College Start “Overwhelms” Star Seniors

Melissa Bailey PhotoThe top two seniors at High School in the Community headed off to college early and met a tough transition—highlighting a key challenge for the school system as it puts a greater focus on preparing kids for higher ed.

The students, Solanlly Canas and Chastity Berrios (pictured), were two of 15 New Haven high school seniors who enrolled full-time at the University of New Haven in January as part of a scholarship program.

The friends, who moved here as young children from Colombia and Puerto Rico, arrived on the college campus with a fiery sense of purpose and determination that has helped them overcome heartbreaking obstacles in their lives.

Now, they said, they are experiencing an “overwhelming” start to their college careers, facing challenges that could easily derail kids with less grit and persistence.

They have made it through midterms with As and Bs despite new academic, social and financial obstacles—obstacles that New Haven school officials are beginning to focus on, as the city takes a more concerted look at how to keep its graduates from dropping out of college.

Solanlly’s case underscores a second challenge: Despite all her hard work, she has failed to find enough money to enroll in the four-year universities that accepted her, because her status as an undocumented immigrant bars her from receiving federal financial aid.

“This Young Lady”

Solanlly and Chastity, virtually inseparable in the halls of HSC, woke up Thursday morning five minutes apart. Solanlly (pronounced “solangee”) awoke at 5:45 in East Haven, where she lives with her mom and dad. Chastity awake at 5:50 in Quinnipiac Terrace public-housing complex, where she lives with her mom on the banks of the Quinnipiac River in Fair Haven.

They met up, as they have come to do every Tuesday and Thursday, at the Temple Street bus stop on the New Haven Green. They missed the O bus, which leaves at 7:20. So they hopped on the B toward West Haven. They got off on Campbell Avenue and found their way to UNH’s Kaplan Hall. They walked down the corridor together to Human Communications class carrying a bottle of Sunny D and a peace-signed water bottle. They arrived just in time, beating their teacher by one minute.

They grabbed adjacent seats in the cinderblock room, near older students in hooded sweatshirts and sweatpants.

The professor handed out a quick test about “ethnocentrism,” then launched into a lecture from the textbook. They took out matching highlighters—a parting gift from their high school Spanish teacher, Jill Savitt—and started taking notes. They listened diligently as a few other students checked iPhones or Facebook or stared into space. They both used the same system: copy down notes in pencil from the board, then color in the important parts in highlighter. It’s one of the study skills that led them to be the two top-performing students in HSC’s senior class of 40 kids.

The format was new for them. Introducing the concept “ethnocentric,” for example, the teacher didn’t solicit guesses from the 22-person class. She read aloud a definition written on a Power-Point slide and moved on through the material in the textbook. Forty-five minutes of lecture passed before students were asked a question.

Chastity, not shy, offered an answer to the question: What’s the optimal size of a group for discussion and decision-making? It doesn’t matter how big the group is, she reasoned, as long as you’re committed to the same goal.

Unlike at HSC, a cozy environment where teachers go by their first names and greet kids in hallways, the teacher didn’t seem to know Chastity’s name.

“This young lady,” the professor called her, referring to her a few minutes later.

The lesson ended with a 10-minute, engaging discussion about group behavior among friends. Then Solanlly and Chastity packed up their highlighters and headed upstairs to a hallway table. They typically chat at that spot for 15 minutes before heading to separate classes.

“Blah, Blah, Blah”

Asked for a review of the communications course, they enthusiastically recounted the social experiments they’ve performed for homework. In class, however, they said they are used to more student participation.

“We’re not used to blah, blah, blah the whole class,” Chastity said. “It’s a bit harder because she’s just talking, and you basically have to write it down.”

The first week of school was a major adjustment, Chastity recalled. She showed up to her world history class to find out she was already behind: Students were supposed to have read Chapter I before the first class. They were supposed to look up the homework on an online system called Blackboard.

“What is Blackboard?” Chastity recalled asking.

She started out in an abnormal psychology class,then dropped it in late March. She said the class was fun and interesting but hard to keep up with amid her other obligations: “It was a lot of information to take in.”

