* This story originally appeared in The Missoulian newspaper of Western Montana, on March7, 2004; it was also reprinted on the Internet at http://www.matr.net/article-10171.html

 “Reach for Tomorrow” Program aimed at boosting Missoula
students early in high school

 By Mick Holien – The Missoulian

March 7, 2004 A student’s potential grade point average is largely determined by the marks they post early in their high school years.

But in many cases, students do not understand the importance of excelling early in high school and thus eliminate themselves from getting into their choice of college because at graduation time their grades aren’t sufficient for admission.

Ten years ago, Peter Underwood founded a program he is sure will compel average students to excel early-on in their daily classroom work and get better grades thus increase their chances for college admission.

And he’d like to start the program in Missoula and eventually involve the University of Montana as a hosting institution.

Reach for Tomorrow is a nonprofit organization which is focused on changing the attitudes of middle school students, those in their early-teen years who either lose or don’t possess the necessary initiative to excel academically.

“No matter how well you do that last half of junior year and the first half of senior year, you make most of your money in the first two years of high school,” said Underwood.

Reach for Tomorrow is meant to excite students about their future and teach them that their education is the best means to success, said Underwood, an American Airlines pilot who formerly flew fighters in the U.S. Air Force.

He said he runs the program in his spare time with a host of nationwide volunteers, a board of directors and a 10-member advisory board.

Students who are selected for the program are exposed to a weeklong summer session that pairs them with students and mentors on college campuses to show them what alternatives can be available.

The goal is to improve Underwood’s three A’s of education: attitude, attendance, and achievement and to excite students about the study of mathematics and science.

“If you want to make a difference with young people shouldn’t we start before they get their first A or their first F in high school and give them the rationale for why they need to word hard in school,” he said on a recent trip to Missoula. “It seems kind of silly to wait until they’re juniors or seniors and have grade point averages which will be barely touched (by college) at all.”

To do so, Reach for Tomorrow takes students who meet a selected criteria to a service academy or one of several universities where they do such things as pilot a plane, command a ship and attend interactive science and engineering labs and discover what high school and college can bring, said Underwood.

It’s all to pique their interest in what’s possible in their future if they attend to the grades.

But while the Air Force Academy, Merchant Marine Academy and the Naval Academy are some of the places students spend their time, this is not a military recruitment tool or an avenue for exposing the service academies to potential applicants.

“Is this a military training program? No,” he said. “It’s an academic motivation program.”

And Underwood emphasizes this is not a program for top students or even failing students; it’s a program for the median students who score in the top 40 percent on standardized tests – those kids with room for improvement.

“This targets that middle-of-the-bell curve kid who could go either way,” said Underwood, who pledged $10,000 to jumpstart the Missoula program.

He is seeking local financial partnerships and has requested $1.2 million in Congressional support to establish “the necessary infrastructure to impact a wider student population throughout the Missoula region.”

Such a budget would fund 680 students and team leaders over a three-year period to summer programs at institutions like the University of California San Diego, San Jose State University and Universities of Alaska and Hawaii.

“All the money’s going to go for students, so support your school system to get these young people motivated,” said Underwood. “I’m excited because we can deliver.”

Adults also are asked to serve as mentors, personally following a student’s progress.

In return for monitoring students and personally contacting them when their grades falter, the adult volunteers also accompany students during a week at one of the participating institutions.

“This is merely a template to enable folks that are right here to say ‘I want to make a difference in my community,'” said Underwood. “This is a valued-added complimentary program. I think it’s up to us as local citizens to get involved.”

“We use colleges and service academies that require more in terms of advance preparation so every Missoula student works above current levels to expand their personal envelopes,” he said. “This is all about Montanans taking control of their own destiny and improving the outcomes of education.”

Underwood said his program has impacted more than 100,000 students over the last decade.

“We’ve been endorsed by every school system that we’ve worked with,” he said.

He raised $700,000 last year including a $500,000 grant through the District of Columbia appropriations committee, and ran seven programs involving about 250 kids.

“Every penny went to support the kids,” said Underwood.

The program currently is available for students from Chicago, Ill, northwest Indiana, Clovis, N.M., San Diego, Calif., metropolitan Washington, D.C., and Colonial Beach, VA.

In areas where the program has been developed, there’s been wholesale acceptance.

“I haven’t had one teacher yet who didn’t think this was a great idea, that they see great value,” said Underwood.

“We are committed to supporting his program for the sake of acquiring another avenue for our students to reach their full potential as well-rounded productive persons,” wrote Ronald Brown, of the Brown Middle School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Washington, D.C.

“Students begin high school with a new perspective on the relevancy of high school science and mathematics to their futures,” wrote Belkis Santos, deputy chief officer of the Chicago Public School. “The students’ hands on use of military and university resources and training programs can expand throughout our whole state, as well as provide a model for the nation.”

Susan Vincent, the Missoula representative for Reach for Tomorrow, has first-hand experience with the program.

Her daughter, Laura was one of 110 students selected to attend a session at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis last summer.

The single mother of five daughters, Vincent said because of the experience her daughter is far better suited to focus on, then pursue her collegiate dreams.

Laura Vincent is an exception for the program. She carries a 3.95 GPA, excels in softball and already has her sights set on a college education. Her grandfather, U.S. Air Force Col. Don Singer, was killed in Vietnam. Underwood met her mother while he was an Air Force cadet and after becoming reacquainted financed last summer’s trip.

“Reach for Tomorrow stresses the importance of education , an importance that I was aware of, but never fully understood until after this amazing week,” said Laura Vincent.

“What they ended up doing was coming back home with a better understanding of ‘I can go and qualify for a tough school. This is what it’s going to take'” said Underwood.

He hopes to raise about $150,000 to get an initial program with 90 students and 25 adults started in Missoula.

“We want the community to basically jump on board. We want to be able to bring additional value-added leverage to improve the conditions that you have,” said Underwood. “If we could change the attitudes of these kids, the outcomes would be so much better. We have a real need to make sure that they are prepared to go to work in these high tech industries.”

************* For more information, please go to: http://www.reachfortomorrow.org or call Susan Vincent, Missoula director, 406-721-5455