For two weeks in July, more than 100 middle school students, some as young as 11 years old, took classes in a special program at Holyoke Community College designed to boost their chances of one day going to college.
From July 16 through July 27, these sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth graders from Holyoke, Chicopee and Springfield took classes in math, social studies and language arts as well as drama, dance, art, photography, language, health and fitness, magic and aeronautics.
The program, called Step Forward/Quest, accepts students entering sixth grade. They take classes for a couple of weeks during the summer and on Saturdays during the school year, with the overwhelming majority staying with the program until they graduate from high school. The 10th, 11th and 12th graders in the program can take classes to earn college credits.
"Our goal is to get students to think that college is a realistic, attainable part of their futures," said Denise Ward, director of Step Forward/Quest. "It lets them know that, if they stay on the right path, they can go to college."
Students who qualify for free or reduced lunches or come from traditionally underserved populations are eligible for the program, but it is not enough just to be a child of color or from a low-income family.
"We look for students with exceptional spark," she said. "We work with students continuously for seven years of their lives. Our hope is that after coming in as sixth graders they will stay with us through high school. Once they're in they're in."
The program is funded through grants from MassMutual and the Davis Foundation, so the cost for each student is minimal, $25 a week. "We provide transportation, lunch, supplies, notebooks, T-shirts, pens, pencils, anything they need for class," said Ward. "The biggest piece is transportation. Most students wouldn't be in the program without it."
This is Step Forward/Quest's 19th year, but its first summer at HCC. For the previous 18 years, the program was hosted by Elms College in Chicopee. All the students used to stay on campus for the summer segment, taking classes at Elms and living in the dormitories. Since HCC doesn't have dorms, the middle school students are now transported; the high schoolers still live on the Elms College campus while taking classes there.
The high school program begins this week and runs through August 9. Tenth graders, 24 of them, are taking a one-credit course and non-credit classes in writing and art. The 11th and 12th graders (between 20 and 30) are taking three-credit classes in computer applications and public speaking.
Because of the transition from Elms to HCC last August, there was no summer program in 2011.
"This is sort of a welcome back year for us," said Ward, who has been director of the program for almost nine years. "We were looking for a new home and we found it here at HCC."
Step Forward began in 1993 as a girls-only program. When Elms College went co-ed in 1998, a boys program was added called Quest. The middle school program is still segregated by gender. The high school program is co-ed.
By all measures, Step Forward/Quest has been an unqualified success. Students tend to stick with it. The program has a retention rate of close to 90 percent. Students also score high on the College Placement Test. For those who do finish the program as 12th graders, the college acceptance rate is 100 percent. Students from the program have gone on to attend colleges all over the country.
According to Ward, without exposure to Step Forward/Quest, many of these same students might have grown disillusioned in school and wound up dropping out.
"The program provides a safe haven for kids who tend to be quiet in school and enjoy learning," said Ward. "It celebrates learning and lets them know it's okay to be smart."
Photos: (Left) Aaron Rodriquez, 14, of Springfield, plays Rummikub in a summer math class at HCC through the Step Forward/Quest program. (Right) Caitlin Mogilka, 11, of Chicopee, and Kaseriyah Davis-Hughes, 11, of Springfield, play chess in a Step Forward/Quest math class. (Thumbnail) Shania Hernandez, 11, of Chicopee, works on an art project.