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Data Show Gains in Mentees Starting, Persisting in College

The Hartford Public Schools students served by peer mentors in our summer transition and college retention programs showed promising results, despite starting college during a pandemic. In the spring of 2020, we targeted 308 prospective college students from Hartford, up 67% from 185 targeted in 2019. Our peer mentors contact all the HPS students who have applied to either Capital or Manchester Community Colleges, (CCC) and (MCC,) and offer to help them throughout the summer with the college matriculation process.

With our college persistence program, peer mentors work with students throughout the first semester to help them find campus resources such as academic support or financial aid; they answer questions, provide support; and remind them of deadlines for class registration. This spring, the number of first-year CCC and MCC students who persisted into a second semester reached 71%, or 92 students out of 129 enrolled, compared to the estimated average of 68% in recent years at CCC and MCC.

The charts below give further data.

First-Year MCC Student Gets By With a Little Help from Her Mentor

Saraya Torres has wanted to go to college since she was a little kid. When starting at Manchester Community College during a pandemic meant classes would be online, she didn’t love the idea but decided to go for it anyway. She planned to take four classes while working 32 hours a week at two part-time jobs.

She’s used to being self-sufficient – she is independent from her parents and lives on her own in an apartment – but when a fellow MCC student contacted her toward the end of her senior year of high school to offer to help her through the summer with the college transition process, she accepted his offer. Her mentor helped her complete the process of filling out the FAFSA and reassured her when she was waiting to hear back on her financial aid package. When she didn’t receive financial aid, her mentor put her in touch with the Financial Aid office. Unfortunately, despite three faculty members from her high school vouching for her status as fully financially independent, Torres says, she wasn’t able to attend her first semester tuition-free as she had hoped. She was only able to afford to take two classes.

Throughout the fall semester, her mentor, Stefan Hall, continued to text her to check in, asking about how her classes were going and how she was doing. When she told Hall she was struggling with her online math course, he told her about the academic support center and gave her a link to the center’s website so she could request a tutor. Torres didn’t have a working printer, something she needed for a class, and Hall told her who to reach out to at the college to access a printer. He also sent her the department co-chairs’ emails should she want to appeal the professor’s requirement; and, he offered to advocate for her so she wouldn’t be forced to print material or suffer academically, but she declined those offers.

Not having a printer or internet are just the kinds of obstacles that cause students to fall behind and drop out, says T.J. Barber, director for outreach and student life at MCC. Because of budget cuts, MCC’s academic advisors have a caseload of 700 students each, he says. He’s grateful for the Achieve Hartford mentors who serve as resources to first-year students, the large percentage of whom are first-generation and low-income students who don’t have anyone in their life to guide them through getting into and through college.

“We really try to make it possible for students to be paying attention to what’s happening in the classroom. If you’re sleeping on a bench in Bushnell Park, solving for X is the least of your problems,” says Barber. “Having a partner like Achieve Hartford makes all the difference. We know a significant number of students would not be on our campus if not for Achieve Hartford mentors helping them.”

As the fall semester progressed, Torres’ mentor reminder her when it was time to fill out the FAFSA and register for spring classes. She appreciates both the information and the support she receives from Hall, she says, especially going to school during a pandemic.

“Just hearing from someone checking in to make sure I’m OK really helps. Stefan emailed me saying, ‘Your mental health is important too.’ He kept giving me information that he thought that I may need to help me along the way. He’s been very open about that stuff,” she says. “He says, ‘I’m not the person who knows everything. I know some stuff.’ He told me he doesn’t like having to take courses all online. That put me at ease; I’m not the only person struggling with the material. He’s ahead of me [in college.] He has more experience than I do. It’s good to know there are people who are the same age as I am who are here to help new college students.”

“Peer mentorship is at the heart of Achieve Hartford’s summer transition and college persistence programs because it works,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford. “Let us know if you want more information on college-level peer mentorship.”

