Panther pride is alive and well at Orville H. Platt High School in Meriden. Amidst an unprecedented year in education, Platt students and educators have been finding new ways to ensure high school seniors have the tools and resources to be successful in and beyond high school. The Platt FAFSA Task Force is just one recent example. This team of five educators are demonstrating impressive results as they support students in completing their FAFSA applications to secure financial aid.
As of March 31, 2021, 63% of Platt seniors had completed FAFSA applications compared to 44% at the same time last year. This growth not only reflects tremendous year-over-year progress, but it also defies statewide and national trends showing FAFSA completion rates declining precipitously amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, financial aid data from the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) showed that as of December 2020, FAFSA completion rates for applications for financial aid were down 16% compared to the same time last year. When students who otherwise are planning to enroll in postsecondary education do not submit the FAFSA, they’re leaving valuable resources on the table that could make the difference in their ability to access higher education; in fact, information shared by the CSDE indicate that Connecticut students may be missing out on as much as $17 million in federal financial aid due to failure to complete the FAFSA application.
The Platt FAFSA Task Force reflects Platt’s approach to creating a whole-school college and career readiness (CCR) culture, and it includes both counselors and teachers who are each working with a caseload of students. Abby Marcantonio, College and Career Coordinator; Jenni Melnik, School Counselor; Gary Maratea, Math Department Chair; Bryce McMinn, Science Department Chair and Angela Fragoso English Language Teacher began working together in February. Since the Task Force launched, they’ve supported more than 54 students in completing their FAFSA application. By focusing their support on a targeted group of students over a 10-week period, these educators are building deep relationships with students and families to support them throughout the financial aid process.
“Platt FAFSA completion rates are up 15% above where we were last year at this time,” Marcantonio said. “We are excited to keep the work going and think through how we keep this team structure for our next group of seniors.”
The team meets formally every other week after school to review the data and identify who on their caseload they will connect with each week. In between the formal meetings, team members are constantly communicating with each other regarding successes and challenges.
“There are a lot of unreturned phone calls and texts, but that is to be expected,” Maratea said. “We keep persisting and when we do have a breakthrough or maybe a day where two applications are completed, everyone celebrates. Not just the team member who completed the application with the student, but all team members celebrate the win.”
In collaboration with their RISE school support team, the Task Force members have developed a tracking tool they use to keep notes of all of the interactions with students and their families, as well as their progress towards their main goal: successful completion of the FAFSA application for all students pursuing education after high school.
The Task Force is able to draw on each educator’s different backgrounds and expertise. Fragoso is bilingual in Spanish and leverages this skill to enrich her interactions with the coaches, families and the students.
“Being part of this task force was extremely important to me because, as a Spanish speaker, I was able to ensure that my Spanish-speaking families have the same equitable access to a FAFSA coach – someone that could explain and support them through the process in their native language,” she said. “Being this accessible person has made all the difference for most of my students and families, but it has also been an extremely rewarding experience for me.”
Similarly, Maratea reflected on how his experience on the Task Force will inform how he supports students in the classroom.
“I thought that by learning the FAFSA process and working with students this year, that I may be able to see how it can be integrated into our math classes,” he said.
The team was given ten weeks (February to April) to work toward completing their goal of all students participating in a post-secondary program completing the FAFSA application. Currently they are at 76% of all seniors in pursuit of post secondary education having completed the FAFSA this year. Work will continue through the end of the school year even after the Task Force meets for their final debrief.
Maratea sums it up: “The key word is team. It is hard work but each completed FAFSA application is like a mini victory and feels awesome!”