Chastity ended up in a lower math class than she had hoped. She had been taking honors pre-calculus last semester at HSC. Based on an entrance exam at UNH, she got placed in “fundamental math,” which began with pre-algebra.

“At first, I was really bummed about it,” Chastity said. But she acknowledged she had gaps in her math education: “I knew I was struggling in precalculus,” she said, because in Algebra II, the year before, she had learned “nothing.” She said she now feels better about taking the course: “I’m covering everything again,” she said, building a strong foundation for the upcoming year.

Many other city grads find themselves in a similar situation: 89 percent of New Haven school district graduates entering public colleges and universities place into remedial English or math classes their freshman year, according to one recent study. Chastity scored higher than that group: The class she’s taking is above remedial math, so she will earn credits that she can transfer to college.

Chastity said she has found herself “overwhelmed”—not so much by the difficulty of the classes, but by balancing them all, while meeting her own high standards for her work.

“I’m a try-your-best person,” she explained.

On Your Own

Solanlly faced a different challenge on the math front: A professor’s obtuse teaching style leaves her needing extra help to make any sense of the lectures.

Solanlly and Chastity kissed on the cheek goodbye at 9:20 and headed to separate classes. Solanlly walked across a grassy quad, up the grand stairs of Maxcy Hall. Class began at 9:30 in a second-story classroom with large white boards.

The lesson for the day was Compound interest, Chapter 5.2 from the textbook, announced the professor, a white-haired man in jeans and a button-down shirt. He began to read from a white piece of paper, facing the wall. He narrated without inflection as he copied down terms and problems onto the board. Unlike in high school classes, he didn’t pause to ask input from the 13 students in the class or to see if they were following him.

When he led them through a problem, he didn’t ask a student for the answer. Indeed, most students didn’t seem to be solving the problems—they appeared to be copying his work from the board instead. One student slumped down in her chair halfway through the lesson. Another leaned her head back and stared, open-mouthed, at the ceiling.

The material wasn’t difficult, and the notes on the board were coherent, but the presentation required great feats of concentration to follow, even for an observer with a Yale math degree. The lecture continued uninterrupted for 65 minutes until one student asked one question: “What did you say x min and x max was?” The lesson ended five minutes later.

Solanlly turned to her neighbor, Kamilla Garcia, a senior at Hill Regional Career High also participating in the UNH early college program, to ask for help on a problem.

“With this professor, I don’t understand anything,” Solanlly said after class.

Part of the challenge, she said, is that it’s “boring” to listen to a lecture instead of working in small groups in class as she did at HSC. She’s getting used to the lecture format—in part through a three-hour lecture in her American government class. That lecture is more engaging, she said.

Math class is just “confusing,” she said. “He goes so fast.” Each lesson covers a chapter in the book. There is no review. Homework requires students to plug in answers online. There’s no opportunity to show your work, so students don’t get feedback on what they got wrong, she said.

Solanlly said she visits a math tutor twice a week to go over the material from class.

“When I go to the tutor center, I get it like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “It’s not hard.”

She said she made it through midterms with three As and a B in math. She did it because she knows how to find help: In addition to the tutoring, she has relied on some advice from HSC teachers, who read drafts of essays and answer math questions. Students in UNH’s early college program are also required to visit the “student success center” three or four times to discuss study skills. Poor study habits are one main reason low-income kids lag behind their more advantaged peers. Solanlly and Chastity, however, already have their binders and highlighters and planners in line; they said they haven’t needed the center’s help in that area.

The hardest part of college has been the workload, they said. At HSC, they didn’t slack off: With AP classes, Solanlly said she would do two to four hours of homework on an average day. Now, on days that she doesn’t work, she regularly does six hours of homework in a row.

“It’s intense,” Solanlly said.

“There’s a lot they expect you to do before class,” Chastity said. History class requires “a lot of reading,” she said, “but I like it.” Classes are fun. “It’s not a really old, monotonous guy.”

A “Promise” Challenge, Too

Patricia Melton, executive director of New Haven Promise, the city’s college scholarship program, said the tough transition is common among first-time college-goers. She experienced the same challenge in her own life.

