The Billings Outpost

Cuts threaten program

By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost

LAUREL – For most 15-year-olds, not to mention grown-ups, giving a speech in front of peers is a most terrifying torment.

So recently, Laurel High School sophomores received some sincere hints not from a teacher, or principal, or even a parent, but someone certainly with ample speech experience.

“And if your knees are shaking, well, then all you need to do is widen your stance,” noted the fit 66-year-old mentor matter-of-factly. “And when you can’t think straight, that’s because you’re forgetting to breathe: You’re so nervous, you’re talking too fast. You have to remember to slow down, keep breathing and get oxygen up to your brain; that why you can’t think and get confused.

“And after you are done with your speech, don’t apologize, don’t say you didn’t do this or didn’t do that. You don’t have to. You give your speech and you’re done, it’s over. And practice, practice, practice.”

Courtney Hendrickson and Jessica Howe must still march to the front of class and orate, but having Robert “Rob” Rust close by makes the ordeal, hopefully ideal, if not right away, later.

The physiology tips helped, but it was the “prepare, do your best and don’t look back” guidance that perhaps the girls will draw on later in life when palms are sweaty.

Rust is a retired public school superintendent who works with the Department of Education TriO programs, specifically the Education Talent Search. While the federal programs, designed to give educational opportunities for low-income, first-generation and disabled Americans, face budget sequestration, Rust tenderly nudges teenagers along to face life challenges – the biggest being to hopefully enter and complete college.

Rust gets students enrolled in the ETS program as early as sixth grade, providing regular mentoring and support for several years until they graduate from high school, and beyond. He best describes himself as a “college trainer, if you will.” The program’s goal is to increase the number of youth in sixth to 12th grades, from disadvantaged backgrounds to complete high school and enroll in college or other postsecondary education.

During a 30-hour work week he’ll visit middle and high schools in Billings, Huntley, Shepherd, Hardin and Laurel, helping to ease the workloads of high school counselors. There are also evening workshops with families of participants, weeklong summer trips visiting different colleges and community projects like helping clean up the Big Ditch in Billings.

For Rust, it’s the perfect “retirement” activity. He relishes the one-on-one interaction with kids after years of “dealing with teachers and parents.” The kids see him almost like a father, for some, a friendly dad they don’t have. And he likes the role, imparting a little book wisdom, or clear insight, to college exams and applications, and just general life know-how. Students tell him about their part-time jobs at the IGA grocery store or a local pet boarding business, their families, and algebra grades. Because he listens, and cares, when few do, for many of the kids.

“You always leave here with a smile on your face,” Jessica Howe said, describing a weekly session with Rust. This comment, despite Rust recently having to send Howe’s father a note reminding all of the importance of Jennifer bringing up her math grade to stay in ETS.

Howe hopes to be an FBI profiler one day. Senior Amber Carter will enter Montana State University Billings in the fall and study elementary education. She believes her acceptance to college would have been tough were it not for ETS and Rust’s guidance for several years.

“The TRiO programs are incredible tools to help support us in providing access for all students to college, and Rob has built fantastic relationships with students here at Laurel, working with some since sixth grade,” said Mark Goyotte, a counselor at Laurel High School. Goyotte said Laurel High has more than 700 students and two counselors. Rust helps ease the staff’s burden of guiding kids beyond high school, but more than that, Goyotte says, Rust’s positive and cooperative work with the staff makes it a pleasure to work alongside the federal program.

“We have a special relationship with him, and a lot of that is because he was a school superintendent and comes with all that experience, and he’s a child advocate,” Goyotte said. “I know (TRiO) are all over the country working in schools and that’s not always the case.”

But there’s concern some TRiO programs may be trimmed as the government kicks in budget sequestration on many federal programs. If air traffic controllers are being pulled from their jobs at airport towers, education mentors and their roles can certainly shrink.

Dan Benge is the director of ETS and the well-known Upward Bound program within TriO. His budget was cut 5.2 percent from sequestration, but only increased approximately 10 percent in the 14 years he has headed the programs, working out of a tiny office on the MSU Billings campus.

“Basically, my budget is going back to levels it was in 2001,” Benge said, the first from his family to graduate from college. His parents were German immigrants. “It’s frustrating for me because everybody talks about how important education is, but to me, it’s lip service. If you believe in education, then you need to invest in it.”

He says his ETS program reaches 7 percent of families, about 600 students, in Yellowstone County, while 75 percent of families are actually eligible. His staff is six and he hopes none will be lost, but sees his programs services probably being diminished.

“Quite frankly, it’s what Rob and other advisers do that makes us successful, their work with students directly, the one-on-one contact they have with the high school kids,” Benge said.

And the adviser/student relationship doesn’t end when those in the ETS and Upward Bound programs go on to college. Benge says tracking of the students and continued advisement takes place during the college years and two years into their working careers or graduate studies.

“There is a 12-year relationship with the students in Talent Search,” Benge said. A college graduate beginning a professional career with a $42,000 salary will repay this educational investment just in federal taxes back to the government in three years or less.

“But people want immediate gratification; that’s the society today that we live in,” said Benge.

“Get rid of this, because it doesn’t seem to be effective at the moment. But, you have to look long-term.”

And his programs do.

Chris Wilkins is beginning his professional career as the residence hall director at MSU Billings, after graduating from the University of Montana. The Billings Central alum hopes to pursue a career in international business one day, but for now, enjoys his work on campus. Plus, it gives him opportunities to stay in close contact with the ETS adviser he has had for the last 10 years, Michelle Watson.

“I will be always be in debt to Michelle, because she gave me the encouragement each step along the way in my studies,” Wilkins said. “She always took time to focus just on me. Even after I went on to Missoula, she stayed in contact and still today she has time to stop by and see how I’m doing, to say hi.”

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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