Category: Blog

Seeking Partners’ Input into Plans for Future Service

Achieve Hartford is at the beginning of our strategic visioning and planning process, and we’re at a crossroads. In the coming weeks, we’ll be reaching out to ALL IN! Coalition partners for their input on our future role.

The ALL IN! Coalition action teams that have scaled into full-fledged programs across six communities in partnership with Capital and Manchester community colleges may expand even further, while the Coalition work focused on systems-change in Hartford is approaching five-years old.

In Hartford, with all the players, programs and institutions focusing on post-secondary enrollment and career pathways, it’s time for us to ask the question: What’s our role going forward? In April, we’ll be seeking to interview or survey you, and we would like very much to hear your voice.

  • We have served as the backbone organization to the ALL IN! Coalition’s steering committee, funder advisory committee, the post-secondary supports network and multiple action teams and projects. 
  • We have relished this role over the last four years – driving collaboration, coordination and communication between and among partners and sectors.
  • We seek to learn: 
    • Is there a need for us to play our current role going forward? 
    • Is there another area of systems-change focus for us to address? 
    • Should we expand our direct support to community college students to drive degree completion beyond Hartford County? 
    • Should we merge with another non-profit and seek leaner and more efficient operations?

We need to hear from you. Be on the lookout for a request from us, and know we truly appreciate your voice in helping us answer these tough questions. We hope to continue being a service to you, whether you’re a public-sector, philanthropic, corporate or nonprofit leader. Please help us determine how we can best serve the underserved going forward.

Community Colleges’ Staff Do More Than Teach

The national statistics about who attends community colleges tell part of the story: among students entering college in the fall of 202, 39% of community college students had experienced food insecurity in the past year; 48% of the over 195,000 college students surveyed experience housing  insecurity; and 14% were affected by homelessness, according to the 2021 #RealCollege Survey, by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Overall, 13% had lost a loved one to COVID, with Latinx students more than twice as likely as White students to lose a loved one, the survey found. 

“The pandemic didn’t stop the need [because campus was closed down.] It exacerbated it in a lot of ways,” says T.J. Barber, campus associate dean of student development, Manchester Community College (MCC). The pandemic “highlighted just how critical it is for the College and other institutions to be aware of what is out there to help our students.”

Community colleges offer a host of services to address basic needs, including food pantries, emergency aid and laptop loans. The need just increased during the pandemic, Barber says. While the campus was shut down, Barber and another MCC staff member drove repeatedly to Rentschler Field in East Hartford to get boxes of groceries distributed by Foodshare to give to students, since students didn’t have cars and couldn’t bring the food home by bus without it spoiling during the three-hour trip. 

With classes converting to remote only in March of 2020, students needed laptops and hotspots since many couldn’t afford home internet service or computers. The MCC library loaned out about eight laptops for two-day loans prior to the pandemic, and, when campus closed, the MCC Foundation funded an additional 20 laptops for a semester-long loan, says Debbie Herman, director of library and educational technology, MCC. Through CARES Act funds, the college purchased 60 more laptops to lend out through the Library, as well as 18 hotspots, she says. 

“The library has always been a haven for students who need a quiet place to study or a printer or computer,” she says. “When we had to close down in March 2020, it was devastating not to be able to provide students with that space.”

Some students found themselves out of work when the pandemic hit, so they were able to get emergency funds to pay an abnormally high utility bill or for an unexpected car repair, food assistance, and, when campus reopened, help completing applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Barber says. According to the #RealCollege Survey, more than half of respondents reported having at least moderate anxiety, and staff like Barber and his team try to encourage students to take advantage of the mental health counseling and academic support services.  

This is why, Barber says, he never turns down a donation or an offer to volunteer: The “Career Clothing Closet” holds a lot more than business attire, since students’ basic needs must be met to be ready to learn. It also includes baby clothes, sweatpants, pots, pans, dishes and furniture.

