Miranda Hayes was a solid student in middle school, but the self-described introvert faced extreme verbal bullying and demeaning comments from teachers when she got to high school in Pueblo, Colorado. Facing severe anxiety, Miranda was resigned to dropping out after her first year of high school. “School wasn’t for me,” she says.
Ali Eskandary’s grades were not a problem, but the 11th grader was referred to an alternative school following a yearlong suspension. “I didn’t think I would fit in very well,” he says.
Like the nearly 5 million youth aged 16 to 24 who are not enrolled in high school or employment or training programs, the problem was not that Miranda and Ali were not right for their schools. They needed an education program that could work for them.
Nearly one in eight people in that age group, data show, remain disconnected, and the impact of postponed or abandoned educational attainment has ripple effects that limit the potential of individual students and their communities over a lifetime.
Facing severe anxiety, Miranda was resigned to dropping out after her first year of high school. “School wasn’t for me,” she says.
Ali and Miranda were lucky. They found their way back to school and college through Achieving the Dream’s Gateway to College program. Thanks to the Gateway program at Pueblo Community College (PCC), Miranda earned her high school diploma, continued her studies at PCC, and went on to enroll as a full-time student studying communications at Colorado State University Pueblo. After a successful year in the Gateway to College program at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania, Ali was given the option of returning to his high school. Instead, he opted to remain in the program and earned his diploma.
Gateway to College, a unique early-college high school program that serves students no longer enrolled in school or who are off track for graduation, can be a gamechanger for the most disengaged students. It offers the transformative power of early college to students who had previously given up on education.
Gateway to College offers individualized services, from tutoring and counseling to academic advising. It is designed to meet students where they are and help them develop personalized learning plans to discover the kind of life that they want to live, the careers they want to pursue, and to find their own identity as learners—aspects of learning that are crucial to building student motivation and persistence.
Lessons for high schools, dual-enrollment programs
Lessons from Gateway to College, which has helped more than 10,000 students graduate from high school since its inception, indicate the types of changes all high schools, dual-enrollment, early-college high school and K-12 partnership programs need to make. Lessons from Gateway reveal that its effectiveness depends on the following key strategies:
- Focus outreach on underrepresented student populations.
- Provide personalized academic support via success coaches, as well as connections to academic labs and tutoring sessions.
- Eliminate financial barriers such as tuition, textbook expenses or transportation and meal expenses
- Combine accountability with recognition of strong performance to build effective habits—first daily attendance, then credit accrual.
- Foster a learning community of peers who support each other in their academic pursuits.
- Build students’ self-efficacy skills to identify needs and solutions and ensure smooth transition to further higher education.
- Connect students to a wide range of holistic supports, ranging from healthcare and clothing or food pantries to housing assistance and mental health services.
The program is high touch, given the barriers to success the students being served face. Students participate in small learning communities and are supported by coaches who help them navigate academic, career, and personal challenges. Many Gateway institutions and the students who participate in the program use terms like “family” and “home.” “Relentless kindness” is the credo that guides the Gateway program at Holyoke Community College. Districts typically refer students with attendance issues or credit deficiencies to the program or identify out-of-school youth and encourage them to re-enroll through Gateway.
“Gateway students come into the classroom with a backpack full of life challenges that were hard to address in a busy high school but we meet them where they are,” says Michelle Kulla
“Gateway students come into the classroom with a backpack full of life challenges that were hard to address in a busy high school but we meet them where they are,” says Michelle Kulla, program manager for Gateway to College at Montgomery County Community College that partners with 20 local school districts.
Partnerships with School Districts
Gateway to College programs are funded through partnerships with local school districts. Typically, colleges and school districts operate with a Memorandum of Understanding that articulates how K-12 per-pupil funding follows the student to the college, which supports the additional services provided to the students until they receive their high school diploma, after which point, they can access financial aid to continue their enrollment. Many Gateway programs are a partnership between one college and multiple school districts, with each district referring students according to their local needs. The arrangement benefits both institutions because enrolling (or re-enrolling) a student in Gateway means continued (or renewed) per-pupil funding for the school district, which can cover both the district’s and the college’s costs and afford a more robust level of support than most dual enrollment programs.
An Atmosphere of Responsibility, Freedom, and Close Peer Relations
Students in the program relish the responsibility and freedom they have in the program and the ability to attend in cohorts with other students. “I didn’t know I was dissatisfied with [high school] until I experienced something else,” Ali says. “The way your boss treats you, the way your college professors treat you doesn’t align with how high school staff teaches you. People expect more of you and give you more freedom and responsibility than they ever would in high school. It mentally prepares you for anything you choose to do.”
“Who doesn’t want to walk away knowing someone invested time in you?”
That feeling of support and empowerment at the same time is one that can benefit all students, but it is most effective when coupled with clear expectations and accountability. “Who doesn’t want to walk away knowing someone invested time in you?” asks Amber Bell, a success coach at Pueblo Community College. “It’s important to build relationships so students know they are important, and not just number.”
The first-semester experience is a learning community focused on helping students build strong bonds and work together as they develop study strategies and prepare to take dual-credit classes in standard college classrooms in subsequent semesters. The Foundations course, says Ali, “really does prepare you for college courses and get you in the mindset.”
This structured opportunity to connect with peers who may have similar experiences can be affirming for these students. Yet the ongoing, intensive coaching is at the heart of the sustained and personalized support Gateway students receive from enrollment through the attainment of their high school diplomas. Research shows that meaningful relationships support student persistence and success, and this is even more true for students who have been disconnected from education as a result of life or academic experiences. Thus, Gateway coaches focus on a relentlessly proactive approach to engaging students that is typically not possible for regular community college advisors who have high student caseloads.
Superintendents in districts that have most successfully introduced the programs say that two things are particularly crucial for success.
Committed champions. It is crucial to build a team of individuals to lead early college high school programs who believe in young people, think creatively to re-channel students to be successful, and will go out of their way to recruit underserved students. The biggest reason for success in Gateway to College programs is the student advocacy, entrepreneurialism and cross-boundary leadership of Gateway staff from school districts and community colleges nationwide.
With personalized support, we can help struggling students finish high school and enter college with momentum toward a future that they never imagined. At the same time, current enrollment trends show that we need a broad, strategic, and integrated set of programs based on strong K-12 and college partnerships to equitably serve more students across our districts and connect them with the guidance and supports they need to succeed in college.
Guided by lessons from Gateway, Achieving the Dream encourages colleges, and their partner school districts, to assess their entire portfolio of partnerships—building strong postsecondary pathways for all students, while ensuring we meet our communities’ postsecondary attainment needs.
Mathern, N., Toner, M. (2020). Equity in Design for Holistic Student Supports: A Gateway to College for High School Students, Achieving the Dream, February 2020 https://achievingthedream.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/disconnected_youth_brief.pdf
Measure of America. (2017). Promising Gains, Persistent Gaps: Youth Disconnection in America. Retrieved from http://measureofamerica.org/youth-disconnection-2017/
Pew Research Center. (2019). Share of young adults not working or in school is at a 30-year low in U.S. Retrieved from https:// www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/10/29/share-of-youngadults-not-working-or-in-school-is-at-a-30-year-low-in-u-s/
Psychology Today (2021). The Power of Relationships in Schools, January 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sense-belonging/202201/the-power-relationships-in-schools
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