AURORA — Moise Kombo calls it his “getaway spot.”

About once a week, the quiet young man with designs on becoming among the first in his family to attend college escapes to a first-floor room at Hinkley High School. There, he works on all the things expected of him if he is to accomplish a goal that’s proven elusive to many of his peers in Aurora Public Schools.

“I thought it was all about your ACT score,” said Kombo, a Hinkley senior who recently moved from Nebraska. “I never expected to have to write an essay or get a recommendation letter. It was all a surprise to me.”

The College Center at 2,100-student Hinkley High School, the first of its kind in Aurora Public Schools, is supposed to take away the element of surprise. The center is one-stop shop where students can zero in on possible career paths, learn what colleges on their wish list look for and master how to craft a winning scholarship essay.

Opened this fall, the center is one strategy that grew out of a $3.4 million state Department of Higher Education grant program aimed at improving Colorado’s relatively poor record of getting low-income students to college.

Other similar centers have opened or expanded throughout metro Denver through the initiative, which is supporting more than two-dozen districts, universities and nonprofits taking a range of approaches.

The center-based approach — where college is the only focus — comes as high-school counselors are being asked to do more and handle greater numbers of students.

The challenges are all the more daunting in APS, an inner suburban school district where student achievement and graduation rates have lagged behind other Front Range districts, at-risk students are plentiful and philanthropic dollars are scarce.

Inside the College Center

The College Center at Hinkley is run single-handedly by a woman who knows the position most of her students are in.

Student Voice | Read a Hinkley High School student’s essay that was written at the College Center here.

Jazmin Lopez graduated from Denver’s North High during a tumultuous school improvement effort and was an early benefactor of the Denver Scholarship Foundation’s Future Center, which served as inspiration for Hinkley’s.

“I was one of them,” said Lopez, the center director.

Today, Lopez works with about 300 juniors and seniors a week. While the center is a drop-in space with about a half-dozen computers, printers and scanners, Lopez also uses the space to host organized seminars for students she pulls from classes throughout the day.

Earlier this year, she held a seminar just for black students. And later this spring she’ll work with a group of students who have already been accepted to the University of Northern Colorado on how to register for classes and navigate the school’s bureaucracy.

Lopez also has hosted evening events for families that center around filling out college applications and financial aid forms. There will be twice as many next school year, she said.

Her goal: to have all Hinkley seniors apply to a two- or four-year college.

“I have no doubt we’ll reach it,” she said.

The state’s dilemma

By 2025, state officials wants 66 percent of all adults in the state to have some job certificate or degree. In order to reach that goal, the Department of Higher Education has set its eyes on getting more students of color to college or workforce training.

By one key measure, minority students lag behind in college enrollment. The most recent data available, from 2013, shows 41 percent of white Colorado high school graduates went to a state-run college. Meanwhile, only about 30 percent of Latino and black high school graduates when to a state-run school.

That gap between white and Latino widens when out of state colleges are taken into account.

“When we’re out in the field, the main reasons we’re hearing why students aren’t pursuing college is because they either don’t know about it or they don’t believe [it’s possible],” said Dawn Taylor Owens, executive director of College in Colorado, a program of CDHE.

She said more programs like Hinkley’s College Center are needed to explain all the after-high school options from certificate programs to associate’s degrees.

“It’s about talking to kids who might be afraid of the word ‘college’ and helping them realize there are so many options,” she said.

Counselor load

The school district’s high counselor to student ratio was one reason why  officials sought to open a college center.

For every 350 high school students, APS has one counselor. The National American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.

“The caseload of our counselors were already high,” said Jay Grimm, executive director of the Aurora Public Schools Foundation, which runs the center. “With the work going on with keeping kids on track and getting them to graduation, we wanted to supplement that guidance and put an emphasis on what is possible after high school.”

Not only are counselors seeing more kids, but they’re being asked to do more than counselors have traditionally been asked to do, said Taylor Owens. Those tasks include managing student data and schedules, crisis situations and other wrap around services.

Corey Notestine, post-secondary coordinator for Colorado Springs School District 11, said college centers are becoming more common.

“Where funding is available, these programs are popping up,” said Notestine, who was named the 2015 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association.

More than a number

Often, the journey to college ends before it starts for Aurora students. Only 40 percent of all APS high school graduates go on to a two-or four-year colleges, according to state data. That’s compared to 55 percent statewide.

“No one is saying you need to finish,” said Hinkley senior Joselin Rivera, who is a daily visitor to the College Center, as to why that number isn’t higher.

But that appears to be changing, Rivera said. The College Center helped her focus and refine her search for colleges and scholarships.

“You can go to Google and find things, but here, Ms. Lopez leads you in the right direction,” she said. “Ms. Lopez gave me the courage to apply [to Columbia University].”

As for Kombo, the Nebraska transplant, he’s considering Pickens or Emily Griffith technical colleges to become a trained mechanic. And at the advice of Lopez, he’s also considering the Metropolitan State University to earn a four-year degree in mechanical engineering.

He just hopes there is a similar resource like the first-floor center at Hinkley on the other side of summer.

“It took me a while to find this place,” he said. “But I’m glad I did.”

The following essay was written by Hinkely High School senior Joselin Rivera. She is a daily visitor to the College Center. She wants to be a writer and hopes to attend Columbia University in New York.