Engaging High School Dropouts in College

By Dennis Pierce

Five lessons Holyoke Community College has learned about working with at-risk youth through its Gateway to College program.

Through Holyoke Community College’s (HCC) Gateway to College program, students who’ve disengaged from or dropped out of high school attend classes on campus, earning their diploma while also accumulating college credit.

Getting students re-engaged in their education is not always easy. In fact, the first few years of the program were a “nightmare,” says program director Vivian Ostrowski.

But eight years after this western Massachusetts college launched its dual-enrollment program for at-risk youth ages 16 to 20, more than 200 students from 14 different school districts have graduated from the program — and HCC officials have learned a lot about how to help these students succeed.

Part of a national network that includes more than 40 programs in 22 states, HCC’s Gateway to College program has earned national recognition for its impressive success.

Students take a full-time course load that matches their high school requirements and career interests. They must meet the same standards as students on federal financial aid: successful completion of two-thirds of their attempted courses with a minimum 2.0 GPA. Once they’ve earned a high school diploma, program graduates have also amassed 18 to 24 college credits; many continue on to earn an associate degree.

HCC’s school-district partners refer students to the program and pay for their enrollment, and the college also gets referrals from social service organizations and the juvenile justice system.

“We are targeting undercredited youth for whom traditional high school didn’t work,” Ostrowski says. “Maybe they had a baby. Maybe they’re homeless, or they have anxiety or mental health issues. Maybe they have a job in order to contribute to their family.”

These challenges often create barriers to academic success. To overcome those barriers, Ostrowski recommends the following five strategies.

Build authentic relationships with students. In their traditional high school experiences, many students in the program had power conflicts with teachers or administrators, or they felt like what they were learning had nothing to do with their lives, Ostrowski says. “We treat them like college students, which is what they are. It takes a while for them to get used to that; it’s a huge transition in terms of how they’re treated and how they see themselves.”

But treating them as adults and getting to know them on a personal level helps earn their trust and forges a bond that helps them get through the program.

Provide supports to meet their needs. Students receive free bus passes for the entire semester, and the college also provides free breakfast and lunch. “It’s a basic service, but it’s such an important service,” Ostrowski says. “They don’t have to worry about being hungry.” Students also work closely with a resource specialist to choose their classes and identify issues before they escalate into larger problems.

Choose faculty carefully. Ostrowski and her staff are deliberate in recruiting faculty for the program, looking for instructors “who would not just tolerate having high school students in their classes but who would welcome them, and welcome the social justice opportunities — the chance to transform individual lives and the community by having these kids back in school,” she says.

In addition, all program faculty use Universal Design for Learning principles to give students flexibility in how they learn and demonstrate what they know.

Set clear expectations. “We have been intentional in identifying what we are trying to achieve,” Ostrowski says, “and we have demystified that for students.” For instance, students are dropped from classes after just three absences. “We expect them to be here, or else they can’t learn,” she says.

Be flexible where possible. Program participants face many challenges, “and that makes being successful in a traditional setting really hard, because we expect them to be students first,” Ostrowski says. “But that doesn’t reflect the reality of some people’s lives. So, where can we flex in order to honor the fact that our young people are doing the best they can — and have more responsibilities than many people double their age? How do we honor what they’re doing in the world, and doing for their families — and find a shape that works for them?

“We’re using our power in whatever way we can to facilitate a rigorous, engaging, active and positive learning environment, where kids are finally agents in their own education,” Ostrowski says. “That’s not something they felt was happening for them in high school.”

HCC is one of 44 colleges and universities participating in a recently announced U.S. Education Department pilot to test using federal Pell grants for dual-enrollment programs. Read more at Community College Daily.

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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