Instead of slipping into a senior slump, Solanlly Canas and Chastity Berrios will leave their high school and launch their against-the-odds journeys early as full-time college students.
Solanlly and Chastity (pictured) moved to Connecticut from Colombia and Puerto Rico at ages 12 and 9, respectively, without knowing a word of English. They overcame social isolation and tearful struggles with a new language to emerge as student leaders. They’re now the top two students in High School in the Community’s senior class.
Come Jan. 24, they’ll take on another daunting transition: leaving high school to enroll early at the University of New Haven (UNH). They were two of 15 New Haven public school students chosen for UNH’s Outstanding High School Senior Program. The program allows high-performing high school seniors to enroll at UNH for free during the spring semester.
Founded in 1972, the program has helped over 300 New Haven public school students get an early start on their college degrees, according to Monique Bolt, UNH admissions counselor and coordinator of campus visitation.
The program helps students get a head start on college credits, defraying the cost of college, said Bolt. It’s one tool New Haven kids are using in the quest to beat the odds stacked against low-income kids graduating from college. Only 17 percent of students obtain a college degree within four years of finishing senior year in New Haven’s public school district. Major obstacles are the lack of social and financial support—click here to read a recent New York Times story examining the topic.
The UNH program provides a bridge for kids between high school and college, said Cari Strand, HSC’s magnet community coordinator: Students get a college experience while remaining close to home, with a support network of teachers at their high school to help them through. They’ll earn 12 to 15 credits, transferable to other colleges and universities. While the program doesn’t guarantee admission to UNH, about a quarter of students typically enroll at UNH the following fall, Bolt said.
Citing an influx of applications, UNH added five slots to the 12 it has typically offered through the program. Of 36 applicants, 15 were accepted from New Haven schools: Chastity and Solanlly from High School in the Community; Joseph Marini, Kenechukwu Okeke and Tanaya Brown from James Hillhouse High; Ashley Mase and Kamilla Garcia, from Hill Regional Career High; Daykwion Aleman, Ishara Hakizlmana, Alvaro Quispe, and Bradford Watson from Wilbur Cross High; Roggie Leon from Metropolitan Business Academy; DeVante Sealy from Hyde Leadership Academy; Zanira Abubakar from Cooperative Arts & Humanities High; Maria Zyla of Sound School. Miela Mayer of home schooling/ Hopkins School and Rebecca Norman, Yasani Spencer and Sally Spio from West Haven High will also join the program.
The thought of leaving high school was scary at first, Solanlly and Chastity said in an interview in their high school library.
Chastity said when Strand first told her about the program, she was skeptical: “You’re kicking us out of high school before even graduating?” But they both decided they couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“When change hits us, we’re ready for it,” Chastity said.
The two students, both 18, developed that outlook the hard way.
Daddy’s Girl Perseveres
Chastity and her three siblings grew up in Puerto Rico. Her world turned upside-down at age 9, when her family relocated without warning to Connecticut.
“I opened my eyes one day and my brother said, ‘Pack your bags. We’re going,’” she recalled. Her mom took her four kids to Connecticut, leaving Chastity’s father and his side of the family behind. Chastity, who didn’t speak English, enrolled in 4th grade at Clinton Avenue School.
A shy girl, she said she felt alone in her struggle to adjust to a new school and a new language. She said she knew only a couple of Spanish-speaking kids. Amid an already difficult first year, she flew home to see her father, who was in the hospital. Shortly after she returned to Connecticut, he died of cancer.
“When I found out that my dad died, that was the breaking point,” Chastity recalled. “I was upset all the time,” upset at her mom for pulling her away from the world she knew, surrounding her with strangers. Without a home at first, she lived at the house of an aunt whom she hadn’t known.
Before her father died, “I was Daddy’s girl.” Without him, she said, she felt alone.
“It was too much for a little 9-year-old to take,” she recalled, wiping away tears.
Making it through the transition took a lot of persistence. Every day, she copied down new words from class and took them home to practice. She sat down her cousins, read books to them, and asked for feedback on pronunciation. Within a year, she could defend herself in English.
“It took time. It took tears. It took hard work,” Chastity recalled.
Page By Page
Solanlly and Chastity, virtually inseparable in school, have bonded in part over their shared backgrounds.
Solanlly’s story begins in Colombia, where she grew up in a small town near the city of Medellin. When she was 12, her parents uprooted their two kids and left for East Haven to join other family members in a quest for economic opportunity.
