Spotlight: Annie Oppenheim and Colorado Rocky Mountain School's [HS]2 Program
For 17 years, the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colorado has run a summer program called the High School High Scholar program, or [HS]². First-generation and low-income students enroll for three summers, five weeks each summer, in a fully-funded, STEM-based, college-oriented curriculum that emphasizes community as much as academic excellence.
The stats are impressive: 100% of their students have graduated. Ninety percent have graduated college in four to six years--including from Ivy League schools--outperforming any other demographic. Graduates of the program describe their experience in [HS]² as "superb," "a second family," and "an incredible experience" that made a "significant impact" on their lives.
I reached out to Annie Oppenhiem, the Program Director and co-winner, alongside the program itself, of the 2023 SPARC Excellence in Auxiliary Award. I wanted to know what drives the success of this program and how she works to maintain its excellent record.
"I believe the number one most important factor in the success of the [HS]² program is the relationships students build with one another," Oppenheimer said. "The word most commonly used to describe [HS]² by students is 'family' and it really is quite true.”
Students create bonds that last well beyond their time in the program. Recently, an alum even asked about organizing a 10-year reunion for her cohorts during this year's graduation. Also significant is the relationships formed with faculty and staff. "I believe [the students] form adult connections that feel different and often less punitive than they do at their home schools," Oppenheim says, adding that she has worked to hire more alums from the program so current students can more fully see themselves represented in the faculty.
Parental involvement matters, too, and Oppenheim makes herself available during the program for any questions or concerns they might have about their kids. She sees parents as the "experts" on their children and tries to incorporate that expertise into the students' experience on campus. “I think parents trusting me is a huge part of what I do. There is no [HS]² if parents don't trust in the leadership of the place their kids are headed."
Oppenheim stresses the importance of having the support of the Head of School. "The Head of School must be on board in order to do mission-aligned work during the summer rather than work that is solely for revenue development," she says. [HS]² has been fortunate to have the same Head for the full span of its existence, the same person who originally said yes to the program.
Fundraising for the program is an essential component, and Oppenheim says that they have some generous donors that have been involved since the program's inception. Otherwise, it's primarily the stories and testimonials from the students themselves that most effectively convince people to contribute.
Data also helps to communicate the power of the program. "People love to see the data," she says. "Our longitudinal studies aren't perfect, but sharing a college matriculation list with donors each year, something I'd call 'soft data,' goes a long way.”
Oppenheim is still developing ways to track alums after they graduate from [HS]². Something on her wish list is more staff so someone could devote themselves to alumni relations. "We have about 250 program alums out in the world at this point," she says, "and our main way of staying in touch is through LinkedIn, surveys, and an alumni network tool we've developed but truthfully, it's underutilized."
One recent effort to improve alumni relations is a "cradle-to-career" Salesforce database that tracks alums "from their initial inquiry (pre-application) through all of their alumni surveys. This is a great tool because I can pull lists and reports of students based on year, hometown, current job, current city--you name it." Although this database took a great deal of time and effort to develop, the loyalty of the alums makes it a worthwhile, effective tool. "They're responsive to emails and social media posts and we have a decent data set to keep up with them."
In the end, what is most special about the [HS]² program, what most powers its success, comes down to community--that sense of family that is evident in so many of the students' testimonials and in the bonds formed between students, with the faculty, and maintained throughout their careers. One alum writes, "If I had to pick one word when I think of [HS]², I think of the word 'zenith.' This is because [HS]² is the highest point of happiness I’ve ever felt. There’s something about being on campus waking up around everyone who I considered family and just getting to be alive with everyone; this is a feeling I can’t even explain."
Annie Oppenheim is the Program Director for High School High Scholar [HS]², the summer program at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colorado.
Each year, SPARC recognizes individuals and organizations for their exemplary work and outstanding contributions to the field of independent school auxiliary programs.