HPS Seniors Share Their Stories

Three seniors in the Hartford Public Schools system from different countries of origin and family circumstances share at least three qualities – having grown up feeling loved, appreciation for their teachers and ambition for their futures. They’re students at Hope Academy, an alternative high school inside the Boys and Girls Club of Hartford for 11th and 12th graders who need support to stay on track for graduation and benefit from smaller classes taught by HPS teachers. These students agreed to share their stories to give a window into their lives to the adults who work to help students like them reach their potential.

When Patrick Munoz moved to Hartford with his mother, step-father and brothers as a first-grader from Puerto Rico, he didn’t speak English, but felt fluent by second grade. Now 19, he’s grateful to his mother for helping him transfer to the smaller, more personal high school when he was a sophomore. 

While a student at Hartford High, “I was slacking off a lot, not doing what I needed to do,” says Munoz. He likes the quieter classrooms and a schedule that allows him to work weeknight shifts at a store near Westfarms. He gives his mom, who works as a store manager for Michaels crafts, money for gas to drive him to work and for Internet service, he says. His mother and step-father divorced when he was in eighth grade, but he’s still in touch with his step-father. 

Munoz is thinking of going to technical school to learn how to fix electronics, but he’s not so sure about college. “My mom, she tries to influence me to go to college. I’m edgy about it,” he says. In addition to her retail job, his mother has a cake making business and makes jewelry, and tells him she wishes she had gone to college. 


Samira Pena wants to become a veterinarian, and plans to start at Capital Community College after graduating this spring, transfer after two years to Central Connecticut State University, followed by “whatever veterinarian college accepts me,” she says. “Animals have always been my passion” and math and science are her favorite subjects, she says. 

She has lived in Hartford, East Hartford and Florida. Pena, 19, remembers as a child, while living with her mother, going hungry at the end of the month when the food stamps ran out. Her mother is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 10 years, she says, and relies on public assistance. Pena describes her father as a functioning alcoholic who is able to work. She lived with him in Florida from aged 14 to 16, she says, then moved back to Hartford to live with her grandmother. 

Regardless of her parents’ struggles, she says, “I did feel loved no matter what.” Her parents didn’t try to poison her against each other, and her grandmother cared for her when she lived with her. 

Pena works for a cleaning company up to 20 hours a week and says she appreciates the attentive environment at Hope Academy. “I really turned it around when I came here. I love it,” she says. “They give you an opportunity to work at your own pace.” 


Jefar McPherson likes learning and his favorite subjects are science and English. He has several career interests and hasn’t decided yet which one to pursue – going into the Airforce to work on airplane engines or become a pilot, becoming a lawyer because he likes debating or a real estate agent like one of his relatives because “it’s one of the best ways or safest ways to accumulate wealth without having a college degree.”

His parents want him to go to college, he says. His mother cares for elderly people and his father works for the U.S. Postal Service, but neither went to college and they want more for him. His family moved to the area from Jamaica when he was 11. 

McPherson, 19, works at Family Dollar after school until closing, but hopes to soon get a job at Amazon because it pays $3.50 an hour more and is directly on a bus route, he says. Without a car, he says, he has the choice between “wasting money on an Uber or a 40-minute bus ride home” from Downtown Hartford.

As the youngest child and only son, he says, “I probably got loved a little too much. My mom wanted a boy.” 

Seniors to get post-secondary planning help

For 2nd year, nonprofits work with HPS seniors to prepare for college or career  

Once again, the ALL IN! Coalition of nonprofit partners, Hartford Public Schools staff, and philanthropy are launching a program to help those students not engaged in post-secondary planning by this time of their senior year. Guidance counselors from nine high schools identified 122 seniors expected to graduate this spring without any formal post-secondary plan for college, trade school, the military or a career.  

