Fifth grade teacher Maureen McLaughlin asked her students at Sherwood Heights Elementary in Pendleton where they want to go to college — and why.

The kids shouted out different answers.

“OIT?” McLaughlin asked.

“I want to learn about technology and design video games,” a fifth grade boy responded in support of Oregon Institute of Technology.

Student college projects line the hallways at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Pendleton.

Student college projects line the hallways at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Pendleton.

Rob Manning

“I want to go to U of O because it has an archaeologist thing, I believe,” a classmate chimed in, for the campus in Eugene.

Another student mentioned performing arts and veterinary medicine at Oregon State University. San Francisco State and Columbia University came up for academic reasons — as well as a couple of Pac-10 schools for motivated athletes.
 
McLaughlin’s students didn’t know this question was coming, and the fact that they had answers is due to “Academic Momentum.” That’s a program through Eastern Promise that encourages kids to think about college early. It starts with fifth graders because by the time they’re older, it could be too late.
 
“They’ve already decided — as sixth, seventh, eighth graders that they’re no good at school, so why bother? And our elementary teachers could tell you who they are,” said Jennifer Pambrun, with the Intermountain Education Service District. “We have to reverse that mindset.”

Vickie Read (left) coordinates Academic Momentum - the part of Eastern Promise for younger students. Read and Jennifer Pambrun, with the Intermountain Education Service District, are visiting Blue Mountain Community College.

Vickie Read (left) coordinates Academic Momentum - the part of Eastern Promise for younger students. Read and Jennifer Pambrun, with the Intermountain Education Service District, are visiting Blue Mountain Community College.

Rob Manning

Program coordinator Vickie Read says the fifth grade curriculum focuses on key questions: Who am I? What do I like? What am I good at — and academically, what am I good at?
 
The career lessons are often part of other lessons, like the time McLaughlin’s fifth graders wrote letters to colleges to meet a writing standard.

Sherwood Heights counselor Lisa Roberts acknowledges there’s a limit to how much you can teach.
 
“What ends up happening is that teachers end up hitting the things that they have to hit,” said Roberts. “The things they know are on the Common Core standards and the things they know are going to be tested, because that’s kind of where we’re at, unfortunately. And we’re making this a priority.”

Sherwood Heights Elementary School counselor, Lisa Roberts, stands outside her office on one of the school's "college days." Sherwood Heights is one of 46 grade schools participating in Eastern Promise.

Sherwood Heights Elementary School counselor, Lisa Roberts, stands outside her office on one of the school’s “college days.” Sherwood Heights is one of 46 grade schools participating in Eastern Promise.

Rob Manning

So students are thinking about college, but that’s not the same as wanting to go to college.
 
Every year, hundreds of seventh graders visit Blue Mountain Community College from all over Eastern Oregon.

On a warm May morning, seventh and eighth graders rode out from the small town of Ione. They’re soon touring a diesel mechanic shop, and listening to professor Matt Liscom talk about agriculture science.

He tells the students that he’s hearing from Washington State University there aren’t enough large-animal veterinarians.

Blue Mountain Community College agriculture sciences professor Matt Liscom talks to seventh and eighth grade students from Ione. They're touring campus as part of Eastern Promise.

Blue Mountain Community College agriculture sciences professor Matt Liscom talks to seventh and eighth grade students from Ione. They’re touring campus as part of Eastern Promise.

Rob Manning

“And WSU is putting out as many of those as they can, but still can’t fill the need for those,” he said.
 
Jim Raible teaches language arts in Ione, and was along for the college tour.  “In the classroom, you get some interesting conversations, but there is a sense of ‘This isn’t real.’”
 
But Raible said the college campus tour gives students a different perspective.  

“I was walking around campus with them today, and I was watching them connect things like, ‘There’s a Dodge diesel pickup all torn apart and I’m at college. There’s a farm, like I work on, and I’m at college,’” Raible said. “And so all of a sudden, these things that we talked about became real.”
 
Ione students Matthew Orem and Laura Yell found connections.

Matthew wants to follow his father’s path into farming. “If you go to colleges — not all colleges have stuff where you have real, hands-on experience.”

Laura likes the idea of nursing. “Like that mannequin we saw in the nursing room. They actually tested it out and all that stuff, and it actually feels like you’re in real life.”
 
Eastern Promise administrators are capitalizing on what happens on the Blue Mountain college visits. The lower grades’ curriculum has added one grade level per year — and next fall, the eighth grade lessons start. Program coordinator Vickie Read says it’ll emphasize career-technical education.

“A lot of what was keyed off of when we brought our first group of kids up here to BMCC,” Read said, “it was just like a new world for so many of these kids, that they could see themselves here.”

Read counts 46 grade schools involved in Eastern Promise.

And now, the program is heading west.