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ALL In! Partners Step Up to Help Seniors Plan Their Futures

The Class of 2022 program to connect graduating Hartford seniors to a post-secondary plan is in full swing with community-based organizations’ staff working with seniors on a solid plan for their futures after high school. While 88% of Hartford Public Schools’ graduating seniors have made some kind of plan for college, career or the military after graduation this month, Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said at a recent event celebrating students, 12% have been referred to the Class of 2022 program. 

Out of the 179 seniors from eight Hartford high schools whom staff referred to the program because they had no formal plan for their lives after graduation, 52 seniors, or 29%, have registered. Of those, 33 seniors, or nearly 64%, have already participated in some way to begin the process of preparing for their future and earn a cash incentive. 

Staff from the Blue Hills Civic Association, Center for Latino Progress and Ready CT are meeting with students in their high schools and outside of school to help them plan for skills training, community college, the military or a job with advancement potential. Local foundations made this program possible, allowing the students to earn $50 stipends for attending a workshop, meeting with a staff member to learn about options or enrolling in one of several summer programs. 

“Thanks to various funders, we have a chance to help these students who, due to constraints at the school district and their own challenges related to COVID, are not yet on a high-quality post-secondary pathway,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford. “It’s an honor to try and help these students put themselves on a great trajectory, and it’s wonderful working so closely with HPS staff to learn from this work and find ways to make this type of work no longer needed in the future.”

To reach the majority of seniors who haven’t yet responded, community-based organizations’ staff members are resourceful, tenacious and persistent. They’re reaching out through texts, emails and phone calls and trying to meet with the students in person while they’re in school. Also, post cards will be attached to students’ diplomas and graduation packets for those without a post-secondary plan, to try to connect with those students who don’t worry about their futures until they’ve graduated. Once students enroll in the Class of 2022 program, they can count on a designated CBO staff member to guide them through the process, answer questions and help keep them on track. 

The ALL IN! Coalition, local foundations, nonprofit organizations, the City of Hartford and HPS launched this temporary program last year in response to students learning remotely and not meeting with their guidance counselors to plan for their futures. Based on lesson’s learned from the pilot year, this year the focus has been CBO staff members forming relationships with students while they’re still in school and staying with them throughout the summer and through placement or Sept. 16, whichever comes first. 

“Partners are collaborating deeply on outreach methods and designing workshop curriculum and career pathway information,” Holzer says. “They are working as a real team to help as many seniors as possible.” 

CT State Community College Merger Advances

John Maduko, MD, Minnesota State Community and Technical College vice president, started his new position as the first permanent president of the newly formed Connecticut State Community College on June 3, the latest step toward the merger of the state’s 12 community college campuses. The plan began five years ago, and the newly merged system serving 32,000 is set to open July 1, 2023.

The state’s public college system reorganized after facing deficits because of decreased tuition revenue and increased costs. Since 2017, the Board of Regents has been pursuing two strategies to strengthen the community college system: consolidation of the 12 community colleges into one singly accredited institution; and consolidation of the Connecticut State College and University System’s administrative back-office functions into shared services used by community colleges, state universities and Charter Oak State College. 

The new structure increases focus on enrollment management, advising and retention.  Under the current system, colleges are not able to share student information from one to another. When students take classes at multiple colleges, as they often do to get the classes they need, they must transfer credits between schools. However, those transfer credits do not count toward the students’ GPA. Under the new structure, students will apply once; all the classes they take at any of the 12 campuses will apply to their GPA and be recorded on their Connecticut State Community College transcript for a degree program available across all campuses. 

When students are given extra, personalized support, they make better informed enrollment decisions and have higher rates of attendance, persistence, retention and timely graduation, research shows. The new CSCC system is adopting the Guided Pathways initiatives, a nationally recognized, research-based holistic advising program. In collaboration with faculty advisors, GP advisors help students explore their options, persist toward a career as well as a degree and meet the personal challenges that often derail or delay academic progress, according to the CT State college merger website.  

The new structure calls for Regional Presidents to help bring consistency across the campus and promote innovation at scale. To help manage CT State and coordinate processes across the 12 campuses, there will be regional positions overseeing enrollment management, workforce development, continuing education, grants, planning and research, information technology and marketing. The merger has been controversial, particularly among faculty who questioned whether it will achieve the promised savings and whether the newly merged system will be sufficiently staffed. 