GradGuru Comes at ‘Perfect Time’

Francine Whyte plans to transfer to a four-year college after she earns her associate degree from Capital Community College this spring, so she really appreciated the transfer deadline reminders the  GradGuru  app texted to her phone. With classes nearly all online, the Bloomfield resident says, she doesn’t see the usual posters in elevators and on bulletin boards announcing events, deadlines and services. 

“If we were on campus, someone would remind us, but now we have to find out for ourselves,” she says. When she received text notifications through the GradGuru app, she marked them in her journal. “There’s one event happening today at 2, a virtual event. It’s going to tell us about how to keep going with the pandemic going on,” says Whyte, 20. She was planning on attending, adding that she wouldn’t have known about it if not for the text message.  

After one semester with the GradGuru app, students and staff appreciate the tool and say it’s been especially helpful since the pandemic moved fall classes online. Thanks to its funders, Achieve Hartford, as part of its College Persistence partnership with Capital, paid for one year of the GradGuru app for all Capital students as a pilot program. GradGuru texts students about deadlines for a host of tasks, such as registering for and dropping classes and filing the FAFSA; and notifies them about upcoming events and services available to them. Students who download the app get a chance to win a $100 gift card, and when students use the app to do things like check in with their advisor, make an education plan and keep a 3.5 average, they earn badges and gift cards.  

A survey of students who sought the services of the Academic Success Center showed that 10 percent of students who accessed the Center during the fall 2020 semester learned about it through GradGuru, says Marie Basche, director. She called it a “godsend.”  

“This certainly could have been beneficial two years ago. The fact that it happened when it did was just the perfect time,” Basche says. “Right now, especially, it’s really critical to have this extra form of communication that’s in real time.” 

Capital’s students, who range in age from 18 to 80, have busy lives, with children, jobs and responsibilities, she says. The app helps keep students connected to the college. 

Tara Sanford is new to Capital this January, where she’s taking a math course that she needs to apply to a nursing program. A Maryland resident, she is also attending college there while raising five children between 7 and 14 years old, and she and her husband plan to move their family to Connecticut when he gets transferred to the U.S.  Naval submarine base in Groton. She used the GradGuru app to find a host of resources such as COVID-19 testing sites, Veterans Affairs offices and childcare providers, she says.  

Even though she’s well organized, she appreciates the reminders and a section on the app called “tips.”  

“You can see everything from the library hours to citing a paper to reminders to send back your book if you’re renting it,” Sanford says. “I liked the little tidbit reminders about things that a lot of new students may not think about.”

Challenges of Online Learning

With Connecticut’s state colleges and universities’ classes conducted mostly online for the 2020-21 school year, community college students gained time by not commuting, but lost the comradery, external motivation and personal connections that grow out of in-person learning. Students’ personalities, learning style and life demands influenced how well they adapted to online learning. Students at Capital and Manchester Community Colleges reflect what research shows – some students prefer online learning and others do worse. No matter what support systems CCC and MCC set up, some students need to be in a physical classroom to learn.  

Stefan Hall is the president of the MCC student body, has a strong GPA and plans to transfer to UConn after the spring semester to continue studying accounting and business administration with the goal of becoming a certified public accountant. The Windsor resident reduced his load to three courses in the fall of 2020 and two courses this spring.  

He needs external forces to keep him motivated, he says. He found his finance class especially challenging, despite his professor’s choice to set up a Zoom class so he could see his students’ faces, Hall says. “We were able to ask questions. He was very responsive. He made sure that if a question was asked, the question was answered, even if we ran over the class time.”  

But without his peers around, he felt less motivated to do the independent work of studying, reading and writing. “I find it difficult because it’s just me, by myself, in a room with a book,” he says. “I find myself, when working on the computer, drifting to the internet and social media. I’ll click and there goes an hour. At home, I’d rather be reading a book or talking to my brother than in class.” When campus was open, he says, he had no trouble attending two classes a day and carrying a four- or five-class workload while also volunteering with student government and working on campus.  

On the other hand, Nyah Peaks, 18, completed her first semester at MCC and found she enjoyed online learning. The East Hartford resident babysits for nieces and nephews, so she appreciated the ability to take classes around her schedule. Professors posted discussion questions which students were required to reply to. Students could schedule a time to ask questions or receive tutoring help. A criminal justice major, she says she could read books online through the library’s website and have textbooks mailed to her. 