Success for this program will be measured by three major outcomes. By reaching out to all 122 seniors identified by HPS, the program will achieve: 

  • 80% enrollment and participation in the program (n=98), 
  • 80% postsecondary plan template + Naviance task completion rate by June graduation (n=78) 
  • 40% summer program enrollment rate (Summer Youth Employment, college bridge program, etc.) (n=49) 
  • 62% placement rate (2- or 4-year college, certification, trade, military or good job with potential by Sept. 16) (n=61) 
  • Partner community-based organizations – Center for Latino Progress, Blue Hills Civic Association and ReadyCT – have been gearing up to reach out to the students and engage them with the post-secondary planning program.

From February to June, the nonprofits’ staff will work on mentoring, planning and skill-building. From July through mid-September, the mentoring and skill-building will continue and community partners will work with graduates to help place them in their chosen career, college or training pathway by late summer. This involves helping the recent graduates overcome any barriers such as financial, logistical or language. The key here will be consistency of support from now through September to make sure they launch a post-secondary career pathway of some kind. 

This year, depending on students’ needs and schedules, community-based organizations’ staff will meet with students in their high schools during the school day, after school and/or, if necessary, off-site. The student intake process will involve the following: assessing career interests; screening academic readiness; capturing current contact information; meeting their assigned staff person; selecting workshops they are interested in attending; agreeing to a day and time to connect weekly; explaining incentives they can earn for each milestone; and handing out their first incentive.  

We will report more once the program is fully underway, and the mentoring, skill-building and planning begins. This program would not be possible without the Travelers Foundation, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, The Hartford, Lincoln Financial, Liberty Bank, H.A. Vance Foundation and Social Venture Partners; we thank them for funding last year’s project and for coming together again for this year’s seniors. 

CT Community College Enrollment Drops, Exceeding National Trend

Since the pandemic, community college enrollment nationally has declined more than 13%. Last fall, despite the Covid-19 vaccines, community college enrollment dropped 3.4%, part of a national dip in undergraduate enrollment over the last year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Community college enrollment nationally has been slipping each of the past five years, with the biggest dip in the fall of 2020 – a 10.1% decline.

College enrollment at all colleges – public, private, 2-year and 4-year – fell by about 3% last year, but the sharper declines at 2-year colleges suggest more low-income, first-generation students who typically attend community college are at greater risk of having their higher education goals deferred indefinitely.

In Connecticut, community college enrollment has dropped at a greater rate than the national average. In the fall of 2021, enrollment at the state’s community colleges declined by 4.7%, for a total enrollment of 36,238, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. In the fall of 2020, enrollment plunged by 15.3%, with enrollment at 38,032.

The dip in community colleges enrollment “is the continuation of a trend that has been on-going since probably 2017-2018 when enrollments in community colleges peaked,” says Sara Vincent, interim regional director of recruitment, admissions and community outreach, Capital-East Region, Connecticut Community Colleges. “There is a nationwide decline of traditional high-school aged students.  That, coupled with the pandemic, a relatively low unemployment number – community college enrollments tend to ebb and flow with unemployment trends – and competing priorities of home and work life, have all contributed to the enrollment decline in different ways.”

The biggest barriers to starting and persisting in community college are the cost of college and the demands of home life and work, she says. In addition, during the pandemic, students’ lack of access to Wi-Fi and laptops presented an added challenge for many; some of those with the technology struggled to succeed with online coursework, she says.

Community colleges are typically the least expensive college option, but during the pandemic, many students have had to work to support their families and/or provide childcare, so they’ve had to postpone college. Some students’ parents lost their jobs or had health conditions that made working on the front lines extremely risky so students took full-time jobs rather than start college. Others stepped in to help care for nieces and nephews whose day care centers had closed or who needed supervision for doing school from home while their parents worked.

Community colleges have tried to provide multiple supports to help students attend college and succeed, in spite of these barriers, Vincent says. Students who take a minimum of 6 credits are eligible for financial aid so they can attend part time.

“There is also a more focused approach on holistic student support models and providing more embedded support in the services that students are receiving at the community college level,” she says.  The new Guided Pathways Advising model and the Holistic Case Management approach that were adopted by the system office are two big changes that address this, she says. 

