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HSIP Program Goes Deep with Seniors During Their Time of Need

Relationships Key to Success

The Hartford Student Internship Program for the Class of 2021 began with a very different goal than the program’s previous seven years. Because of the pandemic, the ALL IN! Coalition directed resources away from students already on track for post-secondary education to those students without a plan. The program’s goal was to help Hartford Public Schools (HPS) seniors graduate with a post-secondary plan and placement, but as the pandemic persisted, it became so much more. 

Yes, students without a post-secondary plan were given skills and interest assessments and offered workshops to prepare them for the world after high school.  Staff from community organizations such as Capital Workforce Partners (CWP,) Blue Hills Civic Association (BHCA) and Center for Latino Progress (CLP) addressed barriers to planning for college, career, trade school or the military. But the staff also asked students what they needed and connected them to those resources, including food, mental health support and other assistance, says Sashauna Stewart, youth employment coordinator with CWP. By addressing obstacles first, the community organizations’ staff built trust with students, she says. 

HPS schools were closed to in-person learning from the start of the 2020-21 school year until April, and programs to replace the free breakfasts and lunches were not reaching all students who needed the food. (Nearly 75% of HPS students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.) The teens were trying to learn from home while coping with grief and loss, helping their younger siblings with their learning and facing their family’s financial and health challenges. It wasn’t part of the original plan, but community organizations’ staff saw the need, partnered with food pantries and delivered food along with the workshop information, Stewart says.

“Mental health for our students was a priority. We made sure that was addressed in some of the sessions,” she says.  Staff worked with The Village for Families & Children to get students mental health check-ins, she says. “I think that played a huge part in our program being successful.”  

The partners from BHCA, CLP, CWP, HPS and Achieve Hartford set a goal of launching the program in January and reaching 300 students from the priority high schools – Bulkeley, Hartford and Weaver. COVID-19 presented roadblocks, so the program didn’t launch until late February. Student interest trickled in, so the team made adjustments, opening the program up to all HPS students in May, Stewart says.  The financial incentives offered for enrolling and attending workshops attracted some students, while others signed up after someone with whom they had a relationship from a community-based organization or their school referred them to it.  

BHCA and CLP became more resourceful and creative. Once schools opened, only a small fraction of students returned to in-person learning, and all but students and staff were barred from schools, says Kim Flint, programs manager at CLP. They were trying to engage some of the same students with chronic absenteeism who couldn’t be reached by school system staff, she says.  So, community workers set up activity tables outside the schools before and after the school day to recruit seniors to the program, Stewart says. They hosted weekend block parties and attended schools’ field days and community days. When texting, emailing and calling didn’t net results, they went door-to-door.   

Every senior has a Senior Seminar teacher, so staff met with these teachers to coordinate video conferences during the Senior Seminar class period, all designed to recruit seniors into the program.  “For all the barriers that were in place, I think it went really well,” says Stewart.

An external agency is evaluating the data collected from the pilot year to assess aspects of the program, such as how students participated in workshops and in which career pathways students were ultimately placed, says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford. The Coalition plans to look at results and redesign the program for launch this fall and engage students earlier in their senior year. The Delta-variant-caused COVID uptick could force hybrid or remote learning this year, so the team is planning for all scenarios.  

“The rising seniors just experienced two school years disrupted by the pandemic, and it’s not over,” he says. “We expect to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to help the students who need it most.” 

While the Coalition’s Funder Advisory Committee members provided seed funding for the pilot year, this year, CWP and Achieve Hartford are seeking financial support from new funders.  

“There’s so much to build on,” Holzer says. “Strong relationships have been developed between the program staff, school staff and among the partners within the ALL IN! Coalition.” 

Nonprofits Support Hartford Grads Throughout Crucial Summer

With so many relationships built with seniors in the spring, there was no way program providers were going to let the pandemic summer ruin seniors’ plans for college and careers. Luckily, Hartford has a number of diverse programs that serve recent Hartford Public Schools (HPS) grads across the spectrum of need.

Hartford Promise had 146 HPS grads to help steward into college, while smaller programs like the Hartford Public Library and Urban League had 10-20 students. Fortunately, Summer Youth Employment (SYELP) funding was at a level that could provide jobs for recent grads, and a good number of seniors who participated in HSIP in the spring transitioned to SYELP, along with some seniors who applied on their own. As the largest college-prep program in the region, Career Beginnings stewarded more than 125 HPS seniors to college. Meanwhile, Achieve Hartford assigned peer mentors to all 222 HPS grads accepted at Manchester and Capital Community Colleges. 

The table below lists the number of HPS grads served by just six of the many programs providing post-secondary transition support this summer, with overlap among the programs for reasons related to slightly different programming or collaborative case-management. Programs have been meeting every Friday all summer to share data and discuss challenges students are facing in the transition from high school student to young adult. 

