3 Students Cross Graduation Gateway

As a junior at Sound, Kevin Correa-Martinez missed more than 50 days of class as he dealt with family issues.

“I was on the verge, honestly, of either failing my senior year or having to go to Adult Ed, because I wasn’t going to meet the [graduation] requirements,” he recalled.

A new program for students like Correa-Martinez, who have failed their classes or otherwise fallen behind, gave him one last chance to get his diploma on time. Or in his case, ahead of schedule.

With four dozen classmates from across New Haven’s high schools, Correa-Martinez enrolled in courses at the community college through the Gateway to College program.

Christopher Peak PhotoCorrea-Martinez spoke about his experience right after a graduation ceremony Monday morning in Gateway’s Curran Community Room, where he became one of the program’s first three alumni, finishing high school early along with two good friends from The Sound School.

Almost immediately, he reengaged with his studies. He arrived on time every morning, grateful that college classes started an hour later. On Monday morning he and two others obtained his high school graduation diploma, with a head start on college credits.

Now he plans to continue his studies at Gateway while he continues working full-time as an automotive technician for Dodge Jeep in Wallingford, doing tire rotations and oil changes.

“I was very encouraged; I had all the support. If I had a bad day, they’d notice it quick and be on top of me, making sure I was always in the right state of mind to perform my best in everything I did,” he said. “Now I think I know what I want to do.”

Melton Makes A Call

Starting in Portland, Oregon, in 2000, Gateway to College has expanded nationally with 35 chapters in 20 states, said Nick Mathern, the national network’s associate vice president of policy and partnership development. It came to Connecticut when Patricia Melton, president of the New Haven Promise scholarship program, contacted the Board of Education about setting it up locally.

The program “identifies students in communities like New Haven who are on the brink of some level of frustration, possibly dropping out of school,” said Mark Kosinski, Gateway Community College’s dean of academics. “It’s an attempt to bring those students to a community college, offer them concurrent enrollment in both high-school diploma and college-level courses, with the assumption that will inspire and motivate these young people to stay in school.”

Of the 47 students who entered Gateway to College, the largest groups came from Riverside Opportunity High School (17), James Hillhouse (10), New Haven Academy (6), Wilbur Cross (5) and Sound (4). Two-thirds are African-American; one-third are Hispanic.

Most had under a 2.0 GPA, the equivalent of straight Cs. To enter the program, they still needed to have finished at least half the credits required for a high-school diploma.

Most will need three semesters to finish up 18 credits worth of college courses. By the end, many will leave with a certificate, possibly in business, computer service, criminology, culinary arts or early childhood education.

Unable to keep up, some students have already dropped out, though officials said they didn’t have an exact count.

Administrators Learn Too

The first three graduates said the Gateway to College program worked for them because it offered the chance to mature into an independent adult with all the supports that a teenager still needs.

“The teacher could sit down with you, talk to you, explain to you if you don’t get it,” Correa-Martinez said. “They have a lot more patience, a lot more patience.”

Dolores Garcia-Blocker, the district’s director of college and career readiness programs, said that after the program’s first semester, she’s realized the need to introduce students to the supports that Gateway Community College offers.

For instance, while college professors might tell students to drop by the writing center for help revising a paper, high school students still need to be shown where to go, how to sign up and who to talk to, she said.

Paul Brodie, Gateway Community College’s president, said that’s he’s also learned a lot from watching this group of high school students transition into college coursework. In particular, it’s shown him the vital role that counselors, tutors and mentors can play, even for older students who’ve had more time to prepare for higher education.

“It demonstrates the importance of wraparound services,” he said. “If the entire institution provide services to support students, they have a greater chance to be successful. Beyond just academics, there’s other factors that impact their education. That’s the biggest lesson that we learned from this program.”

Garcia-Blocker said she’s also planning to take back another lesson to the district’s high school in making sure that their curriculum in technical classes lines up with what’s being offered at Gateway Community College.

“I see tremendous opportunities for program alignment, so that the kids have a pathway that’s coherent and sequenced in a way that leads somewhere,” she said. “They have to be using the same curriculum, the same kinds of equipment; otherwise, they come here and they’re lost. It’s an opportunity more than working with the kids; it’s really a chance to work with the adults.”

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