“I faced that kind of shock around the rigor when I moved from a public to private school,” Melton recalled. For her, the transition took place from an urban middle school in Cleveland to a private boarding school. All of a sudden, she recalled, she was being asked to do three to four hours of homework per night and read The Odyssey. “Every other word I had to look up,” she recalled. The shift from urban high school to college is similarly difficult, she said.

“That’s a big shock that I think a lot of students face,” Melton said. “Let’s say you’re not coming from a particularly rigorous high school, and then you go to college where you’re expected to be self-directed. You’re expected to do most of your learning outside of the classroom, as opposed to inside of the classroom—that’s a big paradigm shift.”

She said Promise gets transcripts from most universities. Promise is in the process of analyzing how kids fare academically when they get to college.

“Deadly” Work Shifts

After math class, Solanlly and Chastity reunited in the university cafeteria, as is their routine on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Chastity stopped to look at a flyer on a bulletin board for an event going on at 1 p.m. Solanlly said she couldn’t stick around—she has to be home by 2 p.m. to get ready for work.

Both students are working 20 to 25 hours a week on top of a full college course load. Chastity works at Dunkin’ Donuts on Route 80, a job she has held since she was 16. Solanlly got a job this semester as a Walgreens clerk.

Between work, homework and classes, they don’t have much time to spare. Work schedules have pulled them away from the campus life depicted in the movies, Chastity said.

College is “not as easy as people put it,” she said. The idyllic sense of “freedom” has not materialized.

“Freedom? That’s for students who live on campus, who don’t have to work,” kids who “go back to campus and sleep” after class.

About 75 percent of the 4,300 students at UNH live on campus. The early college program aims to give high school kids a taste of college, tuition-free, so that they can adjust to the experience as well as save time and money by accumulating credits they can transfer to another institution. Solanlly and Chastity cannot afford to live on campus or to spend much time there, given their work schedules. In part because they work so much, they haven’t made new friends on campus. So they haven’t found a place to fit in to the college social scene.

“People keep telling me it’s just because we’re not involved” in campus life that college doesn’t seem quite as it was billed to be, Solanlly said.

“Teachers tell me it’ll be be better next year,” Chastity said.

Upon hearing their story, Melton cautioned that 20-25 hours of work is a “very deadly” load. Based on their preparation, she predicted, “they are going to be struggling academically. They’re going to have to study many more hours.” The 20 hours a week they’re spending behind the counter is “the time they should be spending studying so that they can in fact adjust.”

Chastity later replied that she gives her mom some financial support, but her decision to work so much is hers alone.

“I feel like I can handle it, and that’s why I’m doing it,” she said. “It just gives me more responsibility.” She sees it as a way to earn independence, pay for her own things, and “be an adult.”

Solanlly said she doesn’t have the luxury of working less.

“Right now,” she said, “I think I have to work this much” to support her family and save for college.

“All For Nothing”

Both students have spent a lot of effort this semester trying to figure out a looming question: How will they afford to go to college next year?

The added stress of applying to college, and figuring out aid packages, has been overwhelming at times, Chastity said.

“There’s been certain points that we sit down [and say], ‘This is too much,’” Chastity said.

“At some points, I break down.” At others, Solanlly does.

Chastity is an aspiring teacher; Solanlly is interested in clinical psychology. Both will be the first generation in their families to go to college; their families support their goals but do not have the resources to contribute financially.

Chastity has found a solution to her financial needs: Through New Haven Promise and other aid, she has been offered free tuition at UConn’s Waterbury campus. And Fairfield University made her an offer that will pay all but $2,000 of the $42,000 tuition. She wouldn’t be able to afford to live on campus, but her mom is willing to let her commute in the family car to Fairfield from Q Terrace. Her job at Dunkin’ Donuts, which pays $10 per hour, will help pay the bills for transportation, books and food.

