ONTARIO – Ken Hart sat in a classroom last week, listening as three Ontario High School students in the Latinos In Action class delivered a briefing regarding their efforts to promote an innovative college savings program for youth.
As Humberto Gonzalez, 17, Alondra Sosa, 17 and Gissell Alejandro, 15, ran through a set of PowerPoint slides regarding the Ontario Promise program, Hart was impressed.
“It was awesome. It was great to see them take ownership of it. They did a great job,” he said.
Led by teacher Corina Larsen, the Latinos In Action class created an outreach program to educate students and families about the benefits of Ontario Promise.
Under the program, the city of Ontario and the state each deposit $50 into an account set up for educational expenses. The so-called 529 accounts are tax free. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade who live within the Ontario area code of 97914 are eligible. That includes students who attend private schools or are home schooled.
A student can add more money to their account as they move through elementary and secondary schooling.
The program was created 2022 by Hart, an Ontario city councilor, then-mayor Riley Hill and Tom Greco, a local pastor and former chair of the Ontario School Board.
“The whole concept is if you look at a kid who graduates from high school and they have any money in a college savings account, their likelihood of going to college is six times higher than others,” said Hart.
The city money for the program is derived from marijuana tax revenues. The city earmarked a one-time outlay of about $100,000 for the program in 2022. Hart said about $20,000 has been spent so far and nearly 140 students are signed up for the program.
“We provided the seed money. They (students) don’t have to put another dime in but we hope they do,” said Hart.
The actions of the students in Latinos in Action have made a big difference raising the visibility of Ontario Promise throughout the community, said Hart.
Hart said the class has “adopted the program and have taken it on.”
Hart said he spoke to two classes at the high school on “how to sign up and turn them into ambassadors to the rest of the community.”
“They latched on to it. It is a heck of a lot easier for a kid to talk to another kid versus an old white guy like me standing up there and saying you should do this,” said Hart.
He said the group of high school students is “crushing it.”
Gonzalez said he believes in Ontario Promise.
“It is a good opportunity for any student,” he said.
The students in the Latinos In Action set a goal to sign 50 students up for Ontario Promise within the next few months. So far, they have eight.
“We will get a lot more people signed up,” said Gonzalez.
The students held sessions at the school to educate parents and students about Ontario Promise.
During parent-teacher conferences in October, Latinos In Action students held four separate sign-up sessions to help families create their own Ontario Promise accounts. The sessions were held at the high school, Aiken, May Roberts and Alameda Elementary schools, said Larsen.
“They spent roughly three hours in each school. In total, between the four schools, they dedicated 13 full hours to help sign up families within two days,” said Larsen.
At the sessions, said Larsen, students worked one-on-one with parents to help them navigate the process to set up an account.
“For families that did not have enough time or the correct information to sign up, the students sent them off with paper applications and fliers on how to sign up online on their own,” said Larsen.
She said going to the elementary schools and talk to parents was based on the idea to serve the “youngest students in the district who benefit the most from Ontario Promise.”
“The younger the student is, the more time their money has to grow before they can pull it out at 18 years old,” said Larsen.
Before they kicked off the outreach plan, the students conducted their own training, said Larsen.
“Then we created a step-by-step instructions,” said Larsen.
The outreach effort by the students is working.
“A lot more families now know much more about it,” said Larsen. “It’s good for the students and good for the community.”
Hart said the Ontario Promise program received another big boost from the Oregon Treasury Department and Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Reed.
Hart said Reed and the treasury department helped the city overcome an obstacle when the program rolled out.
“Initially when you had to set these up, you had to have access to a checking account. But a lot of people in our community don’t have checking accounts. That was a barrier. So, they (the state Treasury Department) changed the whole system in the state so you no longer have to set up a checking account,” said Hart.
Eddie Melendrez, Ontario city councilor, said that “anything that supports children’s education is a great deal,” he said.
He said more people need to know how the program works and its benefits.
“I think if we can continue to promote it, it could be a lot more impactful for families. I think maybe more outreach to Spanish-speaking folks, refugee families or folks new to the area,” he said.
To find out more about Ontario Promise, go online to www.oregoncollegesavings.com/ontario-promise.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].
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