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At college, they can finish high school

In a program with Community College of Philadelphia, students’ courses count toward a diploma.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For most of the 45,000-plus Philadelphia youth ages 16-24 who are classified in a Philadelphia Youth Network 2015-16 report as out of school and not working, the road back to educational engagement leads through a nontraditional School District diploma program or a GED course.

But for a small and growing number, college courses are the way forward, helping students who otherwise would have fallen behind jump ahead instead.

Gateway to College, a partnership between the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) and the Philadelphia School District, often gets participants on track for “a career, not just a job” by providing a head start on college, said Timeka Ford-Smith, the program’s director.

The Gateway program, with 110 students this spring, enrolls young people who left high school before graduating. The students take CCP courses that earn both high school and college credit. On May 18, 20 Gateway students received high school diplomas; more will finish over the summer. Almost all are planning to continue at CCP, Ford-Smith said.

At the graduation ceremony, Ford-Smith told the graduates: “You have accomplished something that to most might seem impossible. … Instead of giving up, you have persevered – you are amazing, every single day. … I am so, so very proud of you.”

Ford-Smith and David Thomas, CCP’s associate vice president of strategic initiatives, said that the program’s success rate is about 65 percent. That’s much higher than the 35 percent high school graduation rate in Philadelphia for young people who re-engaged and sought to get a diploma or GED, according to a 2015 Project U-Turn report.

“We make sure students get everything they need to be successful – registering for classes, setting them up for tutoring,” said Ford-Smith. “A lot of our students come in with social and emotional issues. We set up counseling for them, if necessary.”

Gateway students earn an average of 19 college credits before graduating high school, Ford-Smith said. It takes about 60 credits for a CCP associate’s degree in many fields. Many Gateway participants made the CCP honor roll.

Students who have to take “developmental” courses – remedial classes below the college level – get credit toward the high school diploma for those courses, but not for college. The District pays CCP $7,700 per student per academic year, with an enrollment cap of 125.

Thomas said that disconnected youth are often perceived as students who couldn’t handle the academic work and so lost interest in attending school. But they “aren’t always dropping out because of an academic deficiency,” Thomas said. “It’s often because they had to work or needed to take care of a parent or a child and needed the flexibility that most times, traditional schools don’t offer.”

Douglas Brown, a 2017 Gateway graduate, was in that situation. As a Central High School senior, he said, he had to leave because of illness and needing to care for his ailing grandfather. He spent two semesters in the Gateway program.

“I liked this better” than Central, Brown said. “We are like a family; they take care of you.”It took Alexis Andino, another 2017 Gateway grad, almost two years to get the 5.5 credits she needed to graduate. Andino left Parkway West High School in her senior year, she said, because she fell behind in school, got frustrated, and stopped going. She hit some rough spots in the Gateway program, too, but adopted one of its slogans – “we are all finishers” – as her own and persevered.

Andino plans to stay at CCP, taking business courses, she said. She already has nine college credits.

A web of support

The not-so-secret sauce that makes Gateway to College successful, all agree, is building a web of caring support, ensuring seamless integration into the college community, and paying ceaseless attention to students’ day-to-day needs.

Gateway has four academic coordinators and an academic mentor, plus Ford-Smith and assistant director Stephanie Overton.

Students will talk for hours about what is going on in their lives, Overton said.

“They have to feel they are supported – that we’re listening to them and helping them with resources, whether it’s financial problems or social issues, or anything in between.”

Academic coordinator Rakim Herman said, “We reach out to them if they’re late or absent. We text them or call parents. We’re immediately on it. Advisor, mentor, driver, surrogate parent. We do whatever we have to to get them to the finish line.”

“It’s an amazing process,” Herman added. “We see so many transformations on so many levels – emotionally, mentally, physically sometimes – watching them grow and blossom into the next phase of life.”

The help and the bonding is crucial, said Griffin Fadellyn, who left Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts in the middle of his senior year after depression and anxiety issues overwhelmed him. He’s on course to get his diploma this summer.

“Everyone here genuinely cares about all of us,” he said. “… I’m sad I can’t be here longer.”

Jachai May was homeschooled until he was 16. He came to the Gateway program in 2015 with no high school credits and is scheduled to receive both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in liberal arts later this summer. The Gateway staff, he said, was “paramount in my development, not just helpful. The amount of dedication they showed is amazing. I have seen them shed tears for me.”

At CCP, he said, “you find every type of background, opinion, and belief system. It was awesome to observe that and learn from it.”

Pilot program with CCP

Another program that offers disengaged youth a college experience by joining the CCP community is offered by Philadelphia Youth Network. In 2015, PYN started a $1.6 million pilot program that helps disconnected youth get a GED and enroll in a college semester at CCP. Participants get intensive preparation for the college experience as they work toward their GED at an off-campus site, then continue to receive support from PYN staff while at CCP..

Of the 121 participants enrolled so far, 76 have earned GEDs or diplomas; 25 only recently began the program. Only 51 have enrolled at CCP and only 13 stayed with it long enough or did well enough to earn college credit. Many more completed developmental courses, which did not give them post-secondary credit.

For programs like this pilot to succeed, said PYN executive vice president Stephanie Gambone, the GED students must build “a strong relationship with community college so they feel really embedded. … If it feels like it’s something extra that they have to do,” rather than being connected to their lives and to the program they have already gone through, “that can be a challenge.”

Siaoni Jackson, 21, who got her GED and took courses at CCP in 2016 with hopes of becoming a social worker, has put college on hold. Though she received support from the PYN staff while she was at CCP, Jackson, after passing one developmental course, struggled with subsequent classes.

“I was a loner at CCP. I’m not good at making friends. It felt like it was just me by myself there,” Jackson said. “The experience was great, but it wasn’t for me at that moment.”

She’s now working toward a cosmetology license at a beauty school.

Gambone said that PYN continues to seek ways to enable disconnected youth to go beyond a high school diploma or GED.

“If you create a college-going culture as an option and an expectation and then provide the supports, they will thrive, even if they have struggled along the way,” she said.

Dan Hardy is a freelance writer who covers education issues in the Philadelphia area.

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