“They wanted a better life for me and my brother,” Solanlly said.
An advanced student in Colombia, she found herself enrolled in the 6th grade at an East Haven middle school. The school was mostly white, with few Hispanics. Solanlly said she spent her days in social isolation. “People would laugh at me” for not knowing English.
“I would literally cry every day,” she said.
Determined to overcome the language barrier, she devoted herself to reading books. The summer after 6th grade, her teacher gave her a book to read over the summer. When she discovered it was written at the 1st-grade level, she balked at the suggestion. She went to the library and got out a book at the 6th-grade level instead. She couldn’t really read it. But she took one page every day, translating the words she didn’t know.
“Page by page,” she said, she conquered that book—and another, and another. Within a year, she could defend herself in English. By 8th grade, she was excelling in school.
Solanlly and Chastity entered HSC as shy freshmen. They shared a devotion to a goal: To excel at school and go on to college, something none of their parents had the opportunity to do.
With Strand’s help, they enrolled in a series of college prep programs. They spent five weeks taking summer classes at the University of Connecticut. They enrolled together in a class at Gateway Community College. This year they’re taking three Advanced Placement courses together. Solanlly also took summer classes at The Taft School, a boarding school in Watertown.
The pair has been “wildly successful in all of their endeavors,” said Strand, who has worked with them for the past four years. “They just run with everything we put in their way.”
They are now leaders of HSC’s student council and community service club. At a school with a 25 percent dropout rate, where only a quarter of students earn a college degree within six years of graduation (according to one study), they’ve maintained a focus on college and career.
“I’m always asking why and why and why,” Chastity said. “College is the place for me.”
Solanlly has set her sights on clinical psychology. Chastity, who serves as an assistant teacher in an HSC English class, would like to be an elementary school teacher or a social worker.
The program provides short-term relief from a daunting problem both young women face: Neither of their families has money for college. By enrolling in UNH’s program for high school seniors, they’ll get a free pass on UNH tuition, which runs at about $15,000 per semester.
Chastity’s family rents a subsidized apartment in the Quinnipiac Terrace housing projects. She works at a Dunkin’ Donuts on Route 80 to help support her mom, who runs a small daycare. She has applied to a half-dozen colleges. Chastity’s mom has no extra income to pay for college; Chastity said she expects to qualify for federal financial aid.
Solanlly is not so lucky: Her immigration status stands in the way. She is one of roughly 1.4 million “DREAMers,” students whose parents brought them to the United States illegally as children, through no fault of their own. Thanks to an initiative by President Obama this year, she qualified for deferred action—temporary relief from deportation. That status lets her stay in the country; it does not let her qualify for the federal financial aid that most students rely on.
The state’s new DREAM Act enables students like Solanlly to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. However, those students are still barred from government-subsidized aid. She would still have to come up with $8,500 per year at Southern Connecticut State University, or over $22,000 to enroll at UConn and stay on campus. Solanlly also does not qualify for New Haven Promise, the city’s new college scholarship program, because she doesn’t live in New Haven.
Solanlly said her parents don’t have much money to contribute to college. Her dad works in a restaurant; her mom works in the home. The class valedictorian, she has secured admission to Fairfield University, but is waiting to find out if she’ll get enough financial aid to afford to go. Meanwhile, she has applied for a job at a Walgreens to start saving money.
When the semester starts, UNH will pay for tuition but not for textbooks. Staff at HSC have offered to host a fundraiser for their star students’ books if need be.
Strand said in years past, students enrolled in UNH’s Outstanding Senior program have enjoyed a stepping stone to the college experience: They enroll full-time at college, taking four or five classes, with UNH mentors to help them through. But they’ll still be HSC students. Their UNH classes will count towards graduation from HSC. They’ll go to the prom and walk in graduation. And they’ll still have high school staff to rely on for help.
“We’re crushed they’re not going to be in our building,” Strand said, “but this is a great opportunity.”
Solanlly said she hopes the program is the first step to making a dream come true.
“College has always been my goal,” she said. The question of whether she can afford it remains up in the air. But a chance to enroll in a semester, for free, will be a major step forward.
“It just gives me hope.”
Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:
• No More “B And A Smile”
• Students Protest: “Give Us Homework!”
• Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
• School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
• Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
• Guv: End Social Promotion
• History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
• Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
• On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
• Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
• School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
• State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
• Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”