Just before noon on Monday, eighth-grade science teacher Janice Bayles pointed at a redheaded boy seemed to struggle down the bleachers during an assembly in the Cortez Middle School gym.
She signaled again.
Soon, two eighth-graders sat on the second row. For Bayles, it was a “teachable moment.”
“Our students are all aware of the expectations and appropriate behavior in an assembly, and sometimes they need a reminder,” Bayles explained. “If we as a staff did not take time to correct, then we could expect disrespect, untimely outbursts and a chaotic gathering of children.”
Bayles said students were the driving force and motivation behind all that happens at the school, and during most of the assembly, any observer could have heard a pin drop.
The assembly was part of a daylong effort by Colorado State University directors, department chairs and counselors who converged in Cortez Monday evening to help high school and middle school students realize their dream of continuing their education.
Before at least 150 students and parents, Bayles’ diligence and focus on her students was recognized by CSU officials as she was tapped with an Exceptional Educator Award. A mile-marker distinction from the university’s Alliance Partners program, Bayles humbly declined to comment publicly.
“The award was the loveliest of surprises and completely unexpected,” she said later. “I was overwhelmed with gratitude, and the kind words shared most certainly touched my heart.”
Bestowing the recognition, Patricia Vigil, CSU’s director of university partnerships and student success, described Bayles as a relentless advocate for students, adding that she has persuasive relationships with CSU.
The Montezuma-Cortez High School is one of 10 CSU Alliance Partners high schools in the state, and Cortez Middle School is one of 10 CSU Alliance Partner feeder schools. The partnership aims to prepare qualified students for CSU.
“Preparing for college can seem overwhelming,” said Robin Brown, CSU’s vice president of enrollment and access.
To help eliminate obstacles, CSU aimed to show students and their families Monday that attending college is achievable. Cortez native Shannon Archibeque-Engel tried to drive that message home.
The first director of undergraduate programs at CSU’s department of animal sciences, Archibeque-Engel told a standing-room only crowd in the Cortez Middle School commons area Monday evening that she had the same roots as many of them – farming and ranching in Montezuma County.
“It’s good to be home,” she said.
Archibeque-Engle encouraged students to never forget where they are from, adding that she gained valuable lessons cutting hay and building fences. She also told students to be their own chief executive officer, and to surround themselves with a positive management team.
“Invest in yourself and make it a habit,” Archibeque-Engel said. “You have to invest in yourself, because no one else will.”
Inspiring those in attendance to realize that dreams can come true, Archibeque-Engel praised beloved Montezuma-Cortez school educator Dave Umbarger, her advanced-placement biology teacher, as a mentor in her life. He encouraged her at age 17 to apply for a CSU science motivation program.
“Mr. Umbarger changed my life,” she said.
The six-week program, which included washing glassware in a chemistry lab, paid off. In addition to escaping the family hay fields that summer, she earned close to $3,000, and came to realize that college wasn’t so scary and that she too could become a scientist.
“You have to keep good grades and take the hard classes,” she warned. “No one is going to walk up and give you a full scholarship for free.”
To repay her support team, Archibeque-Engel extended her hand.
“When you get to CSU, and you have trouble, come see me,” she said. “I will help you.”
Archibeque-Engle is completing her doctoral degree at CSU. Her dissertation focuses on the intersection of Latinos, agriculture and higher education. She said students armed with a bachelor’s degree, on average, would earn a million dollars more in their lifetime.
Message to students
In addition to the local site visit by CSU, some 150 Cortez Middle School eighth-graders will visit the Fort Collins campus this month on a four-day educational tour.
“The first emphasis is for students to graduate high school,” said Cortez Middle School Principal Jamie Haukeness, “and whether it’s trade school, community college or a four-year university, to start thinking about what they want to do in the future.”
To help, CSU representative Dan Banuelos led a career assessment exercise Monday morning at the middle school. His objective was to relay to students that they should base their future career choice on their own self-interests by matching their personalities with their passions. For example, he said students who self-identified as social could likely thrive in a profession that sought to help others, or for those who considered themselves to be conventional and organized could serve in management.
During a team-building exercise that Bayless helped to oversee, CSU representative Angel Ruiz reminded students that their high school grade point average would be the top indicator for their success in college. He challenged them to build an academic foundation upon reaching the ninth grade.
“You get a clean slate in high school,” Ruiz said. “This will be one of only a few opportunities in your life that you get a clean slate.”
“Take an active role in your education,” he added. “Don’t stand on the sideline and let it pass you by.”
Message to parents
For students who might be the first generation of their family to attend college, Archibeque-Engel asked parents to believe in and encourage their children – investing in their academic pursuits could benefit the world.
“Don’t let finances stand in the way of going to college,” she said. “There is a way if you want to go.”
Parents were informed Monday that CSU offers students who graduate from an Alliance Partner school, like the Montezuma-Cortez High School, an automatic $2,500 annual scholarship for four consecutive years. Merit scholarships and financial aid are also available.
“We don’t want students to waste their talent,” Brown said. “This community, our country and the world need you.”