Category: Blog

Achieve Hartford Transforms Itself

Board Approves New Strategic Path

As an organization that reflects on its impact each year, Achieve Hartford knew coming out of COVID was the right time for strategic planning.

“Having spent the last few years trying to focus on cross-sector collaboration and systems-change, the pandemic really forced us to reconcile the immense gaps in student readiness and support, and the need for solutions,” Executive Director Paul Diego Holzer says. “As a backbone organization, our focus these past four years on the transition from high school to post-secondary education and training uncovered an unmet need for an important population of students.”

Specifically, while working with partners, we identified a group of seniors on track for high school graduation but not on track for success at 4-year colleges who need support getting into and through community college.

And with this need existing beyond Greater Hartford, we are extending our services to similar low-income students around the state, expanding this fall to serve students attending Capital, Manchester, Quinebaug Valley, Middlesex and Three Rivers Community Colleges.

The Achieve Hartford Board approved a new strategic plan earlier this month, and Achieve Hartford will be rebranding itself this fall. The 13-year-old organization will reconstitute its Board of Directors and staff to ensure we fully understand the needs of – and reflect the experiences of – the students we serve. Community college students’ voices will continue to drive our program design, and we will remain lean during our programmatic expansion.

Not all coalition-building work will end, as Achieve Hartford will still look to convene other community-based organizations that help prepare seniors without a plan for success after high school. We will refine the details of this work in the months to come, and will explore whether the need exists in additional cities besides Hartford.

“We hope to ensure the nonprofit sector, working with this population before they graduate high school, works together so students arrive at community college better prepared,” Holzer says. “We know the pandemic’s impact on students will be felt academically and emotionally for many years to come.”


Peer Mentor Program Expands Reach

Programs Serve 5 Community Colleges, 16 Districts

This fall, the Peer Mentors in our College Persistence Program are offering their help to 600 students at five community colleges.

“I don’t know that anybody else would have predicted this when we started,” says Chris Marcelli, director of programs. “We had a sense that 2019 was something of a pilot, and that we wanted to see it grow if it seemed workable. But the opportunity to scale up this rapidly has been a combination of good planning, good outcomes and lucky timing.”

Three years ago, this program started as a small Action Team of the ALL IN! Coalition, serving about 30 first-year college students who had just graduated with the Hartford Public Schools class of 2019. When Achieve Hartford took it on as a full program in 2020, it jumped to more than 120 Hartford students at Capital and Manchester Community Colleges. In 2021, we added new graduates from five other Alliance Districts in Hartford County attending those colleges, taking the program roster to more than 300.

According to the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities’ (CSCU) Office of Research and System Effectiveness, “fall-to-spring persistence” for Connecticut community college students under the age of 24 from the zip codes we served at the time was 58% for fall 2020; meanwhile, students in our cohort persisted at the substantially higher rate of 71%.

“They haven’t posted similar data for the fall of 2021 yet,” Marcelli says. “But our own results have been pretty consistent, so we’re expecting that when they do, we’ll continue to compare favorably.”

This year, the program expands to Middlesex, Quinebaug Valley and Three Rivers Community Colleges, serving students from 10 additional Alliance Districts in those areas. The five colleges in the program’s newly expanded catchment area correspond to CSCU’s Capital-East Region.

Though the exact nature of that administrative structure is in flux, as of next summer, the system will transition fully to being a single institution, Connecticut Community College.


Students’ Lives Improved

Class of 2022 Program Boosts Prospects

For the Class of 2022 graduates who participated in the spring and summer intervention designed to help those without post-secondary plans land somewhere by this September, their options expanded. The Hartford Public Schools identified 202 students in need of guidance, and community partners engaged 80 seniors, about 40%. Final data won’t be available until the program ends in late September, but qualitative results are in.

Community partners Blue Hills Civic Association, Center for Latino Progress and ReadyCT work with students facing multiple challenges, including poverty and pandemic-related trauma.

Students who never saw beyond their next paycheck have learned about 401(k)s. One student who had never had a paying job because of caring for younger siblings got a paid internship at The Village for Families & Children working with children and recently interviewed for a childcare job. She plans to attend community college to begin a nursing program.

Another student served had missed so much school she risked not graduating. Our community partner, ReadyCT’s Darlene Schubert, gained her mother’s trust, partly by speaking Spanish. The mother set up the first Zoom meeting with Schubert and her daughter. Over time, Schubert formed a bond with the girl and slowly persuaded her to return to school, sitting with her in class to ease the transition. While she does not yet have a job or internship, she has expressed an interest in reading; Schubert is guiding her to get an internship at a public library and later, a job in a book store.

Like all partner organization staff, Schubert works to build a relationship with each student first, so trust can grow. “We all just want to feel connected to someone,” she says. “I go into this knowing that those relationships are what make us thrive.” She keeps in mind the trauma these students have lived through because of the pandemic the past two and a half years, stepping slowly and carefully. “These COVID students are just a whole different breed – the motivation, the autonomy, the self-efficacy – are delayed,” Schubert says.

One student was so happy with the program he talked six friends into joining. The program paid for him to take a Google certification test so he could obtain an internship with an IT company. The IT company saw his intelligence and work-ethic and offered him a full-time job.

Another student, whose earnings helped pay for his family’s groceries and rent, said he had only been focused on working a job and never considered a career with growth potential and benefits such as health insurance, paid time off and retirement funds; he is now on a path to join a labor union, thanks to skills and certifications he received through the Class of 2022 project. Several students are striving to attend college, with a few completing college summer courses.

The students felt the outreach staffs’ commitment to them. When the students graduated from their respective high schools, outreach workers were there to cheer for them. And thanks to funders’ generosity, 48 students attended a celebratory event to see the Hartford Yard Goats, further building social connections and community.


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. 

 


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