Peaks credits her experience as a Great Path Academy high school student, on the MCC campus, with easing her transition to college. “If you went to Great Path, you could take college courses,” she says. “It helped me feel more calm about entering college.”  

Rachel Cruz, of Middletown, a student at Capital studying to become a radiologist technician, had mixed feelings about online learning. On the one hand, she was able to attend class from the hospital bed right before her baby was delivered by C-section in November. But on the other hand, it has its challenges.  

The professor teaching one of her courses has done it for so many years, she says, that sometimes the speed at which he delivers his online lectures is too fast for her. If students were in person, he might see their confused faces or raised hands more readily. She was still able to go to the campus for her lab work and to Manchester Memorial Hospital for clinicals, she says. The mother of three is eager to finish her education, so she plans to take three classes during the spring semester, as well as her clinical requirements. She’s motivated enough to do whatever it takes, adding, “If I’m struggling, I’m going to ask for help.”

Hartford Gets Incentive to Boost FAFSA Completion Rates

Gov. Ned Lamont, in partnership with Connecticut’s colleges and the state Department of Education and Career Readiness Alliance, has issued the state’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Completion Challenge, to encourage school districts to increase FAFSA completion rates by at least 5 percent between this year’s seniors and last year’s seniors.

This challenge is designed to spark and support local creativity to increase FAFSA completion and postsecondary enrollment rates, according to state Education Commissioner Miguel A. Cardona, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s pick for U.S. education secretary.

Students are encouraged to complete the FAFSA each year to be eligible for federal, and sometimes state, financial aid while attending college. The number of students who submit the FAFSA can also be an indication of enrollment numbers at colleges and universities, since students are required to put the school they attend, or prospective schools, on the application.

“With a small amount of dollars coming from the state, 16 school districts across Connecticut, including Hartford, are now leading the effort to increase the number of students completing FAFSAs,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford. “It’s going to take more than just counselors supporting students; it’s going to take family engagement during this time of physical distancing to get students across the finish line, which means we need partnerships. Be on the lookout for this focus on financial aid coming to Hartford and let’s all get ready to support the seniors who want to go to college.”

The coronavirus disrupted the nation’s education system, including the FAFSA completion rate. In Connecticut, FAFSA completions plunged 16 percent at the beginning of the school year compared to the same time last year. More students have applied for FAFSA since then, and this year’s applications are now running about 9 percent behind last year’s rates. As of Jan. 15, of this year, an estimated 30-34 percent of Hartford Public Schools students submitted the FAFSA, compared to 35-39 percent by the same date last year.

These declines reflect the uncertain and challenging circumstances students, parents and educators are navigating. Students face economic upheaval and food and housing insecurity; and they’ve had to adapt to changing ways of learning. Dr. Cardona says he understands these challenges and recognizes that FAFSA completion may feel like a low priority.

“However, we must push back on this declining trend if we want to ensure our students’ educational trajectories and all of the promising options available to them upon graduation,” he said in a prepared statement. “This challenge demonstrates our commitment to building on our ongoing efforts to improve postsecondary outcomes, especially for our most vulnerable, by connecting them with the additional support and resources they need.”

Even before COVID, FAFSA completion proved challenging in some low-income communities. Select districts will be eligible to win a grant to help them with FAFSA filing for the 2021-2022 school year. Hartford Public Schools and the 15 other eligible districts reported FAFSA completion rates below 50 percent during the 2019-20 school year, free- and reduced-price lunch rates exceeding 45 percent and a senior class larger than 50 students. The four districts with the highest percentage-point growth will be awarded and recognized in September 2021, and two districts will receive a grant.

