When NCPA representatives came to Barr Middle School, Alejandro Amador was skeptical.
“At first I thought it was a scam. I thought they were trying to steal my identity or something.”
Then an eighth-grader, a Barr teacher encouraged him to apply to NCPA – the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy – a college access program for academically talented, first-generation, income-eligible students in grades 9-12 for college and their future careers.
“Our purpose is to help kids succeed and support them to get to college,” said Kali Morenl, Grand Island Program Associate.
In 2006 Grand Island Senior High became the first location of the program, facilitated by the University of Nebraska.
“We are a very underserved community, and we're in a more rural area,” Amador said. “I think it's a great fit to have it here rather than a more privileged area.”
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Among other things, NCPA college scholars attending UNL receive full financial assistance to pay the cost of college, including tuition, books, room and board, and fees.
In school year 2021-2022, more than half (61%) of Grand Island Public Schools student body participated in the USDA’s free and reduced lunch program. Fifty-three percent of GISH students participate in the program.
Free and reduced lunch statistics are often used to measure poverty within schools.
Of Grand Island Public Schools’ 9,829 students, 8,550 are from the United States, according to the district’s 2021-2022 annual report.
Alan Gonzalez’s family is from Guatemala. He is a first-generation college student, he said. Like Amador, Gonzalez found out about NCPA at an event at Barr.
“The (NCPA) ambassadors were talking about the program and what we had to do and all that it would offer,” Gonzalez said. “I thought it was a good offer, so I signed up for it. I didn't expect to get accepted. But I (knew), I gotta accept this. And here I am now.”
“Here” being a GISH graduate headed for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where Gonzalez is majoring in biochemistry with a minor in Spanish. He is on a pre-medicine track.
“I know what I need for college and I'm pretty confident,” Gonzalez said. “If I didn't have NCPA, I'd probably be scared of what college is, and if I could even pursue it.”
According to NCPA, 100% of students who have completed the program have gone to college.
Research shows a relationship between college graduation rate for first-generation college students. Pew Research Center reports that among people ages 22 to 59 whose parents have no education beyond high school, 20% have completed at least a bachelor’s degree.
Summer school opportunities are available to curb learning loss – and help cohort students participate in activities together. In April, Grand Island’s NCPA received a $20,000 grant from State Farm to help fund the program’s summer activities.
“This year, we'll use that to explore different institutions and locations where they could tour (businesses) and see the kinds of careers and futures that are out there,” Morenl said.
The program is based on three pillars: knowledge, commitment and character.
“All of those are essential to life and to success in college and after,” Amador said. “The program instills (the three pillars) in students by having us go to different events and seminars and having us take AP and honors classes and things like that, that they know will prepare us for college. They're really allowing students to get that head start.”
Students are supported in ways beyond academics, Morenl said. “Academically, I meet with them on a regular basis, but sometimes there's just a lot of other things that are impacting their academics. So we find the root of the problem sometimes, and then go from there, as opposed to just, oh, go do your homework.”
“I think that's the foundation of the program, essentially,” she said. “Ensur(ing) that they're OK, that we can support them and follow through on their successes.”
The Nebraska College Preparatory Academy is not a recruiting tool, Amador noted.
“They’ve always expressed to students that you're not committed to going to UNL. They would love for you to go, but they're going to help you get to wherever you want to,” he said.
Amador is going to the University of Pennsylvania. He said he is a little nervous, but feels more prepared than if he hadn’t participated in NCPA.
“Even though I'm not going to UNL, they did give me the confidence to apply to the schools that I did,” Amador said. “They knew that UNL wasn't my dream school, but they still helped me with the application process.”
Gonzalez said, “They always treat us like family. That's what I like about it. When I first came into NCPA, I thought it was going to just be an organization. But it's more like a family, to be honest.”