HPS Celebrates Student Success

Out of all Hartford Public Schools’ rising ninth graders, 96% have already signed onto Naviance and begun a post-secondary plan. Among the Class of 2022, 115 new Hartford Promise Scholars will be attending college this fall. And Hartford Public Schools’ graduation rate has jumped 3.5% to 72.3% this year, despite all the challenges students have faced living through the pandemic the past two years. These figures, shared by Hartford Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez and Hartford Promise Executive Director Richard Sugarman at the HPS Spring Showcase, represent just some of the students’ milestones.

Meanwhile, the Career Pathways program provides HPS students exposure to career opportunities with Connecticut employers, and many former Pathways students go on to work for companies where they had interned, Torres-Rodriguez told an audience of community partners, students, employers and HPS staff gathered at Weaver High School June 1 to celebrate students’ success. “Career Pathways keep students engaged and shows them what they’re capable of,” she said.

Specifically, every comprehensive high school has two career pathway options that include: engineering and green tech, and allied health at Hartford Public High; leadership and public service, and computer science at Bulkeley High; and insurance, and journalism and media at Weaver High. Some 600 students are enrolled in these programs across six different sectors, said Medeline Negrón, chief of academics, teaching, learning and student supports. 

During a break-out session reviewing career pathways, Hartford High rising senior Bryan Ortiz, serving on the panel, said he was looking forward to what he would learn at an internship with Pratt & Whitney to begin at the end of June. “I heard really good things about Pratt & Whitney from the people who interned last year,” he said. “I’m excited for the hands-on opportunity.”

Hartford High School Principal Flora Padro said the internships serve to motivate students to do well she they improve their chance of being selected for one of the competitive pathway positions. These internships offer something different from their school experience, and having this opportunity has sparked passion in students after the internship experience, Padro said. More than 93% of students enrolled in pathway programs remain in passing status throughout the year, she said. 

These experiences give students a peak into a whole new world and introduce them to different careers and what credentials they need to qualify for that career, said Awilda Rodriguez, with Career Beginnings. 

The internships have led to job opportunities for participating students after their internships end. For example, said panelist Rachel Bader, Travelers second vice president, the insurance company has continued to offer the students scholarships and internships and has hired former pathway students after they graduate. 


Fall-to-Spring Persistence Rate Dips Slightly

Sixty-seven percent of the students from six Alliance Districts in Greater Hartford persisted from fall 2021 to spring 2022 in their first year of Capital or Manchester Community College. This figure is not ideal, but still encouraging given the nationwide pandemic-related persistence declines: In fall of 2020, the national community college persistence rate into spring 2021 averaged 58.5%, which represented a 3.5% percentage point drop from the previous year, reports the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Last year, 71% of the Hartford Public Schools graduates who attended CCC or MCC persisted from their first semester in the fall of 2020 to a second semester in the spring of 2021, while this year’s cohort had a 67% persistence rate. (This year was the first time Achieve Hartford offered the College Persistence Program to students from five Hartford-area towns, so there’s no prior-year data.)

The College Persistence Program pairs peer mentors who are upperclassmen from the same college with first-year students to help them acclimate to college. It grew out of a need identified by the ALL IN! Coalition four years ago: CCC and MCC offer a host of support services to help students succeed, including academic, mental health and financial support, but many first-generation students didn’t know about them.

The Coalition launched a small action team, and based on its early results, the program expanded as an Achieve Hartford program. The 2021-22 school year was the first time Achieve Hartford offered peer mentors to students from not just Hartford, but also from Bloomfield, East Hartford, Manchester, Vernon and Windsor who attended CCC or MCC. It helps drive the regional talent pipeline while serving mostly first-generation, low-income students.

For the second year, Achieve Hartford employed peer mentors this spring to continue to work with first-year students during their second semester of college.

“That represented both a mindset shift for us, and also substantial program growth,” says Chris Marcelli, director of programs. The College Persistence Program’s peer mentors work with first-year students to help them stay in college, regardless of the challenges they face.

“It seems like this year, the 2021-22 academic year, students are more accustomed to the radical changes that have come to their educational environment. That said, they’re also more tired of them, and that flagging motivation really exacerbates the challenges of online courses in particular,” Marcelli says. “I think this year we’ve seen fewer students who are lost and confused, but more who are struggling.” This academic year, CCC and MCC have offered a mix of online and in-person classes.

“We were lucky to get some funds from the H. A. Vance Foundation to extend the program into the spring this year, which we hadn’t originally planned. As with last year, we’ve seen a small dip in student engagement in spring compared to the fall, but we’re not worried by that. Frankly, there are some students who get what they need out of the program in the fall, and then by spring they just don’t need us anymore—which is actually great. But we’re still here.”

Peer mentors who are students at the same college continue to formally work with mentees until May 6, continuing to send reminders about class registration and other end-of-the semester tasks.