AH & CCC Bring College Persistence Expert to CT

These days, if you aren’t using technology to communicate with college students, then you probably aren’t reaching them.  Thankfully, one nonprofit company has developed a customizable app-based approach to help students adopt key behaviors that will lead to success at college. Now – more than ever – first-generation students need help to persist to completion of their degree. Thanks to a partnership between Achieve Hartford and Capital Community College, the 11-year-old nonprofit, Beyond 12, is now working alongside Capital staff to build out the right mix of content and incentives within the app to drive key student behaviors. Launching this month, it’s designed to lead to better persistence outcomes for all Capital students.   
How will it work?  

All Capital Community College students will be asked to download the Beyond 12 app, GradGuru, which will text students reminders about academic, financial aid and course registration deadlines, as well as steps required for college transfers and ways to connect to campus resources.

“With many needs and limited funding, this is a service our students need that we could not afford to offer,” says Jason Scappaticci, Capital’s dean of students. “We’re grateful to Achieve Hartford for purchasing GradGuru on behalf of our students.”  
The app sends out one to three nudges or reminders a day to some 50,000 students from 19 community colleges. With campuses shut down because of the pandemic, the app provides colleges an effective way to communicate with their students.  Early results from its use at community colleges throughout California are promising: 70 percent of students recommend GradGuru to their classmates; 65 percent report an impact on meeting more deadlines; and 54 percent of daily nudges are opened.  
How did we get here?  

With the ALL IN! Coalition focusing not just on college readiness and enrollment, but also college persistence, Achieve Hartford has been looking around the country to see what is working and what tools could become even more important in the era of virtual learning. Having piloted peer mentoring at three colleges last fall as part of the ALL IN! Coalition’s Campus Retention action team, this summer presented the first opportunity for Achieve Hartford to take that pilot to scale at CCC and MCC, starting in August. Piloting a technology solution this school year was an additional step we could take to deepen the partnership with higher ed and learn what works.
In addition to the app, the partnership with Beyond 12 allows Achieve Hartford and CCC to use a real-time, Beyond 12 data system called Alumni Data Tracker to monitor the progress of Hartford Public Schools graduates attending CCC.   

“The data tracking feature will help Achieve Hartford keep track of all Hartford Public Schools graduates, including those whom we mentor through our College Persistence program and those we don’t,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director. “We can compare each cohort and follow them through their community college years and beyond.” 
The partnership is the first in Connecticut for Beyond 12, which was founded by a first-generation student to help others overcome the challenges she faced.  
“We are thrilled to partner with Achieve Hartford and Capital Community College to ensure that Hartford students have the tools to not only obtain post-secondary degrees but to also translate those degrees into meaningful employment and choice-filled lives,” says Alexandra Bernadotte, founder and CEO. “We share Achieve Hartford’s commitment to build a strong talent pipeline for the state and region. Through our platform, we will track longitudinal student outcomes and share data and insights to help inform the work of Achieve Hartford’s cross-sector collaborators.” 
About Beyond 12  

Beyond 12 is a high-tech, high-touch coaching platform that helps high schools, college access programs and colleges provide their students with the academic, social and emotional support they need to succeed in higher education. Founded in 2009, Beyond 12 works to dramatically increase the number of historically under-represented students who graduate from college.

COVID-19 Leads to Dip in College Enrollment

In a year when the COVID-19 pandemic impacted enrollment declines at colleges nationwide, community colleges experienced the biggest drop. Nationwide, community college enrollments dipped by 7.5 percent, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. With all Connecticut community college classes online, coupled with the heavy economic and public health toll COVID-19 has had on people of color, community colleges in the state expected fewer enrollments.  

Reflecting that trend, a lower percentage of students served by the ALL IN! Coalition’s Summer Transition program started college this fall than in previous years. However, we learned from past challenges and made modifications, and as a result, the total number of students served jumped. Formerly called the Summer Melt Action Team during its pilot phase, the program just completed its fourth year. It evolved into the Summer Transition Initiative and is led by Achieve Hartford’s director of programs.

The uptick in the number of Hartford students who were part of the Summer Transition cohort enrolled in either Capital Community College (CCC) or Manchester Community College (MCC) – 104 this year compared to 70 last year – can be credited to an agreement between CCC and MCC and Achieve Hartford. This spring, CCC and MCC staff provided Achieve Hartford staff with the names of Hartford Public Schools (HPS) class of 2020 graduates who had been accepted for the fall 2020, as well as the names of some students who had applied. This resulted in the largest cohort since the program began – 320 compared to last year’s 200.

