Student Story: Learning to Go for the Gold Again

Friday, March 13, 2015

By Scott Fields and Andy Goodman

For the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, October 2013

RCC-Arianna-with-Family-ADJArianna couldn’t stand to miss a day of elementary school in Riverside, California.  When she was sick, she’d go anyway, telling her grandmother Pauline that she was healthy.  The young girl always had her eye on the perfect attendance trophy awarded at the end of the school year. She liked the gold metallic finish and the way it felt in her hands.

Pauline was proud of her granddaughter back then.  She was also glad she could provide a home where Arianna and her younger brother Abel could be safe.  She’d taken custody of the children when Arianna was 2 and Abel was just 10 months because of their parents’ addiction to crack cocaine, a habit that landed them in prison more than once.

Although her grandmother was Arianna’s anchor, life in her home was anything but stable, and Pauline was often moody due to her own ongoing battle with drug addiction.  The apartment was always crowded with aunts and uncles and cousins in financial trouble – not to mention Arianna’s parents and their other six children – who moved in and out at different times.

By the time Arianna was in tenth grade, her competitive spirit was sagging under the steadily growing weight of self-doubt.  She gravitated to the punk lifestyle, complete with piercings, patches and band shirts, and she hung-out with the local punk bands at Showcase Theater in Corona.  At John North High School, she was sure nobody liked her, fell way behind on her credits, and barely cared about her progress.   Both her parents had been dropouts, and she was about to follow in the family tradition.  ”I just felt like a number at school,” Arianna says. “I couldn’t get any help, no tutoring or nothing.”

When she ran into an old friend who was in the Gateway to College program, she was curious. When she heard about Gateway from another acquaintance, she began asking questions, wondering if perhaps it might be an alternative to dropping out of school.   She began to feel a stirring somewhere deep inside her, something long since lost.

One million American teens drop out of high school every year.  Gateway to College (GTC) was founded to enable young people who have left school to get back on track with their high school education and at the same time accrue college credit. The result is that they not only achieve a high school diploma, they also catch up with their peers who may already be on a path to a postsecondary credential.

First established in Portland, Oregon, the program expanded to the Riverside Community College (RCC) campus as the second of what are now 43 programs in 23 states. Success comes in large part due to following an evidence-based education model designed to reengage young people who have not been successful in the traditional high school environment.  Emphasis is on giving wrap around support from dedicated resource specialists, a practice that has proven successful in many other similar programs.   This means there is a caring adult who not only keeps a close eye on the academic progress of GTC students, , but who also understands and responds to the critical daily needs of a student who is facing adversity outside of school. The result is that 73.2% of Gateway to College graduates continue on to attend postgraduate studies. Although most Gateway participants enter the program well after they’ve dropped out of high school, some like Arianna go straight from public high school to GTC.  For these young people, all of whom were at high risk of dropping out, it’s just as much of a second chance.  “No one was ever very big on education in my family,“ Ariana says about her interest in the Gateway program. “My grandma wasn’t supportive at all.”  It was Arianna’s high school counselor who finally drove her to a GTC open house because she was curious about the program herself.  Says Arianna:  “I wanted to prove to my Grandma that I could do it.”

Arianna was interviewed, screened, and accepted into Gateway, and in the fall of 2009 at the age of 16, she began attending a one-week ‘boot camp’ orientation in the row of bungalows on the RCC campus that house Gateway’s school within a school.

Divided into ‘cohorts’ of 30 young people  each, the students then moved onto a ‘Foundation Quarter,’ including English and math classes for high school credit, as well as a guidance class for college credit where students are instructed in organizational skills, time management,  note taking, and how to work in groups.

“It seemed too good to be true,” Arianna says.  “The classes were a lot smaller than at my high school, and the teachers would come to me instead of me going to them,” a big plus for a girl who Robin Acosta, a Gateway to College (GTC) Resource Specialist, remembers as shy and very withdrawn.

“We have students who’ve been to five high schools by their junior year and they’re just beaten down,” Acosta says.  “They’ve been told they weren’t going to succeed, and that’s self-fulfilling.  So they’re wary, and they’re not sure it’s going to work for them.  But then when they see that we have follow-through, it becomes a whole new experience for them. They become excited about school again.”

Arianna gradually emerged from her shell. “I had a guidance class, and everyone had to get in a circle and talk about ourselves and it got really personal,” she says.  “No one really knew me before.  I was able to open up here, have a new perspective and a new image.”  Eventually, “The cohort became like a family,” Arianna continues.  “If something was wrong, we helped each other out with it.  I made friends with people I would never have made friends with in high school.  I never would have opened up to them.”

“Once everyone could see what Arianna was all about, everyone loved her. I love her,” says Acosta. “I remember that she was volunteering all over the place, and she’s still doing that.”

Arianna appreciated that Acosta periodically checked to make sure she was getting enough sleep and eating reasonably healthy meals.  She was also very thankful when the school covered her $25 semester student fees because Pauline was unable to come up with the money.  Nevertheless, this incident “made me realize I had to do things for myself,” Arianna explains.  “That’s when I really stopped being shy. I had to put myself out there."

“Over the semester, I saw her confidence growing,” Acosta says. “How she carried herself was different.  Eventually, she removed the rings in her piercings."

The motivational speakers brought in by Gateway every Friday to speak to the students helped Arianna begin to see herself as a potential success story. “These speakers – whether it’s the Mayor of Riverside, the Sheriff of Riverside County, or a local celebrity -- help the students see themselves in a completely different light, as potential leaders.” says Acosta.