Coalition Launches Class of 2022 Support

Despite some delays, the ALL IN! Coalition for College and Career Readiness launched the Post-Secondary Planning Program for the Class of 2022 in early April to help 148 Hartford Public Schools seniors form and implement a plan for their lives after graduation.

Last year’s effort to support the seniors disengaged because of COVID-19 led to HPS staff identifying nearly 350 seniors for post-secondary support in the spring. With so many of those students hunkered down at home during the pandemic, the program quickly turned into a city-wide street outreach effort that lasted for months before students could be supported by workshops and planning. Ultimately, 93 seniors who otherwise would not have had a post-secondary plan were helped toward college, trade programs, the military or other career pathway programs that started in the summer, fall, or in some cases, winter.

This year’s goal, once again, is simple: ensure these seniors develop viable plans for a post-secondary career pathway and get all the way to placement. The task, however, is quite difficult, says Paul Diego Holzer, Achieve Hartford executive director and strategic leader of the program. It all starts with building trust in a short amount of time, he says, followed by in-depth planning discussions informed by exposure to real options. And, as we learned last year, support must continue all summer to ensure students land in a career pathway by September.

Thanks to the hard work of HPS guidance counselors and staff, there are far fewer students this year without a post-secondary plan, but still enough to warrant a second year of ALL IN! Coalition support.  Counselors from six high schools identified 148 students on track to graduate but without plans for college or a career with a future after high school.

ReadyCT staff manages the project, and staff from Blue Hills Civic Association, Center for Latino Progress and ReadyCT work with students to provide mentoring, planning and skill-building services through June. These began with weekly one-on-one or small-group meetings between seniors and agency staff members to build trust. Agency and college partners are introducing the seniors to post-secondary options through workshops and detailed plans to help seniors chart their post-secondary pathway.

Also, through June, students will be offered small-group workshops to build work-related skills. From July to September, caring adults will continue to connect weekly with recent graduates through phone calls, texts and/or in-person meetings; students will be placed in productive summer programs and given assistance to overcome barriers to their chosen career pathway so they can start by September.

The ALL IN! Coalition funders have stepped up to support the $159,000 budget, which includes incentives up to $250 for each participating senior.

Nationally, College Enrollment Continues Decline

SOURCE: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Nationally, undergraduate enrollment fell by 3.1%, or 465,300 students last year, with public, four-year institutions losing the largest number of students (251,400 or -3.8%) compared to the previous year, reports the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Continued enrollment losses during the pandemic represent a total two-year decline of 5.1% or 938,000 students since fall 2019, the NSC Research Center reports.

Enrollment declines at community colleges were less severe in the fall of 2021 (-3.4% or 161,800 students) than in 2020. But over a two-year period, public two-year colleges remained the hardest hit sector since the start of the pandemic; enrollment plunged by 706,106 students, or -13.2% over 2019, the NSC reports.

Undergraduate enrollment declined across all institution sectors, with private, for-profit four-year colleges suffering the steepest percentage drop (-11.1% or 65,500 students). Private, nonprofit four-year undergraduate enrollment decreased by 2.2% or 58,700 students in the fall of 2021, the NSC reports. Public institutions (two-year and four-year combined), which enroll three out of every four undergraduates, showed a 3.1% decline, or nearly 398,600 fewer students.

Enrollment for first-year students slipped again, by 2.7% from fall 2020 to fall 2021 and 13.1% since 2019 at all institutions, except for private, nonprofit four-year institutions, the NSC reported.

Shrinking college enrollment has been linked to low unemployment levels, dissatisfaction with rising college costs, public skepticism and declining birthrates. Whatever the reason, the United States is “experiencing a higher education enrollment crisis,” San Jose Spotlight says.

In January, Jon Marcus, editor of The Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit newsroom which covers education, wrote a piece exploring what the decline in college enrollment means for the country, called, Another million adults ‘have stepped off the path to the middle class.’

“People without education past high school earn significantly less than classmates who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees and are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to be employed. They’re more prone to depression, live shorter lives, need more government assistance, pay less in taxes, divorce more frequently and vote and volunteer less often,” Marcus wrote.

The Lumina Foundation presented a webinar in early April: Our Nation’s Enrollment Plunge; Reversing the Trend, with representatives from higher ed, industry, the National Student Clearinghouse, the U.S. Department of education and journalists, including Marcus. The drop in post-secondary education has not only life-long implications for a generation, but for the industries in need of an educated workforce, participants said.

Historically, the longer students are away from college, the less likely they are to return as work and family commitments crowd out education. This phenomenon instills an urgency in the work of Achieve Hartford and the ALL IN! Coalition partners.

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