Category: Blog

Post-Secondary Network Members Stronger Together

Last summer, two recent immigrants who are students in the Hartford Public Library’s English Learner Success program were enrolled in a paid job-training program held in the mornings – at the same time as their library program that prepares them for college. They would have had to drop out of their English classes at the library, but the program director spoke to someone leading the job-training program and they were able to move the students to an afternoon class.

“Without that kind of coordination and collaboration, it would have been a lose-lose,” says Michele Maccarone Brophy, leader of the Next Steps program and a member of the ALL IN! Coalition’s Post-Secondary Support Network. Hartford’s professional network of college counseling and youth development professionals representing more than a dozen nonprofits had been meeting weekly for months, she says, so it was easy to call fellow network member Kim Flint, programs director at the Center for Latino Progress, to discuss the scheduling conflict and request a change. “It became a win-win.”

Throughout the summer, network members were each working to help prepare Hartford Public Schools (HPS) students they serve for their post-secondary future. After schools close in June, guidance counselors are off for the summer, so the nonprofits’ staff support is essential.

Preparing students for college, is “like a maze to get through,” says Brophy, who has worked with this population for decades. “The whole enrollment process, submitting proof of immunizations and the COVID vaccine, proof of vaccination, placement testing, course registration, making sure everything is set up with financial aid, new student orientation, figuring out their schedules –online classes, in-person classes and live-remote classes,” she says, required extensive navigational skills.

Network members shared common challenges and brainstormed solutions. “As a coalition, we did a lot of collaboration and problem solving. It’s a mutual support group,” Brophy says. “It helped me to know, with the challenges my students were facing, we weren’t alone.”

The group focused on helping HPS seniors from the Class of 2021 make the transition to higher education or job training by August 2021 and then switched gears to help members of the Class of 2022 with post-secondary planning. Each of the network members works with a different population, with some overlap of students. For example, some English Learner Success students are Hartford Promise scholars.

“Those scholarships are just invaluable. That’s $5,000 a year that I can’t provide to the students. What I can provide is individualized attention, helping them to follow through with all the details,” she says. “Getting accepted into college is only half the battle.” The Hartford Public Library is committed to reaching out in the community, to collaborations and partnerships, she says. It’s helpful, Brophy says, “to have a seat at the table. We’re grateful to be represented and be part of the coalition and the good work the coalition is achieving collectively.” 

HPS Provides New, Non-Traditional School Options

The Hartford Public School system has been quietly innovating its school models in order to help students catch up and/or balance life responsibilities. Its Hope Academy is just one example. 

Two years ago, working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford, HPS established the Hope Academy at the Club’s Asylum Hill location; HPS expanded this past year to open a Hope Academy at the South End Club. Hope Academies serve 11th and 12th graders who need support to stay on track for graduation. In small classes taught by HPS teachers, students learn English language arts, math, science and social studies through project-based learning. 

“These students are juggling school and family and finances at the same time. Many of our kids are working for Amazon trying to help their parents pay for bills,” says Diana Laracuente, assistant principal, Hope Academy. Amazon shifts are 12 hours long, so Hope Academy tries to accommodate the seniors’ schedules to allow students working those jobs to attend school, she says. Out of necessity, school is often not these students’ first priority, she says. “It’s about being evicted or not being evicted.”

Laracuente know all 57 students’ personally, she says. “I always wanted to be an administrator who ran a program like a family,” the veteran educator says. A majority of the students had disciplinary issues before attending the academy, but there haven’t been any incidents at the Academy, she says. She credits the staff’s commitment to serving this population of students. 

“I have the best staff in the world. They’re flexible,” she says. “You have to think outside of the box with this population of students.” Students still show up late to school or miss school all together, but she and the staff work with the students to help them understand the importance of punctuality and attendance. Out of 14 seniors from the Class of 2021, 13 graduated, she says.

Students say having no more than 14 peers in the class allows them to stay focused on their learning without distractions. Jared Cintron, who graduated in 2021, said in a videotaped interview posted on the HPS website he really appreciates that there’s “no misbehaving” and the academy feels welcoming and warm. 

Class of 2021 graduate Harding Tarley said if a student is struggling, teachers will see that and help the student one-on-one. “I’ve asked more questions and I’ve been more productive” than ever before in school, he said in a videotaped interview with Justin Taylor, now Hartford Public High School assistant principal. The small environment allows students to get to know each other and their teachers, making it easier to build friendships, he said.

Students check in on each other if someone is absent, said recent graduate Anita Walker. In her videotaped interview, she said she learned better with the hands-on, project-based learning and students were able to help each other finish a project so they could all graduate. 

When the school day ends, students can participate in their school’s extracurricular activities and a host of Boys & Girls Clubs programs, including homework help, workforce readiness, help with resumes, cover letters and mock interviews, and internships. 

