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Opinion: Summit 54 grows up

In September of 2010, Tony Caine, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur and options trader, invited a group of education policy experts to his adopted hometown of Aspen to talk about an idea he was hatching to help motivated, low-income students make it to and through a four-year college.

I attended and wrote about that Summit 54 gathering and came away impressed by Caine’s enthusiasm and spirit, but concerned that he was tying to create a new program in a field already crowded with organizations doing similar work with varied levels of success.

Aurora Superintendent John Barry exults at the opening of the College Track-Summit 54 headquarters Thursday.

Aurora Superintendent John Barry exults at the opening of the College Track-Summit 54 headquarters Thursday.

Nicholas Garcia

Some of the other attendees I spoke with after the meeting felt much the same way; that Caine had the kernel of a good idea but might be wise to put his money behind an existing organization instead of creating something from scratch. During the meeting, Caine, now a youthful 54, invited people to be blunt with him when they thought his thinking was flawed. And they complied.

It was hard at the time to tell whether  Caine was taking the advice to heart. In the fall of 2010 he had already invested a good deal of time and money into creating Summit 54. He’d even spent big chunks of the previous year climbing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

It’s now clear that he did indeed listen. The evidence sits in a shopping center at the intersection of East Iliff Avenue and South Buckley Road in Aurora, where the gorgeously appointed and well-equipped CollegeTrack-Summit 54 headquarters was dedicated Thursday night. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry were among those present.

Caine said it may have taken awhile, but he learned an important lesson during the creation of Summit 54. “If I were raising money in the venture capital community for a business endeavor, I would have been chastised for not doing my research,” Caine told me last night. “Summit 54 had gone down a path of developing curriculum and starting to develop a program when we discovered College Track.” College Track, an after-school, college prep program was founded in Palo Alto in 1997 by Laurene Powell Jobs — Steve Jobs’ widow — and Carlos Watson. Since then, the organization has expanded to Oakland and New Orleans, and now Aurora.

“I took three trips out to California (last winter and spring) and met with Laurene and her team,” Caine said. “After the third trip, we looked at each other and said, ‘why don’t we join forces.’ Instead of reinventing the wheel, we want to incorporate some of the best practices that are occurring in the country.”

College Track would seem to fit the description. According to the organization’s website, 100 percent of its students have graduated from high school. Ninety percent are admitted to a four-year college and 70 percent of them graduate within six years. Of those, 85 percent are the first in their families to have graduated from college.

What this means for 60 low-income students in each grade at Aurora’s Rangeview High School is an opportunity to get mentoring, help with college applications and then scholarships and grants to fully fund four years at the college of their choice, along with continued support services through four years of college.

Eventually, the College Track-Summit 54 partnership will serve 200 Aurora students and 200 college students at a time.

Aurora’s Barry told a high-energy gathering at the program headquarters that he was thrilled by the opportunity this partnership provides students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend college.
“If you don’t remember anything else tonight, I want you to remember this,” Barry said. “What is evident in 21st century learning is we can no longer do this alone.”

Students who signed on to the new program have demonstrated “evidence of courage,” Barry said. “They have signed on the dotted line and committed themselves to not only working with College Track and Summit 54, but going on to college and being that example we need for so many students in our district.”

In these days of bitter divisiveness over education policy, where labeling and name-calling too often drowns out substantive debate, it was refreshing last night to attend a unambiguously feel-good event. It may have been best summed up by Danielle Diaz, a Rangeview student enrolled in the new program.

“College track has sparked an educational trigger in my brain to do my absolute best in school and to better my future,” Diaz said. “I was once a D student in math without a clue what to do. I am now an A student, helping others.”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.