With each passing year, another 1.2 million young people in the United States leave high school without receiving a diploma. With no second chance—or third or fourth—too many of these young men and women will sink to the bottom of the wage scale with little chance of upward mobility. And in too many instances, the stigma attached to the word “dropout” will be passed to their children.
In 2000, the public school district of Portland, Oregon, and Portland Community College joined forces to give a second chance to local young men and women who had left high school without graduating or were far behind in credits and unlikely to graduate. This was not, however, a second chance at high school. It was something audacious: an opportunity to earn a high school diploma while simultaneously acquiring college credits toward associate’s degrees or technical certificates, which open the way for admission to apprenticeship programs, four-year universities, and fulfilling careers with a future.
In early 2003, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Portland Community College a grant to begin replicating the Gateway to College program across the country. In 2008, Gateway to College became an independent nonprofit organization, and two years later the Open Society Foundations joined the Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Kresge Foundation, and Walmart Foundation to fund its further expansion. By 2011, Gateway to College had evolved into a national network of 35 colleges in 20 states, partnering with well over 100 school districts.
“Power of place is critical,” said Laurel Dukehart, president of Gateway to College. “Learning with older college students motivates our students. They appreciate an environment far removed from the drama of high school. A nineteen-year-old with a handful of credits doesn’t want to sit with high school freshmen or sophomores. In many instances, high schools don’t want them back, no matter how talented they might be. Choosing a major in a college environment is also important—education feels more relevant when struggling students can see exactly how it relates to their career goals.”
A typical student enters the Gateway to College program with a GPA of 1.5 on a four-point scale and fewer than half of the credits he or she needs to receive a high school diploma. In 2010, the graduation rate for those students who completed Gateway’s Foundation Experience was 53.7 percent, nearly three times higher than the rate for students who had left school at least once. Nationally, Gateway to College students accrue an average of 36 college credits by the time they graduate from the program, putting them well on their way to earning a college credential.
In most cases, Gateway to College operates either as a program within a community or technical college or as a charter school located on the campus of a community or technical college. Under the guidance of a team of instructors and counselors with experience in dealing with young people who have left school, Gateway to College students are taught how to succeed in an educational setting. In their first term, Gateway students learn in a small community of their peers, which helps build the students’ academic and personal skills, preparing them to transition to college courses with the overall student population. In addition to math, composition, and literature, Gateway students take a class to develop the habits of mind they need to transform themselves into successful college students.
After completing this first term, Gateway students enter classes with the general student population. Students focus their studies in a “pathway,” or academic major, whose course requirements align with those requirements they need to earn their high school diplomas as well as associate’s degrees or technical certificates. In this way, Gateway students can progress quickly to a post-secondary degree and advance from there. In many instances, Gateway students outperform regular college students.
Gateway to College classes are offered during the day and sometimes in the evening, providing flexibility for working students and students with children, such as Clarissa G., the single mom of a little boy.
Clarissa G. had been an A or B student through her first two years at her high school in Brockton, Massachusetts, even as she sold sneakers at the local mall. But in 2008, at the age of 16, Clarissa learned that she was pregnant and that hers was a high-risk pregnancy.
An American of Bahamian, African-American, Native American, French, Russian, and Irish descent, Clarissa G. also discovered that her school’s teen-mother program did not meet her needs. “I would not have been able to drive to school,” she said. “There would have been no study hall, because I would have had to go to the day-care room during each free period. This was screaming bad news for me, because I relied on study hall to finish my class work so I could work after school.”
Then there was the drama: other girls talking trash, threatening to jump Clarissa or trip her down the stairs. In so many instances in her neighborhood, trash talk precedes action. “I have had friends killed,” she said. “One was 14. The oldest was 23. One was killed in a conflict over a bicycle. Another one died when a gun misfired at a party. The last two were retaliatory. When I was pregnant I went to the funeral of a friend who was stabbed right in front of me. At the funeral, one of my friends was shot. Like pop, pop, pop. He died later. It’s all crazy. Too crazy. And it’s all because of guns.”
Clarissa G. obtained a doctor’s certificate to enter the school district’s home schooling program. She had been in the accelerated tenth grade, however, and found that most of her home-schooling lessons were far below her achievement level. She worked over the 2008 summer vacation. On September 8, one week before she gave birth, she began the Gateway program at Massasoit Community College. She missed only five days of class when her son was born.
