer after community college to finish undergraduate study and earn a bachelor’s degree from one of nine schools, including the University of Maryland, Bowie State, Towson State and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The three school systems are working together to launch the Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) program by the 2013-14 school year. The program will pair “academic coaches” from Montgomery College with juniors in eight county high schools. The program will help students navigate the college enrollment process, ensuring that they are on track academically and that their families are prepared financially. Students will also get mentors, tutors and guided tours of college campuses through the program.

Students who go through the program will attend Montgomery College after high school. After earning an associate degree from the college, they then transfer to the Universities at Shady Grove to earn a bachelor’s degree through the University System of Maryland. The coaches provide one-on-one support for students through the years, with mentoring, campus visits and tutoring help from start to finish.

The program is geared toward African American, Hispanic and low-income students — groups typically underrepresented on college campuses. The program also targets students aiming to be first-generation college graduates.

While the program is based on a model that has produced results in such places as Northern Virginia, the focus is new for Montgomery County Public Schools, reflecting changing demographics, Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard said.

“They are new immigrants,” Pollard said. “They are people who have experienced economic hardship. These are young people trying to find a place for themselves in higher education.”

In the early 1990s, more than 60 percent of the student population was white. Today, the demographics have largely reversed, with more than 66 percent of students reported as African American, Asian American, Hispanic or another ethnicity.

Stewart Edelstein, executive director of the Universities at Shady Grove, said he hopes the program will develop a workforce of students who will stay in the region once they graduate.

“This is not just a social justice issue we’re trying to deal with,” Edelstein said. “It’s an economic issue.”

ACES will start in eight high schools (Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, Gaithersburg, John F. Kennedy, Northwood, Rockville, Watkins Mill and Wheaton) with 240 students going through the program for each school.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr said the goal is to expand the program’s reach each year to support more students aiming to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Salazar Sandi, now 21, is a student at the Universities at Shady Grove working toward a bachelor’s in psychology with plans to apply for the master’s program at George Washington University.

“That extra push for students at risk of not completing college is the best thing you can give them,” Salazar Sandi said.

© The Washington Post Company