A full crowd chats among itself before TORCH's open house at Carleton on January 5th.
Josh Woods just finished his first semester at Hamline University with a 3.3 GPA, barely missing the cutoff for the dean’s list.
Though he hasn’t chosen a major yet, he knows that he wants “a career that is needed,” possibly in education or social justice work.
“In eighth grade I was missing school—I didn’t have a purpose,” Woods said.
Without a consistent attendance record, he was falling behind academically.
What changed the equation for Woods was Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes, a program that works to improve graduation rates and post-secondary participation of Northfield’s minority and low-income students and those who would be first-generation college attendees.
Through academic tutoring, mentoring, enrichment programs and leadership opportunities, TORCH aims to help traditionally under-served middle and high school students achieve success during and after their school careers.
Sharing his story with an overflowing room of Northfield community members at Carleton College for a TORCH open house on Thursday, January 5th, Woods explained how the program helped him get on the path toward academic and personal success.
The summer after his freshman year, high school TORCH coordinator Beth Berry encouraged Woods to work as a high school fellow at Summer Ventures PLUS, a program that provides academic learning and enrichment to elementary and middle school students. After one summer, Woods was “hooked,” and he came back for the next three summers.
“Through TORCH and through Summer Ventures PLUS I got that initial contact with the community and saw the value that I had, value in myself,” he said.
Woods went on to receive academic support and guidance from TORCH until his graduation in 2011, and his participation even earned Woods college credit through an online Post-Secondary Education Opportunity (PSEO) program run by Riverland Community College.
Woods’s positive experience with TORCH is just one of the program’s many success stories.
Adriana Casillas, another one of the TORCH alumni who spoke at Thursday’s open house, studies fisheries and wildlife at the University of Minnesota. Casillas said that without TORCH, she probably wouldn’t be a student at the U.
Berry “pushed my way in there,” she added, describing Berry’s help with preparing for the ACT and completing her college application. Thanks to the college credit she earned in TORCH’s PSEO program, Casillas will graduate from the U of M fisheries and wildlife program in December after only two and a half years.
Rising from the ashes
Woods and Casillas are just two of the hundreds of students TORCH has worked with since its start in 2005.
The program has made enormous progress in its goal of boosting graduation rates and post-secondary participation, a goal whose importance is made evident by the statewide achievement gap for minority and low-income students.
The current six-year graduation rate for Minnesota high school students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch is 62 percent compared to an overall rate of 79 percent statewide, according to Dr. Nancy Walters, program manager at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. She said the rate for Latino students is only 50 percent. The most notable success for the TORCH program has been the increase in the graduation rates for Latino high school students from just 36 percent in 2001-2004 to more than 90 percent today.
“The TORCH students and project outcomes speak for themselves,” said Walters.
Since the economic downturn of the last several years, TORCH’s role has become even more important.
The percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has more than doubled in the last year, increasing from 12.3 percent to 25.5 percent of students in grades 3-12, according to Northfield Public Schools data.
Increased demand for a program’s services doesn’t necessarily result in increased funding for that program, however. Recent state budget cuts to the Intervention for College Attendance Program, whose grants have funded TORCH since its inception, add an extra challenge to the program’s mission.
While TORCH continues to receive some state funding, “The total state appropriation [for ICAP] was cut by $75,000,” said Walters.
Finances are tight at TORCH right now, but fortunately, the state isn’t the only source of TORCH’s support.
The program is “absolutely a microcosm of what I see is the best about this community,” said Northfield Superintendent Chris Richardson, describing the network of local partnerships and individual donors and volunteers that makes TORCH’s work possible.
Not the least among these partners is Carleton, whose volunteers work with TORCH students as PSEO TAs, lead after school enrichment programs, and help students work through the college application and financial aid process.
“Carleton is very proud that we’ve been associated with the TORCH program for the last four and a half years,” said Carleton President Steven Poskanzer.
Students like Woods and Casillas owe their success to TORCH.
They just hope its light burns for a long time.
A version of this article appeared on NorthfieldPatch.com on January 9th.