Relying upon her mother to help take care of the baby, Clarissa continued to work at the sneaker store in the mall while she tackled biology, mathematics, United States history, composition, chemistry, trigonometry, and Spanish. Over the summer of 2009, she completed Composition 2. Then came more Spanish, and speech and American literature. “I was the only one who knew My Antonia,” she said. In December 2009, Clarissa completed the Gateway to College program. Her peers still in high school had another six months before graduation. Few, if any, of them had earned any college credits.
Clarissa G. went on to graduate from the community college in June 2011. She plans to complete a program for licensed practical nursing. With that, she can earn $22 an hour, and support herself and her son through her final two years of college. “I’ll start at Bridgewater State College in the fall of 2012. They have a course in bio-med with a pre-med component. That can get me to the door of medical school. I’m 70 credits short, and I will figure out how to get them.
“I don’t even know how I got this far: school, college, working in the mall, taking care of my son. Gateway helped with schooling, with transitioning, and with housing and counseling, work. They motivate you.”
Daniel G. is twenty years old, and has lived all of his life near Bloomfield Avenue in Newark, New Jersey. In the middle of junior high, his Portuguese father left his half-Portuguese, half-Puerto Rican mother at a time when she was ill. Daniel’s grades were excellent. He was a member of the junior high honor society. He was playing baseball.
“I had known since the sixth grade that I was gay,” he said. “I told my mother right after my father left. She had a big issue with it. She thought it was a phase. I’m sure she thought I was a sinner, but she never told me. I think she thought I was rebelling because my father had left, which wasn’t the case at all.”
Daniel was accepted to one of Newark’s finest public schools. But he did not conceal the fact that he was gay and felt that he wasn’t completely welcome: “I started rebelling. No father figure, no mentor along the way. High school became a place where I lost myself. My grades tanked in my freshman year. I was having no trouble with the level of the material. But the only class I managed to get a B in was English, in the rest I got Cs and Ds. My math teacher came up to me in a stairwell before one class and asked why I was slipping in algebra. He offered to tutor me. But I didn’t care.”
“I also thought I had to prove my masculinity. Once, I was standing in the front of one English class. A guy in the back made a comment about gay people. After class, in the locker room, I shoved him against a locker and told him not to disrespect me. I think that played a part with me getting kicked out. I was always getting into fights.”
“I just cut the rest of the classes. I’d sneak into the garage and hide in there and read Steven King novels.”
Daniel lasted only a year at his first high school. The school district relegated him to one that was not one of Newark’s finest. Kids were selling drugs and concealing guns in their back pockets. Fights broke out in halls crowded with Bloods and Crips and members of other gangs. “My mother knew that going there would be my downfall,” he said. “There, I didn’t tell anyone I was homosexual.”
Daniel tried...for two weeks. “I did want the second chance. But in that school, you’re either going to fall into their lifestyle or you’re not going to come to class because you’re so scared. The course material was not at all challenging. I was completely bored. Even the math was simple for me.”
“I felt that it was a waste, so I stopped going. I just hung out by myself. I’d ride trains to fill up the hours rather than go home to confront my mom or go to school. I never went to the library. The truancy officers will pick you up there. I had my share of running away from them and getting caught. When the school administration saw that my attendance and grades were horrible, they sent me to an evening school program.”
“The roughest kids were there, the ones who would repeatedly fight in school. I didn’t get beaten up, but one night after school I was walking up an alley with three kids following. Two boys stayed on the corner and one followed me. He tried to rip off my $300 jacket. I ran into a bodega and hid out until the mother of my brother’s child came to pick me up.”
“It was my first wake up call. I knew I had to get out of evening school.” It was December.
“Two months later, in February, I was walking to school through a park. Three boys recognized me. One came up to me and asked me who I was, to confirm it. They then knocked me down, hit me, and kicked me in the head. I ended up with stitches in my mouth. One of my friends saw what was happening. After they spotted her, they ran off. The cops did make a report, but neither they nor the principal could follow up because I was too afraid to identify the three boys. This was my second wake up call.”
Daniel entered the Gateway to College program at Essex County College in downtown Newark. “I was scared, nervous. I thought it was going to be tougher and more fast-paced. But I had other kids like me around me. All the kids in my group came from similar situations. We had some talented people in our group. It was circumstances that had brought them to that point, not their brain. All of us were getting another chance.”
