This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Elina Mushimiymana wants to be a nurse. Wanita Pearce is undecided between pursuing forensic science and starting her own business. Siaoni Jackson sees social work as a good fit. And Jasmin Earvin is aiming for a career in dentistry.
About a year ago, these women may have been unlikely candidates for those professions. Three of them dropped out of high school. The fourth, then a recent immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo by way of Kenya, lacked a diploma and spoke very little English.
But today, Pearce, Jackson and Earvin have their high school equivalency (GED) diplomas, and Mushimiymana will soon be taking the test for hers. Although they face a long journey to realizing their career goals, all have taken the first step by enrolling in a post-secondary bridging pilot program at Community College of Philadelphia.
The $1.6 million pilot, run by the Philadelphia Youth Network, works with young people, most of whom have dropped out of high school and are working toward their GED. At no cost to students, it provides extra academic tutoring and helps them prepare for college and overcome personal obstacles. Then it pays for at least one course at CCP and offers continued counseling for an additional year.
Launched in 2015, the program’s goal is to develop a rigorously researched approach to helping educationally and professionally disengaged young people enroll in and complete college. The pilot is expected to be refined over three years, then serve as the model for a scaled-up effort to create a pathway to college for those who want to go beyond a GED.
It is funded by Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit that seeks to provide educational and economic opportunity, and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Service, which supports local initiatives to address social problems. Several other cities received similar grants, but they are using different approaches in the quest to determine what works.
“I always wanted to go to college, to be the first one in my family,” said Mushimiymana, 21, who came to the United States 18 months ago, speaking little English.
“I thought that if I talked, people would laugh at what I was saying. I was ashamed.”
But with the help of the program, she is learning the language and mastering the academics, taking three English as a second language courses at CCP and starting a job.
“I keep pushing myself. But I also needed an extra push, and they provided that.”
Before getting into the program, Pearce, 21, said she got off track because she was “hanging around the wrong crowd.” She dropped out of high school, but eventually realized that success would require returning to the classroom.
“I realized that to get ahead in life, I had to go back to school. … [Now] I’m going to school every day and learning something every day.”
In recent years, many resources have been dedicated to dropout prevention. Now, there is an increasing focus on educational re-engagement programs that help students go further.
“A post-secondary credential is increasingly critical for 21st-century employment,” said PYN executive vice president Stephanie Gambone, in an email.
“Getting back on track is more difficult the longer a person has been disconnected. Timely interventions to get young people back into an education pathway leading to post-secondary placement are an urgent priority.”
The youth network’s pilot program starts with a 12-week orientation where academic work is combined with preparation for college life. Students learn note-taking, organization skills, and to how to juggle work, family obligations and other personal situations while attending school. Many of the participants in the first cohort, which started last fall, were also taking GED courses at one of four E3 (Education, Employment and Empowerment) centers in the city. E3 programs help young people who have left school get diplomas and secure meaningful work.
But the obstacles are great. About 30 young people applied to and started the orientation, but only eight completed it and moved on to college courses. Several of those who left are enrolling in the second cohort, which will start this spring.
Students’ woes reflect society
“The barriers that our youth face mirror all the critical social problems facing society as a whole,” said Gambone. “They are pregnant or parenting. They are caregivers to relatives. They must work to support themselves and their households and may face impossible personal decisions leading to housing or food insecurity. Many of them have survived personal trauma.”
Most students face multiple barriers, she said. “The complex and unpredictable way that such forces interact in their lives make sustained involvement in an educational program very challenging.”
Looking toward the future
PYN is not the only organization working to build a bridge to college, said David Thomas, dean of the Division of Access and Community Engagement at CCP. The college’s Advance College Experience (ACE) program allows more than 275 high school students to take a summer course for $250, giving them a taste of college academics and course credit if they do well. Another program, ACE +, which got a $200,000, two-year grant from PYN, gave close to 100 out-of-school youth working toward GEDs the chance to take a community college course last summer and participate in “empowerment” sessions dealing with topics such as career choices, resume writing, and networking. Students with high attendance got two $100 stipends, and participants received transportation allowances. Thomas said that ACE + will be offered again this summer, but so far, it is not funded for future years.
Successful bridge programs need a dedicated staff that students can trust, Thomas said. But just as important, “There has to be a commitment to getting these kids to dream again. Once they begin to think inspirationally, then we can tell them the steps they need to take, but they have to shed the negative, self-defeating language they have heard and relearn a new language of success.”
For the eight students who remain in the PYN pilot, success now seems possible. A celebration in March acknowledged their completion of the first half of the college semester.
But the praise came with an important reminder from program coach Jordan Crowe.
“We know sometimes it’s hard … but we’ve seen the growth, we’ve seen the potential. [But] this doesn’t mean stop,” Crowe told the students. “You’ve proven you can go half the way; there’s no reason you can’t finish.”
Jackson, 20, said that she has taken those words to heart. Though she juggles a job and raising two children with her two college courses, she has persisted.
It takes “determination and perseverance to stay with it,” she said, but she does keep going because “I wanted this very badly.”