This is why Achieve Hartford is so grateful for the support from our funders that allows us to provide peer mentors to guide community college students from underserved communities, says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director. “Students who are low-income and first-generation tend to begin their college education at community colleges, and the fact that enrollment at these colleges has dropped even more than at four-year colleges may delay or defer a whole generation’s chance to attain higher education and the financial opportunities an education affords.”

HSIP Class of 2021 Pilot Project: Despite challenges, 92 HPS grads helped

To address the added challenges of reaching Hartford Public Schools seniors who were learning remotely, members of the ALL IN! coalition joined together last winter to try to help 347 seniors who were thought, at the time, to be without post-secondary plans. A year later, we can report on what happened to the seniors from nine high schools served by the program that officially ended in June 2021 but continued for many until Jan. 31. 

The HSIP Class of 2021 program began in the middle of February 2021, and high school staff identified the seniors in need of post-secondary planning. With oversight from Connecticut Workforce Partners, two community-based organizations – Center for Latino Progress and Blue Hills Civic Association – worked to reach out to the students (by any means necessary) and engage them with the pilot post-secondary planning program. After two months of street outreach, the nonprofits’ staff worked on mentoring, planning and skill-building.  

From July through mid-September, the mentoring and skill-building continued for those seniors choosing to enroll in Summer Youth Employment, with community partners working with high school graduates to help place them in their chosen career, college or training pathway by late summer. This involved helping the recent graduates overcome any barriers, including loss of a parent or guardian, homelessness or other financial hardship. 

Out of the 347 students identified, 92 students, (26%,) participated in the program. This fall, partners reached back out to students to make sure they made it through their fall placement, and, in some cases, started their placement. In total, they were able to reconnect with 62 recent graduates experiencing the following factors as the top obstacles to success:  

  • Managing their finances. 
  • English language skills. 
  • Jobs with too few hours and the need to find more paid hours or work. 
  • Jobs with too many hours that made it difficult to balance school and family. 
  • Lack of role models or motivation. 
  • Lack of post-secondary options awareness and how to transition to college, apprenticeships, etc. 
  • Lack of knowledge and understanding of the college financial aid process once in college. 

When we look at these 62 students as a snapshot, we find the following outcomes: 

  • 16 students attending 4-year college. 
  • 20 students attending 2-year college. 
  • 4 students enrolled in a job training program. 
  • 1 student in the military.  
  • 21 students in a job that offered meaningful advancement. 

Incredibly, for about $3,750 per student, community partners helped these students enroll in college or start the path to a career with a livable wage because of the consistent and tenacious support of staff who either knew the students already or got to know them. Many of these students are now on a trajectory to get out of poverty, where the difference between a career earning $12 an hour and $17 an hour for 92 students is the equivalent of $956,800 more income annually.  

As the HSIP Class of 2021 project wound down on Jan. 31, and a new Class of 2022 project was being designed, the partners concluded the following regarding any future work with this population: 

  1. Developing longer-term relationships is the key to helping these students make progress, because once a student is disconnected, it is almost impossible to reconnect. 
  2. Programmatic continuity is a necessity to get stronger return on investment, because when a nonprofit must shift focus away from current students and toward wherever new funding suggests, impact at the level we all want to see is simply not possible. 
  3. This work cannot be cookie-cutter; it must be differentiated to suit the needs of each student, and providers must be able to deliver an array of services to address unique needs. 
  4. Staff who are connected to the community they serve are key to bypassing the layers of trust barriers that exist when serving these students and their families. 
  5. Having a broad network of community referral partners allows students to get exposed to all that is out there and to stay supported by community resources after a program ends. 
  6. The 1:1 time that these students get is where real progress gets made in addressing challenges, crafting genuine post-secondary plans, and getting all the way to placement. 

“What we heard loud and clear from the partners,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford, “is that this work is very high-touch, and even though it came so late in senior year, referring to it as low-touch doesn’t do it justice.”  

Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Consent to display content from Youtube
Consent to display content from Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from Google