In past years, Achieve Hartford relied on HPS guidance counselors to provide the names and contact information of students who planned to attend one of several Hartford-area colleges, including private and public four-year colleges and community colleges.

Historically, more HPS grads attend CCC and MCC than any other colleges in the state, so this year we concentrated on serving those students exclusively. We entered into a memorandum of understanding with CCC and MCC, and their staffs gave our staff the names of prospective students while they were still in high school.

Through the Summer Transition program, we reached out to those seniors to offer the support of an Outreach Specialist to help them complete the matriculation process through the summer. With help recruiting potential staff from our community college partners, we hire and train Outreach Specialists who help HPS graduates navigate the many steps toward starting college, including filling out financial aid forms and registering for classes.

“Given all the challenges of trying to connect with students during a pandemic when they were not physically in school, we consider a 54 percent engagement rate a success,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford.

While the 33 percent enrollment in college represents a dip from last year’s enrollment rate of 38 percent, all evidence suggests the COVID-19 pandemic plays a role, Holzer says. At CCC and MCC, overall registrations this fall fell by double digits. Traditionally, minority and low-income students compromise a large percentage of community colleges’ student population.

We cannot yet confirm how many of the students out of the 320-student cohort enrolled at other institutions, though some told the Outreach Specialists they planned to enroll elsewhere.

This year, the state’s community colleges offered free tuition to full-time students who met a series of income, citizenship and residency requirements. Some HPS graduates told the Outreach Specialists that they were postponing the start of college until classes were held in person, until they could improve their English literacy or, if they lacked U.S. citizenship, until they could earn the money for tuition.

Steering Committee to Focus on Class of 2021 Post-Secondary Planning

The ALL IN! Steering Committee, during its September meeting, agreed to address the added student engagement challenges brought on by living through a pandemic during the 2020-21 school year.

Acknowledging the negative impact virtual learning has on high school seniors, the committee agreed the best way to leverage the cross-sector nature of its work would be to launch a comprehensive effort to ensure every Hartford Public Schools senior receives counseling support that produces a post-graduation plan.

A sub-committee has been working for the past few weeks on ways to support high school counselors on Wednesdays, when students have no academic classes. Members can provide workshops on topics such as how to complete the common app, write a college essay and fill out the FAFSA. At least a few sessions, presented in multiple languages and accessible at any time, will be geared to parents, including how and why to complete the AFSA and why it’s important for families to let their children get an education. Committee members are working together to create and present these online workshops, which will begin as soon as possible.

In addition, supplemental advising to work 1:1 with students to develop their post-secondary plans will be needed. The committee is considering options to support both the students who are “college-intentional” as well as those Class of 2021 members who don’t want to attend college and may want to join the military or pursue apprenticeships, certification programs and/or job training. While the Hartford Consortium’s Career Beginnings program already supports many college-intentional students, counselors could refer other students for 1:1 support from other coalition partners.

Finally, a component of the work must address the need to engage students and families directly so they know the students’ options as well as families’ roles. As more information becomes available about this year’s ALL IN! initiative, it will be shared.

The People Who Do the Work: Students Provide Outreach to Help Bridge Gap

When Michaela Appah started at Capital Community College, she had nobody to help her pick a major, select classes, apply for financial aid or fill out the numerous forms that are part of the college experience. So, when she heard about a job with Achieve Hartford as an outreach specialist, she jumped at the chance to help incoming first-year students have an easier transition into college than she had had. 

Having worked for the past two years in the counseling and advising office at CCC, the East Hartford resident knew the system and the people to contact when her mentees had a question.  

“My parents were always working. I had to figure out stuff on my own,” says Appah, whose parents are from Ghana and whose mother still lives there. “Honestly, I think it’s a good idea to provide this service. If I had someone to help me the way we’re helping these students, it wouldn’t have been as hard a transition. Transitioning to college is overwhelming.” 