HPS is also offering students two other free options to get their education: the Hartford Public Schools Evening School for 11th and 12th graders to take virtual ELA, math, science and social studies courses, beginning Jan. 31; and, for grades K-12, the Saturday Academy, which began Dec. 4, 2021 and runs for 16 weeks. 

Work-Based Learning Network Takes Stock

Recently, a Hartford Public Schools graduate who had worked as a summer apprentice for Real Art Ways approached a staff member about wanting to work in healthcare, in a job helping people. The young woman had been working in a grocery store since graduating, and now that she knew what she wanted to study, she asked a trusted adult for guidance, says Tina Parziale, learning and engagement manager at Real Art Ways. 

Shortly afterward, while attending a meeting with the Work-Based Learning Network, Parziale learned about a 16-week program in health administration at Manchester Community College due to start soon.

“I was able to connect this young person with the program director. Now she’s doing that program,” Parziale says. “If I wasn’t part of the network, I wouldn’t have learned about this program.”

Making connections is one of the goals of the Work-Based Learning Network (WBLN), led by Capital Workforce Partners (CWP). A part of the ALL IN! Coalition, it consists of 25 partner agencies and serves both students and employers by helping teenagers build skills they’ll need for work. The program begins working with students in middle school and continues to help them develop skills and learn about career options through their senior year of high school, says Morgan Wilderman, coordinator of the program for CWP. 

While students are in middle school, employers visit classrooms and talk about their jobs, what makes them interesting and what skills they need for the work. Students learn about various careers in the classroom and, later, shadow people in the workplace. When students begin high school, they can engage with a paid work-based learning project. Each program involves four to five days of training to prepare students for what’s expected in the workplace. 

Now in its fourth year, a major goal of the WBLN this year is to re-do the evaluation rubric of the 12 core competencies. These competencies help to measure a student’s level of proficiency before and after participating in a WBL program. For example, students are often evaluated by employers on their ability to problem solve, time manage and work in a team, she says. While employers use these tools to measure youth workers’ performance, this evaluation plays a pivotal role in helping the young participants learn, improve and strengthen particular skills. As part of the reevaluation process, they’re working on making these competency evaluations uniform. 

As part of a WBLN inventory, she’s surveying member organizations to identify their WBL programs, the criteria youth need to be eligible for the work and which of the 12 core competencies students will gain by the end of the apprenticeship or job, Wilderman says. These agencies include representatives of nonprofit organizations, Hartford Public Schools and employers. 

She’s asking these agencies what is going well and what needs to change so “we can engage more youth in career pathway exposure,” she says. 

While about 800 Hartford students participate in some type of work-based learning experience during the summer, she says, the group is working toward improving tracking measures of how many students participate in WBL programs during the school year because there was no central inventory of opportunities until now. 

“That’s a gap. That’s why we’re trying to fix that,” Wilderman says. “We want to know, ‘how many youths have gone through what program? How many youths are gaining skills? Where are the hiccups? Where do we need to be better? Is their program working?’ ”

It’s working for Real Art Ways, Parziale says, because it introduces young people to opportunities in the arts and nonprofit organizations while providing the organization with youth who help connect the arts to other teens and children. The students learn how every job, no matter how seemingly small, is a vital piece in the organizational puzzle, she says. They learn to cultivate their creativity, leadership and agency by making decisions about teen-centered programs.

“It allows us to provide an employment opportunity for a Hartford youth that gives them income, gives them an opportunity to work in a capacity that will further them personally and professionally,” she says, “and gives them job skills such as how to answer the phone and address envelopes.” 

Coalition to Help Seniors Make Post-Secondary Plans

After a pilot project based on the Hartford Student Internship Program which ran last winter and spring, the ALL IN! Coalition plans to launch another effort to support members of the Class of 2022 this January. The program will again focus on post-secondary planning and placement for Hartford Public School seniors without plans for their lives after graduation.

While students were still learning remotely in the first half of 2021, the Coalition worked with the Hartford Public Schools staff to help many who were disengaged get onto a career pathway, thanks to financial support from local foundations. With tenacity, creativity and persistence to reach students who were not engaged in post-secondary planning, nonprofit partners gave support to 92 students who otherwise may not have received help planning for and enrolling in post-secondary pathways.

“Very few cities in America put forth an effort during COVID-19 to go out and engage the students who were not as involved in school and who didn’t have a post-secondary plan,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford and a leader in the coalition. “As a result, there were even students supported late in spring who ended up enrolling in a 4-year college.”

The pilot year of last-minute, spring intervention gave us some definite lessons. First, we asked too much of seniors, many of whom were busy working and helping with family during the pandemic, while also trying to learn remotely, he says. Getting them to complete workshops along with post-secondary planning and doing an internship was too much to expect.

This coming semester, we will try to reach students face-to-face at their schools. And we will keep the programming simple and focused on helping them with post-secondary planning. “They need support that meets them where they are,” he says. We also learned that we need to stick with students through and past the summer to ensure they reach their desired post-secondary placement – whether that be college, training or high-quality job.

