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Before the pandemic, school boards nationwide saw a steady increase in the number of young people graduating each year. But even in the best of times there are nearly 5 million youth aged 16 to 24 who are not enrolled in school or working. Nearly one in eight people in that age group, data show, remain disconnected. The impact of postponed or abandoned educational attainment has ripple effects that limit the potential of individual students and their communities over a lifetime.

Achieving the Dream Network’s Gateway to College program is working to help the students who are furthest away from graduation to complete high school while earning college credit. It offers individualized services, including tutoring, counseling, and academic advising. It is designed to meet students where they are and help them develop personalized learning plans. These plans allow them to discover the kind of life that they want to live, the careers they want to pursue, and to find their own identity as learners—aspects of learning that are crucial to building student motivation and persistence.

The typical Gateway student is from a racially minoritized and economically marginalized background and is slightly over 17 years old when first enrolled. Their average high school GPA is under 2.0. Most participants only have about half of the credits needed to earn a high school diploma when they enter and will be first-generation college students. Nonetheless, 73 percent of Gateway to College graduates continue in postsecondary education, most at their host colleges.

In Minnesota’s Saint Paul Public Schools, a cohort of a few hundred students each year enrolls in Saint Paul College, a community and technical college, through the program. They experience an inclusive, welcoming learning environment that builds student agency and a sense of belonging. These qualities were typically not available for them at traditional high schools. Students have an opportunity to study in many academic fields, some of which lead to enrollment in more traditional college majors. Others connect with career education programs that lead to high-demand jobs in the community.

In the 2020-21 school year, despite the challenges of the pandemic, students who entered the program with an average GPA of 1.2 raised their grades to a 3.65 GPA during their first semester. Three-quarters of Saint Paul Gateway students earn their diplomas, and their first college credits, in less than three years, with the college credits coming at no cost to them.

The program is crucial to the district’s efforts to improve graduation rates and suggests the types of changes all high schools, dual enrollment, and early college high school and K-12 partnership programs need to make. Lessons from Gateway nationally reveal that its effectiveness depends on the following key strategies:

  • Focus outreach on underrepresented student populations.
  •  Provide personalized academic support via success coaches, as well as connections to academic labs and tutoring sessions.
  • Eliminate financial barriers such as tuition, textbook expenses or transportation and meal expenses.
  • Combine accountability with recognition of strong performance to build effective habits—first daily attendance, then credit accrual.
  • Foster a learning community of peers who support each other in their academic pursuits.
  • Build students’ self-efficacy skills to identify needs and solutions and ensure a smooth transition to further higher education.

To ascertain which students need support and know which programs are available to meet those needs, school boards can begin by:

  • Conducting a cross-sectional study of students who are not on track to graduate to provide a snapshot of the population. This includes examining student data to assess programming needs. Older (17-to-19-year-old) students who are close to graduation and only need a few more credit hours may benefit from a different intervention than those who are further from graduation. Also consider the needs of younger (16-to-17-year-old) students and look at patterns relative to race and income, as well as Englisher learner/immigrant students and special education students.
  •  Ensuring programs have clear accountability metrics. Accountability should be based on transparent, relevant metrics including:
    •  growth-based attendance measures;
    • achievement of high academic standards;
    • credit accrual at a pace that will get them to a diploma;
    • alternative outcomes such as GED for older students;
    • postsecondary credit accrual for students who are disengaged and lack identity as high school learners; and/or
    • credential with workforce recognition or certification that provides access to better than minimum wage job.
  • Making a commitment to equity. K-12 and college partnership programs—whether early college, dual enrollment, bridge programs, or other initiatives—must provide more opportunities for students who are racially minoritized and economically marginalized to find a clear pathway to postsecondary success rather than another pathway of privilege.

Efforts like the Gateway to College program in St. Paul and across the country demonstrate that with personalized support, we can help all students finish high school and enter college with momentum toward a future that they never imagined. The key is helping disconnected students develop the identity of successful learners. This will require school boards to rethink policies, practices, and funding, but the potential return for our students, our communities, and our economy is clear.

Joe Gothard (joe.gothard@spps.org) is the superintendent of Minnesota's Saint Paul Public Schools. Karen A. Stout (president_stout@achievingthedream.org) is president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a college reform network involving more than 300 community colleges.

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