“I almost messed up the opportunity. It was laziness; I’m not going to lie. I live a fifteen-minute train ride away from the college. We had early morning class. I didn’t want to come. At the end of the semester, I had a one point something grade point average.”
“My counselor got on my case before the beginning of the second semester. She told me that life can take away my money. It can take away my car and my house. And it can take away everything I own. But it cannot take away my education. She urged me to keep going.”
“This motivated me. I got my passion back. I have only gotten As and three Bs ever since. My grade point average is now 3.4. I graduated from Gateway in Spring 2010 and am continuing my studies at Essex County College.”
My major is English secondary education. We need more teachers who not only teach kids the course material, but who help them along the way. I don’t want to have what happened to me happen to anyone else.”
Jasmine B. was born in Philadelphia in 1991 and came into her own on the city’s South Side.
“I was a true geek,” she said, “into books instead of having friends. I was always that way. I’m very close to my family, and they accept me for what I am, and the darkness of my skin, and my weight. Some things you can’t control. Going into high school I expected things to be the way they were at home.
“They weren’t. I continued to do well in class. But I struggled socially. Other African-American students picked on me. It was the boys. They called me fat. They called me black. I’m laughing now about it. But back then I was crying every night. I prayed a lot. I went into church every Sunday. I tried to understand why it was me going through this and not other kids.”
“My sister is petite and light skinned. She didn’t have the problems I had. I wasn’t invited anywhere. I had no friends in school. Not one. So I began to withdraw.”
At home, Jasmine B. faced a challenge no fifteen-year-old should face, and she never explained it to a school counselor. Some things at home, she thought at the time, are best left at home.
“My father had left. My mother was feeling the pressure of bills. In our house we had my mom, my sisters, and my brother, my older sister’s two kids, brother’s child. And my mom had a past. She used to do crack cocaine with my father. Then she relapsed. Why did she start again? She was with a guy who was living in our house and doing drugs. He said he would leave her if she didn’t do what he was doing.”
“My mother was functional. She was able to hold down her job. I never saw my mom smoke crack. But I heard the slur when I’d call to her from outside her door. I heard her hallucinating.”
“I finally found something that was important enough to take my attention away from school: My mom and what she was going through. I started working at a fast-food restaurant. I wanted to fill the space that drugs were filling in her life. At one time, I felt we were competing with the drugs for my mom’s affections.”
Jasmine dropped out of high school after her mother relapsed. It was Christmas vacation, 2006.
“Even though we weren’t living in a mansion with servants and maids, in our own world we had lived comfortably when I was a kid. We used to have tons of stuff for Christmas. After my dad left, it was hard for my mom to maintain that lifestyle. Christmas came, and it was depressing to think about the things we once had.”
“I was doing very well in school. But I didn’t see the point of going back until my mom was at least okay. After Christmas vacation, I just stopped going. I could go to school anytime. You only get one mom.”
“I didn’t call to say I was dropping out. I didn’t say anything to anybody. I just stopped going. And nobody from the school ever called. If someone had called, I might have returned. But nobody showed any concern. Nobody. It was as if I had been invisible. I felt sad, because I was cutting myself off from what I wanted in life. I feared that I was never going to get there. I did not want to see my mom throw my life away.”
Jasmine B. was a sixteen-year-old dropout when she became employee of the month at the fast-food restaurant. But it had a lot of other part-time employees. Her hours declined. In the summer 2007, she quit.
It was Jasmine’s aunt who urged her to apply to Gateway to College at the Community College of Philadelphia. It took her two tries to get into the program.
“I was scared the first day. I expected Gateway students, professors, and counselors to be as cruel and unforgiving as the teachers and students in high school. Instead, the teachers and counselors in Gateway were hands on. They knew who we were and showed concern for what we were dealing with. They were open about how many of their previous students had made it through and how many didn’t. They said they expected most of us to pass.
“I was still dealing with my insecurities. But somehow my focus shifted away from what other people thought of me and turned toward my goals and aspirations.”
“I fell in love with it. They called us college students even though we didn’t have a high school diploma. They expected us to go to college classes and get As.”
Jasmine B. finished Gateway in May 2010 and became the first of her mother’s children to earn a diploma. She graduated from Community College of Philadelphia a year later and was accepted to enter the University of Pittsburgh in the spring of 2012 as a pre-med biology major.
“I’m not intimidated. I’ve dealt with difficult situations. And I don’t know where the quiet Jasmine went.”