Only 25 percent of Hartford Public Schools graduates earn a post-secondary degree within six years of graduating, while about 60 percent of all students graduate within six years. More than 75 percent of HPS graduates are low-income and the first in their families to attend college, so they often lack the parental guidance and support their more affluent peers take for granted and often experience challenges that disrupt their education and throw them off track.

Thinking that the number of HPS graduates entering college each fall isn’t that large a number, the ALL IN! Coalition launched a Retention Action Team to address the challenges Hartford students face in starting post-secondary education and completing a degree.

“Retention is a central issue in higher education nationally. It affects and is effected by a lot of the debates about higher education such as affordability, access, inclusion and social mobility,” says Jennifer Baszile, Ph.D., head of student success and career development at Trinity College. “We know that part of our responsibility and mission really has to do with retaining as many students as we can.”

Baszile, who leads the Retention Action Team, welcomes the chance for seemingly different institutions – private, liberal arts colleges, private and public universities and community colleges – to come together to solve “the retention challenge that we all face and identify common challenges and solutions.”

Leaders from Trinity, Goodwin, Manchester Community and Capital Community Colleges, University of Hartford, University of St. Joseph, UConn’s Hartford campus, Central Connecticut State University, and several nonprofits have been meeting to brainstorm a research-based city-wide solution.

As a first step, they provided support to Hartford schools graduates who planned to attend college by extending the ALL IN! Coalition’s Summer Melt intervention. Through the Summer Melt action team, Hartford’s high school graduates were provided with one-on-one support from HPS upperclassmen through the summer after graduation so that they completed the necessary steps to begin college in the fall. The Retention Action Team provided mentors so the incoming freshmen could receive support through early September.

“That first month of college is a huge transition period,” says Chris Marcelli, Achieve Hartford’s staff support person to the Retention Action Team.

This spring, the team enters the pilot phase for a more robust peer mentorship intervention. Trinity, University of Hartford and Manchester Community College are working right now to identify two mentors each who are HPS graduates and older students at their institutions. The three schools plan to hold a joint training session for the students, preparing them to become peer-mentors to second-semester freshmen this spring and then again to incoming freshmen next fall.  Leaders from these institutions hope each mentor will work with between five and 10 mentees, depending upon whether they can find compatible matches.

Research and past experience show that mentor-mentee relationships only work if both the mentor and mentee have bought into the arrangement, says Aaron Isaacs, dean of students at the University of Hartford.

At Trinity, the retention rate for first generation students is higher than the college average, says Baszile. “When we institutionalize supports, we know the results are outstanding.”

Mentors will be tasked with helping new students navigate college and all that it entails, including financial aid, scholarships, loans, academic and social support and persistence in the face of academic and social challenges. Ultimately, once the program is fully implemented, Baszile says, action team members hope that an HPS graduate could walk on any campus in the region and know there are peer mentors from Hartford who look like them and are ready and able to help them adjust to college and connect with institutional support systems such as academic centers, work-study programs, counselling and health services.

Many first-generation students don’t know about all the supports that are available to students, including Educational Opportunity Programs designed to meet the needs of first-generation students, says Isaacs.

The University of Hartford has identified one mentor who has demonstrated perseverance and hard work, has made connections on campus and who wants to help other HPS graduates when they first arrive at UHart, he says. They’re looking for another mentor with similar qualities.

In this pilot year, up to six mentors will be receive stipends of up to $1,650 through funding from the ALL IN! Coalition, Marcelli says.

At Manchester Community College, staff is looking at Hartford Public School graduates who participated in the summer bridge program who are willing and able to serve as peer mentors, says Sara Vincent, interim director of strategic enrollment management. The program will be offered in partnership with Enrollment Services and programs designed for new and first-year students, providing additional resources such as programs focused on study skills and academic success.

In the pilot stages, there won’t be enough mentors to work with all MCC’s HPS first-year students. Another challenge will be establishing sufficient faculty and staff support for both the mentors and mentees so that the mentor-mentee relationship can be productive and helpful, not just an added responsibility, she says.

While still a work-in-progress, Vincent says, “we are hopeful we will be able to build a robust mentoring program that will serve as a tool to help these students with the ultimate goal of academic success.”