As a group of practitioners, the worry now turns to fall success amid intense hesitancy among many students to rejoin classes in person and/or get the vaccine. Plans are in the works to address this difficult time for the Class of 2021 in a way that is collective and strategic. More to come on this next month.

Class of 2021 Update

ALL IN! Partnerships Deepen

The Hartford Student Internship Program (HSIP+) Class of 2021 program has built new levels of collaboration and relationship building among high school counselors and staff from Hartford nonprofits. Designed to connect Hartford Public Schools seniors who have no post-secondary plan to a career pathway program before they graduate, the original goal to reach 300 students has proven challenging.

Community-based organizations’ staff has reached out to students by phone, email, text and home visits to help set them on the path to a productive summer and career prospects. So far, 73 seniors have joined the program, and community partners are working hard to reach more. (The revised goal is 100-150 students enrolled.)

With financial support from corporate and philanthropic sponsors, we are accomplishing what the ALL IN! Coalition for College and Career Readiness set out to do: turn siloed programs and players into a tight net that can catch students before they fall through any cracks and help them advance through the talent pipeline. While people bemoan Hartford’s “resource problem,” this project has addressed Hartford’s “coordination problem” and brought stakeholders together to patch a hole in the safety net.

Progress Thus Far
• 73 active participants in the program.
28 additional applicants in the system who are being vetted.

The ALL IN! Coalition for College and Career Readiness, with financial support from corporate and philanthropic sponsors, has been working with a team of people to identify HPS seniors without post-secondary plans and get them into the HSIP+ Class of 2021 effort. The program offers students who sign up a chance to earn money and workplace skills. Once students take a couple of virtual workshops, for which they’re paid, they’re eligible to apply for paid internships and summer jobs. The Coalition set out with a goal of reaching 300 students but that proved too ambitious. The project is being implemented by partner organizations – Capital Workforce Partners, BHCA and CLP.

This pandemic has drawn attention to the fact that students’ relationships with staff at school and adults outside of school are not strong enough. Too many students feel disconnected from their schools. We’d like to use this experience with our partners to ensure students have deep connections with caring adults and with programs that can help them advance, despite the challenges they face.

While COVID-19 has shown a spotlight on the holes in the net, we can take this opportunity to patch and reinforce the net long after the pandemic urgency fades. We’re grateful to our financial sponsors: Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the City of Hartford, The Travelers Foundation, The Hartford, Social Venture Partners, Liberty Bank and Lincoln Financial.

Community Workers Go Door-to-Door to Reach HPS Seniors

Despite visiting addresses where the students no longer lived, being told they had the wrong apartment when they were right and encountering people unwilling to open their doors, two Blue Hills Civic Association (BHCA) staff members going door-to-door to reach Hartford Public Schools (HPS) seniors approached each new prospect with enthusiasm.

BHCA and the Center for Latino Progress (CLP) have been working to reach HPS seniors who lack a post-secondary plan for work, college or the military after graduation. Since some students have opted to learn from home as the pandemic continues, HPS guidance counselors have faced more challenges than ever to connect with some disengaged students. At Weaver High School, two guidance counselors serve 600 students; and at Hartford Public High School, four guidance counselors serve 900 students, said Reneesha Baugh, community organizer, BHCA. “It’s an uphill battle for us all,” she said.

This is where the BHCA’s Baugh and Andriana Milner, youth development specialist, come in. Armed with a list of names, addresses, phone numbers, goodie bags with candy and information and a determination to help students, they and other staff members go out in teams several afternoons a week. They start by knocking on doors or ringing doorbells. If they get no answer, Milner calls the student’s number while standing outside their home.

“Hi, I’m Andriana with the Blue Hills Civic Association. We have an opportunity for you to earn some money through an internship and a summer job,” she says to the answering machine or person on the line. If they don’t reach anyone, they may leave a goodie bag with information about the program, a registration form and a zippered bag containing candy and Baugh’s business card.

For more than two hours on a Friday afternoon, they encountered no answer at most doors, an outdated address at one house and someone who said they had the wrong apartment but who answered the phone and confirmed they had the right address. (The young man wouldn’t come to the door, but the women left the goodie bag in front of his mailbox.) Some addresses and phone numbers don’t exist at all, which wastes valuable time. Despite traveling in pairs, outreach workers pay attention to their surroundings and avoid entering buildings that feel unsafe. Even with all the roadblocks the outreach workers face to connecting with students, they’re undeterred.

“At least they’ll get all the information,” said Milner, who was sporting a “Girls Support Girls” t-shirt this day.

An undocumented student who didn’t come to the door but answered Milner’s call said she was interested, and wondered if she was eligible to participate without a green card. (She was.) Milner told her she’d text her and email her the information about the program. That girl sounded interested.

As they left that South End house adorned with Mickey Mouse decorations, Milner crowed, “Oh my god, YES. That’s one!”

