Network Collaboration and LearningPostsecondary Readiness

In collaboration with the CT State Department of Education, the RISE Network has been supporting high schools throughout the state that are participating in the CT FAFSA Challenge. Our engagement includes educator coaching and monthly community of practice sessions, fostering a strong network of educators who actively guide students and families through FAFSA completion.

Recently, we had the privilege of speaking with the FAFSA Team at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven. As Hillhouse enters its third year in the FAFSA Challenge, the school is building upon past achievements and is committed to establishing a lasting FAFSA culture within its school community. Haruki Cubeta-Yonamine, School Counselor, and Robert (RJ) Voelker, a teacher at Hillhouse, shared insights into their ongoing FAFSA Campaign.

Q: What are you most excited to utilize your FAFSA Challenge grant for this year?

Cubeta-Yonamine: I’m most excited to try new things that we have not had the capacity to do in past years. This year I am grateful and appreciative to have RJ as the other half of our two-person task force because we both recognize how invaluable it is to have support with the financial aid process. We have worked together to host after-school events, created a calendar for standing office hours, and sent out mailers. We are trying new things and seeing what works and what does not.

Voelker: This year I am excited to utilize the FAFSA Challenge grant to celebrate students and families who have completed the FAFSA. In addition, offering support time and seminars for students and families to learn about the new FAFSA. As some families may have completed the old FAFSA in the past, we feel it is important to provide as many resources and support time for students and families to learn and complete the new FAFSA. Most importantly, I want to help students and families complete the process, as I did not have much help during my time in high school.

Q: As a teacher, can you provide some suggestions to other teachers who may want to support FAFSA work at their schools?

Voelker: As a teacher, it could appear to be difficult at times to manage your class load and be on the FAFSA challenge team. I have found the opposite, the program allows you to create your own schedule and RISE is a huge support. Our district and RISE work off your time to schedule meetings and coaching opportunities. Even if someone does not want to take a full caseload of seniors, any help to a senior or group of seniors can be the difference between them saving thousands of dollars in the long run.

Q: What has been the most successful in preparing students for FAFSA? Any challenges?

Cubeta-Yonamine: Providing opportunities for one-on-one or small group support with the financial aid process, which is more personable and effective. In supporting families with navigating the financial aid process, you have to be creative and innovative in how you get everyone involved. Finding new and engaging ways that work to increase participation and outreach to families has been our focus this year. This is not work that can be done in isolation; you need school buy-in and staff that is dedicated and willing to put in the work. Our task force is much more efficient this year and we work a lot more collaboratively with Higher Heights, which has helped us tremendously in our efforts to support students through this process.

The biggest challenge is having a low turnout at our events. I think our focus for the rest of the year needs to be trying to increase our one-on-one direct outreach to students and parents. With our roles in the building, it is difficult for RJ and I to engage in this work during the day so our focus has been on planning opportunities for students to work on financial aid after school while Higher Heights focuses on outreach during the day. 

Voelker: The most successful part of preparing students with FAFSA is our team. We complement each other and have specific skills that help the students and families. Whether it be speaking different languages, which my team member does so fluently, or being able to see a majority of the students on my caseload during the day who happen to be seniors. In addition, we have maximized time after school and during report card conferences to offer support to families. The biggest challenge is just FAFSA itself, with the set hours in the beginning or adjustments that are still being made.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share regarding your FAFSA work?

Voelker: It is still a process and we are still striving to reach our goal, but we are making strides each day. Following through with students, and most importantly, their families is the most effective technique. Most importantly, keeping in mind that every FAFSA completion could really help a student and family in their financial success coming out of school.