Category: News

Achieve Hartford Transforms Itself

Board Approves New Strategic Path

As an organization that reflects on its impact each year, Achieve Hartford knew coming out of COVID was the right time for strategic planning.

“Having spent the last few years trying to focus on cross-sector collaboration and systems-change, the pandemic really forced us to reconcile the immense gaps in student readiness and support, and the need for solutions,” Executive Director Paul Diego Holzer says. “As a backbone organization, our focus these past four years on the transition from high school to post-secondary education and training uncovered an unmet need for an important population of students.”

Specifically, while working with partners, we identified a group of seniors on track for high school graduation but not on track for success at 4-year colleges who need support getting into and through community college.

And with this need existing beyond Greater Hartford, we are extending our services to similar low-income students around the state, expanding this fall to serve students attending Capital, Manchester, Quinebaug Valley, Middlesex and Three Rivers Community Colleges.

The Achieve Hartford Board approved a new strategic plan earlier this month, and Achieve Hartford will be rebranding itself this fall. The 13-year-old organization will reconstitute its Board of Directors and staff to ensure we fully understand the needs of – and reflect the experiences of – the students we serve. Community college students’ voices will continue to drive our program design, and we will remain lean during our programmatic expansion.

Not all coalition-building work will end, as Achieve Hartford will still look to convene other community-based organizations that help prepare seniors without a plan for success after high school. We will refine the details of this work in the months to come, and will explore whether the need exists in additional cities besides Hartford.

“We hope to ensure the nonprofit sector, working with this population before they graduate high school, works together so students arrive at community college better prepared,” Holzer says. “We know the pandemic’s impact on students will be felt academically and emotionally for many years to come.”

Peer Mentor Program Expands Reach

Programs Serve 5 Community Colleges, 16 Districts

This fall, the Peer Mentors in our College Persistence Program are offering their help to 600 students at five community colleges.

“I don’t know that anybody else would have predicted this when we started,” says Chris Marcelli, director of programs. “We had a sense that 2019 was something of a pilot, and that we wanted to see it grow if it seemed workable. But the opportunity to scale up this rapidly has been a combination of good planning, good outcomes and lucky timing.”

Three years ago, this program started as a small Action Team of the ALL IN! Coalition, serving about 30 first-year college students who had just graduated with the Hartford Public Schools class of 2019. When Achieve Hartford took it on as a full program in 2020, it jumped to more than 120 Hartford students at Capital and Manchester Community Colleges. In 2021, we added new graduates from five other Alliance Districts in Hartford County attending those colleges, taking the program roster to more than 300.

According to the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities’ (CSCU) Office of Research and System Effectiveness, “fall-to-spring persistence” for Connecticut community college students under the age of 24 from the zip codes we served at the time was 58% for fall 2020; meanwhile, students in our cohort persisted at the substantially higher rate of 71%.

“They haven’t posted similar data for the fall of 2021 yet,” Marcelli says. “But our own results have been pretty consistent, so we’re expecting that when they do, we’ll continue to compare favorably.”

This year, the program expands to Middlesex, Quinebaug Valley and Three Rivers Community Colleges, serving students from 10 additional Alliance Districts in those areas. The five colleges in the program’s newly expanded catchment area correspond to CSCU’s Capital-East Region.

Though the exact nature of that administrative structure is in flux, as of next summer, the system will transition fully to being a single institution, Connecticut Community College.

Students’ Lives Improved

Class of 2022 Program Boosts Prospects

For the Class of 2022 graduates who participated in the spring and summer intervention designed to help those without post-secondary plans land somewhere by this September, their options expanded. The Hartford Public Schools identified 202 students in need of guidance, and community partners engaged 80 seniors, about 40%. Final data won’t be available until the program ends in late September, but qualitative results are in.

Community partners Blue Hills Civic Association, Center for Latino Progress and ReadyCT work with students facing multiple challenges, including poverty and pandemic-related trauma.

Students who never saw beyond their next paycheck have learned about 401(k)s. One student who had never had a paying job because of caring for younger siblings got a paid internship at The Village for Families & Children working with children and recently interviewed for a childcare job. She plans to attend community college to begin a nursing program.

Another student served had missed so much school she risked not graduating. Our community partner, ReadyCT’s Darlene Schubert, gained her mother’s trust, partly by speaking Spanish. The mother set up the first Zoom meeting with Schubert and her daughter. Over time, Schubert formed a bond with the girl and slowly persuaded her to return to school, sitting with her in class to ease the transition. While she does not yet have a job or internship, she has expressed an interest in reading; Schubert is guiding her to get an internship at a public library and later, a job in a book store.

Like all partner organization staff, Schubert works to build a relationship with each student first, so trust can grow. “We all just want to feel connected to someone,” she says. “I go into this knowing that those relationships are what make us thrive.” She keeps in mind the trauma these students have lived through because of the pandemic the past two and a half years, stepping slowly and carefully. “These COVID students are just a whole different breed – the motivation, the autonomy, the self-efficacy – are delayed,” Schubert says.

One student was so happy with the program he talked six friends into joining. The program paid for him to take a Google certification test so he could obtain an internship with an IT company. The IT company saw his intelligence and work-ethic and offered him a full-time job.

Another student, whose earnings helped pay for his family’s groceries and rent, said he had only been focused on working a job and never considered a career with growth potential and benefits such as health insurance, paid time off and retirement funds; he is now on a path to join a labor union, thanks to skills and certifications he received through the Class of 2022 project. Several students are striving to attend college, with a few completing college summer courses.

The students felt the outreach staffs’ commitment to them. When the students graduated from their respective high schools, outreach workers were there to cheer for them. And thanks to funders’ generosity, 48 students attended a celebratory event to see the Hartford Yard Goats, further building social connections and community.

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