Solanlly isn’t as lucky. Unlike Chastity, who’s Puerto Rican, she is not a U.S. citizen. Her parents brought her to the U.S. at age 12. Solanlly, and other “Dreamers” like her, have gained new opportunities in recent years: After President Obama’s landmark executive order last year to help children of undocumented immigrants, she qualified for a two-year safeguard from deportation. And the state’s new Dream Act allows her to qualify for in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

Those actions aren’t enough, however, to close the gap to paying for college.

Solanlly has acceptances to UNH, Fairfield, Quinnipiac University, and UConn. UConn offers scholarships of 75 percent tuition to high school valedictorians; Solanlly said she applied but was rejected due to her legal status. Fairfield, her top choice, offered her $26,000 of the $42,000 tuition—“a good scholarship, but not enough money for me.” Her dad, who works in a restaurant, does not have much to contribute. And since she lives in East Haven, she does not qualify for New Haven Promise.

On Monday evening, she is scheduled to receive at $1,000 price at the Graduate Club that will inch her towards closing her tuition gap. The Princeton Prize in Race Relations goes to students who “have had a significant, positive effect on race relations in their school or community.” Solanlly earned the award for organizing a daylong event at HSC aimed to promote understanding between students of different races and social groups. She was one of three students recognized across Connecticut.

Despite her continued efforts and recognition, she is losing hope that she will be able to scrape together enough money to attend any of the universities that accepted her. Solanlly has appealed Fairfield’s financial aid decision. Even if she wins, she still expects to face a $12,000 gap. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: She has just two weeks to tell universities where she plans to enroll. She is still awaiting word on UNH’s financial aid package, but it is unlikely any school will offer her enough money to enable her to afford it.

Her eyes teared up as she spoke about her situation.

“I worked so hard,” she said, even becoming senior class valedictorian—“all for nothing.”

“Just because I don’t have money, just because I’m not a citizen,” she said, she’s finding the doors closed. Her current plan is to keep working and save up enough money to start taking classes at Gateway Community College in the fall. Her current job pays $8.50 an hour. “I think for the summer, I’ll have to work much more.”

“If I want to go to college,” she said, “it will be basically on my own.”

High School in the Community is accepting donations to help Solanlly pay for college. Checks can be made out to High School in the Community Scholarship Fund, with “Solanlly Canas” in the memo line, mailed to: Guidance counselor Diana Hernandez/ High School in the Community/ 175 Water Street, New Haven, CT 06511.

Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:

Social Promotion Vow Put To The Test
HSC Heads To Capitol For New Diplomas
She Awoke To A New Life—& A New Mission
High School Of The Future Debuts, Briefly
Gay-Rights Teach-In Goes Off-Script
Nikita Makes It Home
15 Seniors Head To College Early
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”

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posted by: anonymous on April 15, 2013  4:31pm

Excellent reporting.  People need to realize that when there are barriers to higher education and opportunity like these, all of us suffer.

posted by: Fair and Honest on April 15, 2013  10:23pm

Good job, Solanlly and Chastity—You are impressive, and you will succeed.

Thank you to the Independent for telling us your story.

posted by: HewNaven on April 16, 2013  8:03am

I think this article says more about the state of higher education than it does about New Haven high school students’ readiness. Schools are packing in the students based solely on their ability to pay, with little attention to transmission of the material. In addition, the shiny new facilities and infrastructure are just expensive wrapping on a so-so present, meant to entice students to enroll and live on campus. And students like these two, don’t even get to take advantage of all those amenities because they have to work in addition to going to school! They’re essentially subsidizing the students whose families can afford to let them live on campus.

On top of all that, the administration has become bloated over the past few decades and the faculty is probably over-paid compared to other professionals in the country. This has raised the prices and lowered the standards, and made it very discouraging for young people to continue their education after high school. We need serious reform in this country. We need to return the focus to education and stop trying to make these places little amusement parks. Campuses should be located in communities that can provide students with basic amenities and entertainment. It is not the responsibility of the college to provide these things. They should be places of learning, that’s it. Then perhaps bright students like these two would have a better chance to succeed without false starts. Congratulations to them both, and I wish them the best. If I had any money, I would give it to Solanlly.