After several stops with no face-to-face meetings, they talked about what kept them going in the face of so many apparent dead ends. “It’s an important opportunity for them, even if they don’t realize it,” Milner said. They’re job has transitioned from information providers to saleswomen. On a recent afternoon, BHCA turned three students who initially said ‘no’ into students who said ‘yes.’

“I had adults in my life who had to push me,” Baugh said. “Hopefully, they just need this little push” to
learn some skills.

After driving from one apartment and house to another, Milner called and reached the mother of a boy who was the last name on the day’s list. Her son was home, she said, and encouraged Milner to try the apartment door. The boy didn’t answer the buzzer, but as Milner and Baugh stood outside the apartment building discussing whether to leave a goodie bag on the front porch, a resident left and they slipped into the apartment building through the open door. After walking up three flights of stairs, they rang the bell and a boy opened the door part way. He looked cautious, until Milner introduced herself and Baugh quickly.

When she told the senior he could get a job and earn up to $1,500, along with a $50 gift card just for signing up, he revealed a small smile. Along with the bag containing the sign-up information, Milner gave him a $10 gift card for answering the door. When his face lit up with an even bigger smile, she handed him a gift card for his mother, since she had been helpful when Milner called.

Outside the apartment, Milner did a brief happy dance, saying, “Got one!” She’d follow up with a phone
call on Monday, she said.

This was a typical day, and they don’t get discouraged, they said, because they know how hard a year it has been for the Class of 2021; if they reach one student, it’s worth it. “Some are so disinterested in school” that the offer to earn money makes a difference, Baugh said. “We’re passionate about making sure these seniors have this opportunity so they don’t become another statistic. Their success is our success.”

Programs Expand to Serve More College Students

For the first time in its 13-year history, Achieve Hartford will serve students from five Greater Hartford communities in addition to Hartford. Its two peer mentoring programs designed to help graduating high school seniors start and persist in community college have shown promising results, so Achieve Hartford and its partners at Capital and Manchester Community Colleges decided to expand the programs to help more students.

“As a first-generation student, I wish I had had someone helping me navigate this stuff,” says Sara M. Vincent, Ed.D., director, Strategic Enrollment Management, Manchester Community College. “My mom had no clue how to help me.”

The students are more likely to ask a peer a question than they are to ask a college staff member, she adds. “The personal connection that the mentors provide is crucial.”

Achieve Hartford, as part of its ALL IN! Coalition for College and Career Readiness action teams’ work, started its Summer Transition and Campus Persistence programs as pilot programs a few years ago. Since then, they’ve been modified and expanded to help every HPS grad heading to CCC and MCC.

“While we now run these programs in coordination with our community college partners, I’m thrilled the systemic-change work of two ALL IN! Coalition action teams proved successful and are being brought to scale,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director, Achieve Hartford.

The majority of first-generation Hartford students attend CCC and MCC, so Achieve Hartford partnered with those two schools to serve their students from Hartford. College staff recommend students who work on campus as potential peer mentors, so the program drew from a pool of students who know their way around campus structure and have a proven track record.

“We’re doing something that seems to be working and we kind of hit our ceiling for Hartford for this programming,” says Chris Marcelli, director of programs, Achieve Hartford. Staff from the community colleges and Achieve Hartford discussed ways to expand and mutually decided to start serving students from East Hartford, Bloomfield, Windsor, Manchester and Vernon. A large percentage of students from those towns attend CCC and MCC, Vincent says. In addition, adds Marcelli, students from these districts could use the added support: the state Department of Education lists these school districts as Alliance Districts, placing them among the state’s lower-performing districts.

National research shows first-generation, low-income students were nearly four times more likely (26% versus 7%) to leave higher education after the first year than non-first-generation students. Nationally, only 24% of first-generation students earn an associate degree or certificate within six years.

“We are trying to increase the retention rate,” Marcelli says. A Stanford University researcher found students who took part in mentoring and coaching services were 10-15% more likely to advance to another year of college.

In the fall of 2020, peer mentors reached out to 128 first-semester students at MCC or CCC from Hartford. In a normal year, when there isn’t a pandemic, these colleges would typically retain about 65%, or 83 students. Out of the 128 we attempted to mentor, 70%, or 90 students, persisted from the fall to spring semester, Marcelli says.

“I’m happy about that. You always want to be able to do the most good with the resources you have,” he says. “Being able to serve students from other towns to expand those resources is really good news for us.”

Plans call for serving 750 students from six communities through the summer and, in the fall, about 360 to 400 students, depending upon how many peer mentors Marcelli is able to hire.

Vincent says she and her colleagues are grateful for the partnership.

“My main focus is to get students enrolled,” she says. “Our admissions office is very, very small. I only have two full-time admissions staff [and 5,000 students.] We wouldn’t be able to do this level of support without Achieve Hartford.”

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