When we ask alumni about their experience with Arizona GEAR UP, we hear things like, “my coach never gave up on me,” or “as a first-gen student, they helped me with college applications,” and one of our favorites, “without my coach’s support, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Throughout this grant cycle, we will shine a light on our frontline workers—school coaches. They remain vital to the success of GEAR UP programs across the nation, and coaches tirelessly help students succeed inside and outside of the classroom.
We interviewed Denise El Habach and Christina Taylor, two coaches at Youngker High School, a 5E’s of Equity partner school, in Buckeye, Arizona. They discussed how they first got into GEAR UP and how they navigate the “new normal” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Denise is a former school counselor turned coach, and she is in her first year with Arizona GEAR UP. “When I saw the role of GEAR UP coach, it sounded too good to be true! This is exactly what I wanted to do,” Denise said.
Christina is also in her first year as a GEAR UP Coach, but she is no stranger to Youngker; she taught math at Youngker for five years before becoming a coach. “I felt as a GEAR UP coach, I would be able to reach more students and help them throughout their whole high school career.”
The coronavirus pandemic has introduced new obstacles to schools all over the country.
Earlier this school year, Youngker transitioned to fully online learning. Christina and Denise continue to use their resources and have adapted to this new virtual world.
“Thank goodness we have Zoom and Teams. With these programs, we can have a ‘face-to-face’ with students and parents, and build a connection we couldn’t get over the phone,” Christina said.
The duo had planned in-person events this school year, but converted to a virtual model. Their first event of the year was the “FAFSA College and Career Ready Frenzy,” held in October. Traditionally, students go from station to station, learning, and successfully completing sections of the FAFSA in person. With help from school counselors, Denise and Christina replicated the event virtually.
“Being able to simulate what was typically done in person in the past, in a virtual world, I’m very proud of!” Denise said excitedly about pulling off the event entirely online. “It was successful. There were so many kids there and being active. It was awesome.”
Even with these virtual obstacles, the team remains optimistic. Using their success with the FAFSA Frenzy, they continue to work with staff to make in-person events accessible online.
“It was one of our most successful events. The turnout was close to or even more than previous events,” Christina said.
Christina and Denise have organized a handful of events since the FAFSA Frenzy, including virtual parent nights, that help parents with any questions regarding college access. In addition to the events, the two continue to work with both the parents and students, helping them with college applications, FAFSA completion, and answering questions about school.
The team makes the most out of online learning, but say they look forward to when it is safe to go back to in-school learning so they can see their students once again. In the meantime, they work hard with students to help them reach postsecondary plans. With dedication, experience, and resilience, these coaches and others help Arizona GEAR UP ensure a bright future for Arizona students.