Appah graduated this spring from Capital with an associate’s degree in Health, Science and Liberal Arts, and plans to study public relations and marketing at Central Connecticut State University this fall. She is one of five outreach specialists hired through the ALL IN! Coalition’s Summer Transition Program.

Working closely with CCC staff, Achieve Hartford Director of Programs Chris Marcelli oversaw the hiring and training of outreach specialists, who started working with graduating seniors from the Hartford Public Schools in late May.  

“We hope that by reaching out to students when they are still in high school, we’re more apt to get their attention and allow them to see the value of working with the outreach specialists,” Marcelli says. “Of course, this year is very unusual, as the students were not physically in the schools. Still, we wanted our staff to start before the end of the school year to give Hartford Schools graduates the help they need to seek financial aid and start college.”   

Appah helped about 20 of the 60 students assigned to her because the majority were not planning to start college this fall for two primary reasons. Some were undocumented, so they didn’t qualify for financial aid and couldn’t afford do attend without it. Others opted to postpone college because COVID-19 restrictions meant that all classes for the fall would be online.  

Outreach specialists informed graduates of Hartford Public Schools about the Pledge to Advance Connecticut (PACT,) the state’s new free community college program offered this fall to first-year college students from Connecticut. Full-time community college students are eligible for up to three years free of mandatory tuition and fees. Students had to apply by July 15 to be eligible, and that’s where information, reminders and guidance from Appah really helped. Students who already have their institutional costs covered by an existing financial aid package would be eligible for a $250 minimum award each semester. 

The deadline “did put a little bit of pressure on the kids to finish up with their financial aid applications,” she says. “I tried to let my students be aware of it. Who doesn’t want free tuition?” 

When she first started calling her mentees, many hung up on her or didn’t answer because they suspected a spam caller. “It was a struggle at first. I had to be persistent.” 

She made templates with the information they needed to send to the college with their application, such as their transcript and SAT scores, and the deadline. She emailed each student with the information and instructions and told them she was available 24/7 to answer questions.  

Some of the students she served had provided their parents’ cellphone numbers, and those parents expressed gratitude, she says. Appah advised students about opportunities, such as work study, offered to students if and when the campus opens. She showed students how to log in to the college website and navigate their way around. While she video-chatted with students who faced snags, “we went through step-by-step while they were on the computer,” she says. “It was way faster and way easier.”  

If students worried that once they left HPS they wouldn’t have access to the Internet, she let them know that Capital gave all students desktops and Internet access through hotspots. Since most Capital students are first-generation college students, their parents may be as confused by the college process as they are. Appah says the fact that she and her peers were Capital students and graduates cut through the confusion and frustration. She could tell her mentees who to contact for each problem to get quicker results. She suggested they use her name if they had a hard time, and sometimes she contacted a college staff person directly to enlist their help. 

Charting Progress: Summer Melt Efforts in 2020

With more than 100 Hartford Public Schools seniors in Summer Youth Employment, 320 applicants to Capital and Manchester community colleges being targeted by ALL IN! summer outreach specialists, 137 seniors supported by Hartford Promise, and another 100+ seniors supported by UConn College Access and Preparation Program, Career Beginnings, Hartford Youth Scholars, Legacy Foundation, Hartford Public Library, Boys & Girls Clubs, Urban League, and the YWCA  this summer, Hartford is going all out to support college enrollment this fall. There are even 22 Hartford Class of 2020 members enrolled in ReadyCT’s virtual Student 5.0 program, which provides a paid stipend and supports students’ post-secondary enrollment. The goal with all these programs is not just quantity, but also coordination, which is a priority of Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin.  

As for our Summer Melt program, of the 320 seniors who applied and were accepted into Capital and Manchester community colleges, about 60 percent of them have engaged with our summer outreach specialists, and many of them have already completed their FAFSA and course registration. August is a very busy month for students who complete (last minute) their final matriculation requirements.   Not only will we report on final numbers when we have the data, but we hope, by the end of September, to be able to report on what the rest of the 2020 senior class is doing as well. 

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