Providers who continued working with seniors throughout the summer learned that engaging seniors during the spring and summer after graduation is particularly challenging, since seniors were burned out, especially last year with the pandemic raging. In the second year of this effort, the program will focus less on life-skills workshops and internships, since many students are already working. Instead, staff will work with them to further gauge their skills and interests, expose them to a multitude of post-secondary options that put them on a path toward earning a livable wage, and stay with them until placement.

“We hope to serve at least 100 students from the city’s neediest high schools by working with guidance counselors and community-based organizations with existing relationships with local high schools,” Holzer says. Funding to pay the local nonprofits’ staff to meet with and work with students will come from Hartford-based foundations with a long-standing commitment to the city. 

Mentee Becomes Mentor

Reanna O’Bryan began her first semester at Capital Community College in the fall of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to be held virtually. She was assigned a peer mentor, who helped her connect with the college, despite the circumstances.

Her mentor asked her about how she felt taking her classes online and suggested time management skills to counteract procrastination, she says. Even though she had started taking college classes during her junior and senior years of high school, she still found the pressure of full-time college stressful, she says. She’d have multiple tabs on her screen open at once and be working on three assignments simultaneously.

Her mentor told her “to relax, take breaks and breathe,” she says. So, after her first year of college, the East Hartford resident applied for a job as a peer mentor with Achieve Hartford. “I see how helpful it was for me specifically just having someone to talk to,” she says. O’Bryan, who just turned 20, felt she could offer to other students the kind of support and encouragement, as well as practical advice, that had helped her.

She connected her mentees to tutoring offered through the academic services department. First-year students are often unaware of all the departments set up to help them, so she alerted them to services and sent reminders. She also offered to be a study buddy to one of her mentees whose grades were not where she wanted them to be. She set it up so they’d be on video-chat together, each doing their own homework.

“If I see someone else doing work, I want to be productive,” O’Bryan says. She said to her mentee, “ ‘I know college can be overwhelming. You can be honest with me. I’m also overwhelmed with college. Let’s help each other.’ ”

Like her, all of her mentees work while going to college and they talked about how daunted and intimidated they felt. She joined with other mentors to schedule group activities where the first-semester students could share, help each other and see that they’re not alone.

While she enjoyed the work, she says, she’ll earn her associate’s degree in January and will not continue mentoring at CCC. In the spring, she is continuing her education at Goodwin University to work on a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Mentors Moving On & Up

This December, we said goodbye to four mentors who can no longer work for Achieve Hartford because they’ll be graduating from their community college, taking on an internship or a full-time job. We hate to lose them but we celebrate their progress toward their career goals.

Mentor Julie Callejas, of East Hartford, has transferred to Charter Oak State College to earn her bachelor’s in organizational leadership and, eventually, a master’s. She is also becoming the interim executive director of End Hunger Connecticut, where she served on the board and stepped in to help out during a transitional period. Callejas already had an associate degree in social work and ran two businesses when she began working on a second degree at Manchester Community College to become a disability specialist.

We rarely have mentors as experienced as Julie, but with so many shared experiences with the freshmen she supported, she was always able to relate and add value. As a first-generation immigrant herself, she knew how hard it was to navigate the United States’ college system, especially financial aid, she says.

She tried to teach her mentees that in college, the teachers and staff won’t help them unless asked. “With the mentoring program, you’re teaching them, ‘If you’re struggling in this area, this is how you’re going to advocate for yourself and get what you need.’ ”

Another mentor, Stefan Hall, of Windsor, will be doing an internship at the accounting firm Fiondella, Milone & LaSaracina in Glastonbury while also finishing his final semester at MCC.  After graduating in May with an associate degree in accounting and business administration, he plans to transfer next fall to UConn as a junior in the accounting program.

He’s been mentoring students for Achieve Hartford since June of 2020 and has found the job both challenging and rewarding. “Some students will probably think a mentor is just a spammer or scammer or an automated messaging system no matter how much we mix it up and change how we approach them.” This made the most difficult part of the job breaking through their suspicion and getting them to connect, he says.

The most rewarding part, was being able to help students. “I know firsthand how navigating college can be a bit of a maze at first, even without the coursework that comes with it,” he says. “It is a great feeling to help and to see students successfully navigate college, access the myriad of opportunities and supports it offers and then to see them not only do well, but be excited to continue their journey into the next semester and beyond.”

Mentor Isis Murillo Bravo, whose three jobs totaled full-time work while attending MCC, will be working 40 hours a week in two jobs instead. She’ll be working for MCC and 30 hours a week working with students for GEAR UP CT at East Hartford High School, in a job that’s similar to her role as a mentor. The East Hartford resident, who moved here from Peru when she was 13, is scheduled to earn her associate degree this spring and is awaiting responses to her college transfer applications before deciding where to complete her bachelor’s degree. We’re also losing Reanna O’Bryan, who graduates from Capital Community College in January and has transferred to Goodwin University to continue her nursing education. (See Mentee Becomes Mentor)

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