Category: Blog

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. 

Why a Coalition Matters

Coalition work is difficult and takes time, so why do it – especially when we have such limited staff capacity and budget? It’s a very good question. As we continue to expand our direct-service work to fill gaps in student supports identified by the ALL IN! Coalition – particularly those gaps during senior summer and the first year of college – we are reminded of one truth: 

  • Despite the countless private-sector programs supporting students in Hartford, the high school graduation, post-secondary enrollment and degree completion rates overall remain frozen.  

So, it can’t be just about more resources; it has to be about resource coordination and better resource targeting. It has to be about the entire system changing how it takes care of students to allow for more and more to choose and stay on a path that works for them. That’s why the Coalition matters, and that’s why we remain committed to playing the role of Backbone to that Coalition.  

Identifying gaps and launching innovative new programs is one play. Another play is being a force for coordination and alignment, collaborative funding, practice improvement, resource sharing, data tracking, cross-sector collaboration and smarter targeting of resources for results. That’s the role of the Coalition, and we will continue to find ways to make systems change this coming school year – as we have in the past, where we have brought organizations together to tackle summer melt, campus retention and work-based learning. Take a look below to see what’s on the horizon and what you can do to plug in if you haven’t already. 

Private-Sector Leaders Plugging In

In Vol. 1, Issue 1 of the ALL IN! Coalition Update, we spotlighted corporate volunteer Kevin Timbro, whose commitment to Hartford youth is almost unmatched. The fact is, however, we aren’t looking for that level of contribution from every private-sector leader; we’re just looking for folks to plug in where they can. 

  • For corporate leaders, we just ask that you reach out to us to learn more about the local talent pipeline and consider taking on a high school or college-level intern. 
  • For nonprofit leaders, we ask you to engage in either the College Supports Network of practitioners or the Work-Based Learning Network to share what you’re doing to help prepare youth for post-secondary education and career, and consider sharing data on who you are serving. 
  • For philanthropic leaders, we ask that you consider donating a small amount to the Coalition and joining the Funder Advisory Committee, to share your strategies for making impact, and also to ask your grantees to engage in one of the Coalition’s two practitioner networks. 
  • For higher education leaders, we ask that you reach out to learn more and consider partnering with us on summer melt and campus retention efforts for the Hartford graduates now on your campuses. 

There are already so many oars in the water. We just want to help everyone row in the same direction. Reach out to us [email protected]  

Under the Hood: What Supporting HPS Graduates as Campus Freshmen Looks Like

Penina, a first-generation college student, faced several challenges when starting at Central Connecticut State University in the fall of 2019. Commuting from Hartford to New Britain by bus and helping her parents care for her younger siblings, she found it difficult to attend professors’ office hours. She struggled with consistent time management and motivation.  

Penina told her mentor, Grecia Zaldiva, she wanted to remain focused and motivated because she knew graduating from college would open many doors. However, there was no one at home who could teach her about how college life works or how challenging a transition it is to go from high school to college. 

Not knowing  where to go for help  or apply for work study jobs on campus, Grecia gave her all the resources that CCSU provides, as well telling her where they are located.  

“I also always encouraged her to participate and ask for help in her classes,” Grecia says.  

At first, as a commuter, Penina found it challenging to make friends. After Grecia sat with her and showed her the website page that lists all the university clubs, Penina joined the Africana Club, where she made good friends and felt part of the campus community. (Research shows students who feel engaged are more apt to persist in college and graduate.)

Grecia guided her and encouraged her to take advantage of all the opportunities she could during college. Knowing Penina wanted to live on campus and focus on school without  taking out loans, her mentor told her that if she became an RA as an upperclassman, she’d receive free room and board, but she will need experience. 

Grecia helped Penina look for volunteer opportunities, which led to her applying for a volunteer role as an Orientation Leader.  Grecia conducted a mock interview with Penina to help prepare her, as she’d never been interviewed before. When Penina didn’t get the position, her mentor told her not to be discouraged and helped her find a lower-level volunteer position that would be the first step toward reaching her ultimate goal of landing  an RA job.  

As their relationship developed, Penina became more confident and eager to take advantage of all the opportunities college offers. Grecia sat with her and showed her how to organize and color-code her agenda in order to improve her time-management skills, and Penina learned to organize her time well.

While the funding for ALL IN!’s Campus Retention program last year only allowed for one semester of mentoring, Grecia continued mentoring Penina through her second semester as a volunteer. She helped her select her courses, recommending professors. When her parents were unable to work because of the coronavirus, her mentor gave Penina the name and email of someone in the Financial Aid Office and told her to share her changed family finances . The university increased her need-based grant amount as a result, allowing her to continue her education.   The goal this fall is to expand the number of mentors who support Hartford Public School graduates as they begin college. The mentoring program seeks to increase the rate of degree completion for Hartford graduates, which, research shows is the most effective  way to end the cycle of poverty that traps so many students we seek to serve. 

Private-Sector Leaders Plugging In: Kevin Timbro

Sometimes, we look at the problems around us and feel powerless to do anything about them. It’s at that time we should get into action, because we all have something to give. This month’s profile of a local private-sector volunteer is all about action and, just like you and me, he cares deeply about his community, especially historically marginalized people.   

Kevin Timbro began volunteering with Hartford children within a few years of graduating from college, and now, with a wife and three children under age 5, he remains passionate about lending his skills to help Hartford Public Schools students achieve. He’s just not sure what that will look like this fall, as it’s still unknown whether coronavirus will prevent students from returning to school. Either way, he knows they need support.   

