Before 16-year-old Donasiyano Nimpagaritse of Colorado Springs started high school three years ago, he didn’t think attending college was a possibility. Now, the Harrison High School rising senior plans to apply to several colleges, even some in Chicago, and hopes to study civil engineering.

“We have a community that helps propel us, beyond what’s expected,” Nimpagaritse said of his high school experience.  

Harrison High School has made a concerted effort to work closely with its at-risk students and expose them to all of the possibilities for their future, officials say. Seventy-three percent of the school’s students are people of color, and 80% receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Specifically, the school has worked with a nonprofit mentorship program known as AVID, which helps students who may be the first in their families to attend college. The program offers an elective for students to receive tutoring, go on field trips to colleges, or just talk through the troubles of high school.

Nimpagaritse poses while on an AVID field trip this spring.
PHOTO CREDIT: Donasiyano Nimpagaritse

And it’s working, according to officials. The school’s principal says as participation in AVID has increased, so have the school’s graduation rates, and the number of graduates going to college. State data shows the school had just 11 students drop out in 2018,  a 0.9% dropout rate that was lower than 40% of high schools in the state. School officials also say the school’s matriculation rate — the percentage of students going to college after high school — is now at 56%.

This year, 42 graduating AVID students earned a total of $945,000 in scholarship money, a third of the amount earned by the entire graduating class of 183 students.

“It’s amazing,” Nimpagaritse said. “AVID for me is like a community, the AVID teachers are caring, they stick with you for years.”

An immigrant from Tanzania, and bilingual in English and Kirundi, Nimpagaritse said the AVID program made all the difference for him, and he wishes more of his classmates would have taken part.

“Many of my friends who aren’t in AVID, they are disorganized, it hurts their grade really badly,” he said.

When Harrison High first started using AVID in 2006, school officials said only 2% of students took advantage of the program. In this year’s graduating class, 42 of the 183 graduating seniors were AVID students, the highest participation so far. The school’s principal also said about 18% of the entire student body was a part of AVID this year.  

In the coming school year, Harrison High plans to require all incoming freshmen to take part in AVID, dubbing them the “AVID Opportunities Class.”

“All 350 of our new students are going to get the AVID opportunities, strategies and organization skills,” said Pete Vargas, Principal of Harrison High School. “We are just concentrating on that AVID vision.”

Additionally, when the new school year begins, the first day of classes will be open only to incoming ninth graders. The goal: to act as cheerleaders for the new students and show them what resources are available to help them succeed. School officials also hope to reduce the number of F grades they see from ninth-graders in the coming year.  

Harrison High School AVID students pose while visiting Northwestern in Chicago this spring.
PHOTO CREDIT: Harrison High School

Leaders at Harrison High hope working directly with students early on will set them up for success before anyone slips through the cracks.

These initiatives reflect a growing awareness across the state that investing in the ninth-grade year pays off. This year, state legislators allocated $800,000 for ninth-grade success grants through the school finance act. That money will fund organizations including Avid.

This year, a group of Harrison High AVID students traveled on a field trip to Chicago to tour colleges like Northwestern and DePaul. Nimpagaritse went with them.

“I feel like that’s one thing a lot of students in my school don’t understand: They’re going to go to a community college, or go in-state somewhere. They never really consider out-of-state, but having the opportunity to go out and explore my options, it really helped me to view out-of-state colleges in a different way,” he said. “I loved it.”

He’s grateful for the opportunity to build a strong future for himself.

“I encourage everyone, if you have the opportunity to join AVID, take advantage of that,” he said. “Give it a shot, I haven’t heard anyone say they don’t like it.”