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The Hoop of Learning: When Opportunities Abound, Kids Thrive

Jennifer Jones, Navajo and Desiree Flores, Pascua Yaqui/Hopi/Kiowa, are demonstrating what American Indian students can accomplish given the right opportunities. Maricopa Community Colleges’ Hoop of Learning program provides the right combination of opportunity and support for Native American high-schoolers in Arizona who take on the challenge of attending college classes while still in high school. Some of the 400 to 500 kids who participate in the program each year will earn their associate’s degree at the same time as they earn their high school diploma, and will be able to matriculate at four-year institutions of higher education as second-semester sophomores.

Pam Yabeny, Navajo, Maricopa Community Colleges Native American Programs Early Outreach director, explains that Hoop of Learning was created in 1995 when Phoenix Union High School District parents and the school’s Native American coordinator decided American Indian students needed more educational diversity. “They took the lead in creating the program with MCC. A few years after that, their grant funding ended and they asked MCC to take over the program and continue to grow it. It has grown to where we have a Hoop of Learning program in all of our 10 colleges.” Funding for the program comes entirely from MCC. “It’s a commitment we’ve made to the Native American community in Arizona,” says Yabeny.

Jennifer Jones

Jennifer Jones graduated from Chandler-Gilbert Community College in 2013 and is now studying at Arizona State University.

The program offers students scholarships for their community college course tuition, fees, books, transportation, supplies, program activities and meals. It also provides advisors, tutoring and lots of encouragement. Kids from more than 13 Phoenix Metro Valley high school districts and more than 35 tribal nations have benefited.

Hoop of Learning boasts a 98-percent graduation rate for its seniors. Some will have completed enough credits for an associate’s degree, and everyone who sticks with the program is well on their way to a four-year college or university, where their average GPA is 2.9.

Both Jones and Flores are the first in their families to go to college, and both have had the unwavering support of their mothers. “My mom has been very encouraging,” says Jones, now 20. “It was a personal goal between us that I would graduate from high school and from community college.” She graduated from Chandler-Gilbert Community College with an Associate in Arts in May 2013, the same month she graduated from Marcos de Niza High School. Now at ASU with enough merit scholarships to pay her way through to a Bachelor of Science degree, she is studying mechanical engineering in the honors program and American Indian studies.

Flores started attending classes at Scottsdale Community College when she was only 15 and a freshman at Coronado High School. This May, at 18, she graduated from both and is now a sophomore at Arizona State University. Her major is applied biological sciences and her goal is to become a medical or surgical oncologist.

Scottsdale Community College

Desiree Flores, 18, earned her associate’s degree two weeks before receiving her high school diploma. On the left is Scottsdale Community College President Dr. Jan Gehler; on the right Ana Cuddington, director of Maricopa Community College’s American Indian Program and faculty overseer of the Hoop of Learning Program.

Flores majored in General Studies at the community college, which gave her the foundation courses for a four-year college degree. “Sixty-four credits transferred to ASU,” she says. “I got a lot of my prerequisites done, so now I can take upper-level courses” while all of her friends are in 101 courses. She’s living in a freshman dorm. Her first impression of college life? “I like it. I like how I’m more independent, and on my own.”

Flores was the first student from SCC to accomplish a double graduation, says Ana Cuddington, Gila River Indian Community, American Indian Studies Program director. Nearly half of SCC’s 500 American Indian students come from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, on whose reservation the college is located. The college runs outreach programs and events with several high schools in the area, but has an especially close relationship with Salt River, where they present education and career fairs as well as other events. “We’re very involved with the high school, encouraging kids to come here,” says Cuddington.

The MCC system serves 4,000 American Indian students a year, more than the three state universities combined. It has two other highly successful outreach programs for Native Americans. With funding from the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, MCC created a summer bridge program for middle school boys in response to statistics that show a decreasing number of minority males are entering college and completing a four-year degree. The Male Empowerment Network gives 11- to 14-year-old boys a summer experience that includes visits to cultural institutions such as the Heard Museum and the Challenger Space Center, and, most importantly, American Indian male mentors. A Native American faculty member teaches a college strategies course for them and they attend presentations by other male professionals, including just recently a talk by an FBI agent at Northern Arizona University. Program staff keep in touch with the students throughout the year and encourage eighth graders to become involved in the Hoop of Learning program when they enter high school.

Maricopa Community Colleges

The American Indian Summer Bridge Program in 2011. The programs introduces middle-school American Indian boys to higher education opportunities.

Both outreach programs incorporate families: parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who are guardians are all expected to attend orientation meeting and an end-of-year finale. “We try to keep families well-informed about their student’s experience and the steps they will need to take to follow the education pathway they are on,” says Yabeny.

With the American Indian Parent Institute, MCC has reached out to parents through workshops; some present information that is beneficial to the parents themselves and some give information that benefits their children. In the past, parents who completed a workshop series were given a three-credit scholarship to an MCC college course. “We had parents who wanted to go back to school, so this was a nice doorway to get back into the classroom,” Yabeny explains. MCC is looking for funding to repeat the program, which could become a model for workshops for other groups, such as foster parents.

Maricopa Community Colleges American Indian Early Outreach Office can be reached at 480-731-8032.