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Philanthropy, Nonprofits & HPS Unite to Help Class of 2021 Prepare for Future

This year, more than any other, is especially tough for those Hartford Public Schools’ seniors without plans for college or military service after graduating. School guidance counselors had to work harder to reach students learning remotely, and even in the best years, the student-to-staff ratio stretches guidance counselors thin. What support is there for seniors who aren’t pursuing the traditional college route?

In February, the ALL IN! Coalition partners, with financial support from its Funder Advisory Committee, launched the Hartford Student Internship Program (HSIP) & Class of 2021 program with the goal of reaching up to 300 of those seniors to place them in a post-secondary program. Capital Workforce Partners (CWP,) which has historically led the HSIP, took the lead and received carry-over financial support from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the City of Hartford. Other funders stepped in to help launch the program, including The Travelers Foundation, The Hartford, Social Venture Partners, Liberty Bank and Lincoln Financial.

With CWP coordinating the effort, staff from Blue Hills Civic Association and Center for Latino Progress have knocked on doors and reached out to seniors to enroll them in the program; it offers up to 13 content modules, where students receive $35 stipends for each module attended, as well as 60-hour internships that pay students $12 an hour. Modules offer a mix of career competency training, employment management training and post-secondary program exposure and placement.

Many students have to work to help support their families, so to encourage students to participate and stay engaged throughout the final marking period of their senior year, the program prioritized financial incentives for students and their families.

In total, students in the program will receive:

  • $35 per content module completed at their own pace done in live workshops, recorded webinars, small-group meetings or 1:1 sessions with community-based organization staff, for up to $505 in earnings.
  • Eligibility for internships in the spring, which pay $12/hour for up to 60 hours of work, up to $720 in earnings.
  • Eligibility for early application for Summer Youth Employment, up to $1,500 in earnings.
  • Placement in other paid career pathway programs after high school such as apprenticeship, trade skills, industry certificate and job-training programs.
  • Career Readiness Training on key topics such as time- and self-management, professional communications, resume writing, interviewing and more.

By graduation, the participating students will have gained skills, experiences and connections to prepare them for work, on-the-job training and the possibilities beyond low-wage, low-growth jobs. This effort would not have been possible without the support of the program’s funders and partners.

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.

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