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Nearly 15 Nonprofits in Hartford Now Offer Post-Secondary Prep

The ALL IN! Post-Secondary Supports Network, a group of 14 nonprofits convening since early in the pandemic, collaborates to help Hartford Public Schools (HPS) students prepare for college or career pathways. This PowerPoint details each member’s post-secondary prep program.

Since the pandemic hit in late winter of 2020, HPS school guidance counselors have had their hands full working with students not coming to school, facing economic crises and coping with the deaths of loved ones. Counselors didn’t have time to help all students with post-secondary preparation, and nonprofits struggled to address student needs as well. With the worst of the pandemic over, things are looking up.

“The level of partnership we’re seeing between HPS and partners is at an all-time high,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford. “There is such great energy on both sides to try and serve each student’s need when it comes to post-secondary preparation.” 

In weekly meetings through the summer and early fall, the Post-Secondary Supports Network members addressed areas where they overlap and identified gaps in services. Since several groups provide similar post-secondary support services to students, such as help with the FAFSA, college visits and the common app, members shared tips on how they overcame challenges as well as resources that helped their students. 

In the Network’s four-year history, members have brought forth ideas for three out four of the ALL IN! Coalition’s past action teams. First, members suggested the Summer Transition Action Team to the Coalition steering committee, as a way to combat ‘summer melt.’ Second, the Nearlies Action Team targeted HPS high school students whose grades and attendance rates were just shy of the qualifications needed to become Hartford Promise scholars. Hartford Promise now leads that program. Later on, the College Retention action team was suggested, which, similar to Summer Transition, was taken to scale as a program of Achieve Hartford in partnership with Capital and Manchester Community Colleges. 

“The Network acts as both a community of practice and a think tank. By coming together, we hope to make our slice of the nonprofit sector super high-functioning,” Holzer says. 

Always growing, the Post-Secondary Supports Network includes:

ConnCAP, UConn

Career Beginnings, Hartford Consortium for Higher Education

Higher Heights Youth Empowerment Programs

Hartford Promise 

Urban League of Greater Hartford

Boys & Girls Club of Hartford 

Hartford Public Library

Our Piece of the Pie (OPP)

The Legacy Foundation of Hartford 

Young Women’s Leadership Corps (YWCA)

Blue Hills Civic Association (BHCA)

Center for Latino Progress (CLP)


Achieve Hartford

To read more about each organization’s post-secondary prep program, view this PPT here.

First-Gen Mentor Pays it Forward

When first-generation college student Nadia Zuniga was still in high school, she had a mentor who shared her college experience, offering advice and guidance. So, when the Manchester Community College student learned of the opportunity to mentor first-year students from similar backgrounds, she applied for the job.

“I wanted to give back what I had experienced growing up,” says Zuniga, in her final year at MCC. 

The East Hartford resident lives with her father, who supports her education but doesn’t understand her challenges or know how to guide her. A peer mentor since August 2020, she appreciates being able to vent her frustrations with her peer-mentor friends. Her own struggles with adjusting to college have informed her role as a mentor to students like her, she says.

It’s not uncommon for first-generation students to experience self-doubt and question whether they can handle college-level demands, including academic, time-management and financial requirements. When they learn she’s from a similar background and faces challenging classes but plans to complete her bachelor’s degree, that reassures her mentees they belong in college too.  

She encourages her mentees to seek a tutor at the Academic Support Center if they need extra help, and tells them about her own need for a math tutor. “I try to share my own experiences so they see that I can relate to their struggles and experiences,” says Zuniga, who plans to transfer to Southern Connecticut State University next fall to study speech pathology.

One of her mentees found it difficult to concentrate on their studies at home, so Zuniga told them about how to reserve study rooms available on campus. She instructed another mentee the proper tone to take when emailing a professor, showing the mentee how to write an email like they’re a student writing to a teacher, not a friend to a friend. 

Knowing how busy her mentees are with jobs, classes and homework, she created instructional videos displaying the screens from the campus website to walk students through the steps to reserve a study room, navigate the colleges online system, called Blackboard, and register for classes. She offers to help them live with these tasks, she says, but most students find it’s easier for them to watch the video on their own. 

While only some of her mentees ask questions or reach out for help, she sends all her mentees weekly reminders and informational tips such as news that the FAFSA application period has opened, when to register for classes and the deadline for filing for a transfer. 

When she’s not studying or helping her mentees, Zuniga works as a substitute preschool teacher, is involved with the campus radio station and does volunteer work as a member of the academic honor society Phi Theta Kappa.  

She finds mentoring rewarding, especially when she guides a struggling student to get the support that’s there for them, she says. “It feels good when I am able to make connections, see students succeed and assist them throughout the process.”

NSC Data Are In

How Many Class of ’21 Grads Made it to Community College? 

This summer, Achieve Hartford expanded its Summer Transition program to serve high school graduates from outside of Hartford, including applicants to Capital or Manchester Community Colleges from Bloomfield, East Hartford, Manchester, Vernon and Windsor Public Schools.

During the summer, nine peer mentors who attend CCC or MCC or are recent graduates reached out to the students from these six districts who applied to one or both community colleges.  Fifty-nine percent, or 306 students, had at least one substantial interaction with their assigned staff member.

“We’re very happy to be doing this expansion, especially at a time when students really need the extra support services,” says Chris Marcelli, director of programs at Achieve Hartford.

This year, 61 percent of the 519 Hartford-area students served this summer enrolled in college this fall, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).

This summer, we had the chance to offer mentors to 78 students who enrolled in CCC or MCC in August, shortly before classes started, and we took it. This was something of a failed experiment, Marcelli says, as only 11 students, just 14 percent, engaged with their mentors.

“It is obvious in retrospect that this addition was too late,” he says. “Given only a couple of weeks to do outreach with these new students, you can see very clearly in the data that those students were not engaged. We’ve been told by college partners that while these late-applying students are somewhat more likely to finish the enrollment process, they also have a higher attrition rate.” In the future, we hope to gain data on late-applying students sooner to give us sufficient time to offer meaningful outreach, Marcelli says. 

While our overall numbers grew because we expanded to five additional districts, the number of Hartford Public School applicants shrunk by about one third between 2020 and 2021, from 308 served in the summer of 2020 and 207 served this summer, excluding those added in August.

“We don’t know why this is,” Marcelli says. Based on national reports about the added burden the pandemic has had on low-income and Black and brown communities, we suspect the pandemic’s impact on Hartford families’ income and health played a role.

Nationally, enrollment at two- and four-year public colleges continues to slip, especially at two-year colleges, which dropped by 5.6 percent this year and 9 percent last year, the National Student Clearinghouse reports. Community colleges reported a 6.1 percent plunge in first-year enrollment nationwide. There’s been a 21 percent dip in first-year community college students nationally from 2019 to this year.

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