Peak Education adopting new approach in mission

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It always amazes me how ­— with the right people in place — much can be done with very little.

Peak Education’s offices are tucked into the third floor of a Victorian on north Nevada. It’s a historic building, meaning it’s a walk-up, so the folks who work there climb up and down the stairs all day long.

But that’s nothing compared to the many hurdles that must be overcome by the low-income students who are helped by Peak Education’s efforts.

They are the kids who live in some of our toughest neighborhoods, places where poverty is an everyday fact of life, where parents are often absent, jobs scarce and hardship a constant accompaniment.

You might have seen the story about Peak Education in The Gazette recently. Dalton Conner, who co-founded the organization 13 years ago, told me it took him a lot longer than usual to get out of church last Sunday. People who had read the piece kept stopping him to applaud his work and express their support.

Conner and Peak Education co-founder Steve Mullens deserve the kudos. Over the years, the nonprofit they established has helped some 90 students make it into college.

As importantly, Peak Education has helped those kids make it through college by helping them to prepare for an environment that can be intimidating and certainly foreign.

Dee Beaudette, the CEO of the nonprofit, shared some depressing statistics on the issue that underscore the need.

According to a 2005 study, only about one in 17 young people from the nation’s poorest families, those earning less than $35,377 a year, can expect to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24. By comparison, students from the nation’s wealthiest families, those who earn about $85,000 or higher, the number is better than one in two.

A USA Today analysis several years ago found only one in four degree-seeking students at two-year colleges go on to earn a degree or certificate. And although graduation rates at selective public colleges rose sharply from 1990 to 2002, from 61 percent to 74.6 percent, graduation rates at open-admissions colleges, which admit anyone with a high school diploma, dropped from 42 percent to 25.8 percent.

The problem, in part, is that too many of our schools are doing a poor job of preparing these kids, but that’s a topic for another column.

The figures reflect how big a challenge Peak Education faces in trying to help just a handful of students each year to embark on a life they might never have imagined without a bit of help.

Hoping to reach even more kids, Peak Education is about to embark on a new road itself.

Historically, it has written checks out of its small endowment and helped students find additional grant and scholarship dollars from various sources.

Moving forward, Peak Education is now looking to help companies that offer scholarships maximize their generosity.

It wants to create alliances with these companies, foundations and others to help them shepherd their scholarship dollars and, as importantly, the students as they make their way through their undergraduate years and beyond.

The local Moniker Foundation, which has provided a number of scholarships to low-income students over the years, was the first to align with Peak Education in this way. It found that Peak Education’s approach of following the kids from their middle school years all the way through college just made sense and could help reverse some of the more negative stats.

I can imagine that companies that regularly award scholarships also regularly wonder what happened to the student who received their gift.

The job of tracking scholarship recipients typically falls onto the shoulders of an already stretched human-resources department.

Peak Education is offering to take over that job, assuming the responsibility of shepherding a child through some of the most critical years of their life and ensuring the dollars invested by right-minded donors aren’t wasted.

If it succeeds, Peak Education will have as many as 400 students under its wing at any given moment, or about four times as many as it now guides through the process.

It will have grown considerably, with little more than perhaps a slight adjustment in how companies it works with handle the distribution of their scholarship dollars.

In other words, Peak Education hopes to do a lot of good by leveraging what individual companies and others might find difficult to pull off on their own.

That makes good business sense to me.

One more thought on the topic of education this week: Be sure to read Business Journal reporter Rebecca Tonn’s story in this issue about plans by Junior Achievement of Southern Colorado to develop what it calls BizTown and Finance Park.

These initiatives are designed to help develop a better-prepared workforce; they  both merit your support.

Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He can be reached at allen.greenberg@csbj.com or 719-329-5206.