“I do believe there is a lot of opportunity to help students out through a virtual or digital realm,” he says. “Distance learning is going to be the new norm. I don’t think the education system knows what it’s going to look like – you can’t socially distance kids,” he says. “It’s not something that is doable.” 

His employer, UnitedHealthcare, has a partnership with High School Inc. and is open to its employees volunteering during the work day, he says. Long before coronavirus, Timbro reached out to his company’s coordinator to express his interest in volunteering, and soon he found himself serving on the advisory board for High School Inc. and enjoyed the experience. 

When staff at Achieve Hartford approached him to participate in one of the ALL IN! Coalition action teams, he welcomed the chance to work alongside nonprofit leaders to support students. 

“I loved the idea of the private sector coming into the school on a regular basis and working with the teachers,” says Timbro. “I didn’t want to come in and make a statement like, ‘I know what’s needed.’ I wanted to say, ‘This is your school. How can I assist in this advisory program and partner with you?’ The teachers were super receptive to that.” 

As co-chair of the ALL IN! Coalition’s High School Advisory action team, he took on the task of scheduling and leading meetings and taking notes. He was the only corporate member of the action team, and he found that, whether they represented a nonprofit organization or education, “everybody was on the same page in regard to the need.”  

People were so committed in their common purpose that they worked well together. “You could actually get stuff done,” he says. 

He doesn’t think online-only learning will work for many HPS students, he says. “Everything needs to be working toward getting students back in the building.” He earned his master’s degree entirely through online classes, but it took extreme discipline to carve out time for attending class, studying for tests and writing papers – discipline he didn’t have when he was a teenager, he says.  

Before coronavirus, when students were physically in school, he witnessed the impact face-to-face meetings can have. For example, a private college financial aid officer spoke to the freshmen, sophomores and juniors about financial aid and told them that if their grades are high enough, they could qualify for need-based scholarships that would cover most of their tuition.  

“This was one of the most powerful sessions we organized for students. The students were unaware of this concept,” Timbro says. “This helped drive home the point to underclassmen the importance of doing their best from the start of high school.”  

Despite the fact that he’s a 31-year-old white guy from Middletown, Timbro says, “the students have been very receptive to things I’ve shared.” 

While serving on the High School Advisory action team inside Weaver High School, the team recruited leaders from Morgan Stanley, which has an alumnae mentorship program. Several Hartford Public Schools alums – college students and college graduates in the workforce – served as mentors who came in during students’ advisory period and helped with college applications and answering questions.  

In what seems like almost constant change in Hartford, the action team faced challenges. “I do think there can be a tighter collaboration between the private sector, public sector and the board of education,” he says. 

But that’s not discouraging Timbro from serving on another ALL IN! Coalition action team in the future. He knows his skills as an executive can be helpful to sourcing and organizing programming for students. The High School Advisory action team was a good start and helped some students, but this work is going to take time, effort, many hands and many years.  

“As long as we’re making progress,” he says, “then it’s beneficial.”  

He’s hoping there will be a greater call on the private sector for tutoring support, college application guidance and internships, even during these social distancing restrictions. “I think this pandemic has set us back 12 to 18 months. We don’t know what we’re going to do next,” he says. “All of the obstacles, hurdles that were in place prior to Covid-19 have to be put to the side, and we have to work through this pandemic fully before we start to address those hurdles.” 

For example, the racial injustices Hartford students face can’t be ignored and should be addressed in a public forum and in the private sector, Timbro says. “Racism isn’t new. We’re just seeing it being caught on camera.” 

The ALL IN! Coalition’s work focuses on addressing institutional, systemic discrimination by providing Hartford students with at least some of the scaffolding in place for white students.   “The main priority here is to start having the conversation, and if nobody has a conversation, no change is going to happen,” he says. “What does that look like? I can’t give you an answer.” But that’s not going to stop Timbro  from finding ways to volunteer and support students he knows have been marginalized, with whatever time he can spare.  

Results Charted: College Enrollment, Summer Melt and the ALL IN! Summer Transition Action Team

We finally received results for Year 3 college enrollment district-wide, and unfortunately, the percentage of HPS graduates starting college the fall immediately after graduation remained unchanged at 56%. The following data tables give a picture of the recently updated data from the National Student Clearinghouse: 

% of Hartford students enrolled FALL after graduation

2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
55% 57% 62% 62% 56% 56%

% of Hartford students enrolled YEAR after graduation

59% 61% 66% 66% 60% ?%

% of freshman to sophomore persistence

74% 79% 79% 80% * *
*Persistence for a given cohort not available until the second academic year of study has concluded 

% of students completing any degree within 6 years

24% 27% 24% 22% 24%* 25%
*Revised upward from 23% in most recent NSC report 

As a result of the lackluster change in enrollment percentage, we want to expand the Summer Melt program to ensure our summer intervention makes a measurable difference. While last year’s Summer Transition action team had a cohort of almost 200 students across five campuses, this year’s cohort is 280 students across just Capital and Manchester Community Colleges. Most of HPS students attend those colleges, so we feel focusing on these students with full support of the community college leadership will make the biggest impact.

Achieve Hartford  hired three college students at Capital Community College and two at Manchester to be our summer outreach specialists, and they now have several  weeks under their belts. Our partners at the two community colleges were fantastic in helping identify strong student applicants and in co-facilitating the training for them. Each of the five summer outreach specialists has a caseload of 50-60 students to call/email/text all summer, and with the expected response rate, the real ratio is more like 1:40 max.  

While some students will need a lot of support to finish the enrollment process, others will not. Regardless, the staff at the colleges stands ready to take referrals and make sure every student who  asks for support gets it – especially as it relates to successfully completing the FAFSA and course registration. We will keep you abreast of progress over the summer. 

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