“Overriding everything, our goal here is to make the education relevant to the students, because many never understood how it was relevant before,” Acosta continues, noting that the students take a career counseling class during the RCC breaks.  “We ask them, ‘Where are you going, what’s your plan for your life… and we show them how everything connects.”

Of the 30 young people who started in the Gateway program with Arianna, approximately 20 students completed the Foundation classes.   “You need to be an adult here.  You have to take it seriously,” Arianna says, explaining that some participants run up against serious family issues, drug problems and sometimes prison time.  “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help people stay in the program,” she says.  “I just want it so much for everybody.”

“College is a long term investment and sometimes the short term gets in the way,” Acosta says.  “Maybe they have to move out of the area, they get pregnant, or they have to work -- we have students working swing shifts and graveyard shifts and trying to go to school at the same time. One of the reasons our program is year-round is that we know we’re in a race with what’s going to happen in their outside life.”

GTC Riverside Program Director and principal founder Jill Marks adds that “We hang in with these kids – when they’ve been sick, when they’ve lost parents, when they’ve wanted to quit – we try to keep them focused, but it’s also their peers -- what the students do every day for each other, to keep each other going, to focus each other on high school, on college and career goals… that’s key to the program.”

“We take it very hard when kids don’t finish,” Marks continues.  “When they make poor decisions that lead to consequences such as homelessness and incarceration … it hurts us.”

Arianna completed the high school program in December of 2010, proud to have 30 college credits already under her belt.  Given priority in registering for college classes due to her Gateway status, she was able to take all of the classes she wanted on RCC’s upper campus, made up of modern buildings surrounding an iconic Mission style quad built in 1916.  After class on most days, she’d go down to the Gateway bungalows to visit faculty members for advice, or to consult the Gateway writing coach.  She also dropped by to see Acosta at least twice a week for the required ‘Practicum’ sessions, where Acosta checked in with her on class work and homework.

“There’s no manual for going to college,” says Arianna.  “Gateway really helped us out in terms of resources, whether that was using their printer to print papers or obtaining help with financial aid applications.  It’s another reason I succeeded.”

Arianna has found that she is often more prepared for her college classes than her non-Gateway peers. When a PowerPoint presentation was required for a group presentation in her communications class, she was the only student who knew PowerPoint.  “I had to help everyone else,” she says.

In the spring of 2013, as Arianna was coming close to earning her 2-year Associates Degree from RCC, she was accepted as a transfer student into the University of California Riverside, UCLA, and UC Davis.  She chose to stay close to home – and to her Gateway family -- accepting UC Riverside’s offer of admission.

“The program becomes a touch point for the students for years after they leave here,” Marks says. “Sometimes they may need help with college or job applications.   Sometimes they make bad decisions and they’re temporarily homeless and need transitional housing… Of course, they share their successes too.  They come back to tell us about their academic successes, their marriages, their children – It really does become a family.”

“Hopefully, they stay in touch with each other for the rest of their lives,” Marks continues.  “That’s a very important part of the story.”

At one time in her life, Arianna assumed she’d never get a decent job.  Now at 20 years old, she has excelled as the social media marketing expert and web content developer at the Riverside YWCA. The classes she took in web design prepared her for the part-time position, which was funded through an RCC Federal work-study program. The many hours she has spent over the past few years with the Gateway writing coach is clearly evident too.

Arianna tries to be as professional as possible.   “I started feeling weird wearing my punk band t-shirts to work. I wanted to look respectable.  My friends think I’m a sellout, but whatever…  I’m going to make more money than them.”

In fact, many of Arianna’s pre-GTC friends never graduated high school.  Most don’t have jobs or even want them, instead choosing to panhandle on street corners.  When they ask Arianna for a loan, she’s been forced to put up boundaries because she finds that they don’t pay her back. “They think I’m rich because I have a job.  I’m not rich,” she says.  “I just work.”

Others speak of the positive impact Arianna has had on them, a ripple effect which is another benefit of GTC's program. Abel, now employed fulltime in a warehouse, says, “Arianna motivates me to get up and go to work.”  One of their younger sisters is now enrolled at UC Santa Barbara, largely because of Arianna’s example. She’s also very dedicated to giving back to the Gateway program, speaking at high schools around the Riverside area. “If it wasn’t for Gateway, I wouldn’t be in college today,” she says.  “I want to help other students because if I can do it, they can do it.”

As her first year at the University of California approached, Arianna decided to add a second major in Business Administration because she sees it as more practical than her English major, and because her primary goals are now career and financial success.  As a young woman who is clearly poised to make a difference in her world and the world at large she is ready to step through the gateway to success.  She’s eager to foster the competitive edge she’s rediscovered and to once again go after the gold.

As of September 2013, approximately 840 new spaces have opened for young people like Ariana Gonzalez on ten new Gateway to College community college campus sites in California, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. This brings the total number of active locations to 43 in 23 states. Gateway to College National Network hopes to continue to expand operations and deepen its impact in established programs to meet the ever-present demand across the country.

About Gateway to College National Network

Gateway to College National Network builds the capacity of colleges, school districts, and states to revolutionize education for high school dropouts and underprepared college students so that all young people can achieve college credentials. Our strategies include creating and replicating innovative programs, building partnerships between K-12 and higher education institutions, influencing systems, conducting research and sharing what we know, helping effect policy and regulatory changes, and providing customized consulting services to philanthropies, colleges and school districts., @gtcnn.

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